Taking on the role of a step-parent may seem like stepping into an episode of Mission Impossible, but it really does not have to be that way. Surely, the role of a step-parent is difficult and challenging, but it is NOT impossible. The Lord has given you this opportunity. However, He also promises not to allow you to be tested (or tempted) beyond what you can endure or handle. Here is some advice from His word that may make your task much easier. If you are seeking counseling, your counselor should discuss with you other aspects of this challenging situation. Of course, we don’t intend to replace that, but we hope this will be of help to you as well.
First of all, succeeding as a step-parent takes work. It is not something that happens automatically. A well blended family unit, in fact, will require everyone’s work. Every member of the blended family needs to realize that he/she is personally responsible for his/her contribution to the success (or the failure) of the mission. It really takes everyone’s effort to promote peace and express the unifying love of God in the family.
So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another. (Romans 14:19)
This applies not only to our work environment, or the church, but to our family as well. In order to succeed and build an environment in which the peace of God is manifest, it will take a great deal of mutual understanding, confession and forgiveness. Yes, you read it right: confession is included as well!
Like many other changes in life, blending a family involves various stages. These are typical stages. This means that although they are common, they are not necessarily or exactly the same for everyone.
- The “honeymoon.” No, this is not the parent’s honeymoon, but rather that stage in which unrealistic expectations will prevail in the blending family. Everyone will have his/her own dreams about the new family nucleus. The parents will probably dream of a new happiness through this new marriage. They will expect things to work out much better than before. Often they will not realize that perhaps they are bringing into this new relationship some of their old problems. The children will have their own dreams and fears as well, most often not expressed, but held inside. The step-parent may expect to love the partner’s children as his/her own. However, the children may not share that same expectation. Still, in the excitement of the new relationship, chances are that the step-parent will think that all he/she needs to do is love the children and all will be well.
- Eventually reality will set in, often through a series of disappointments which will cause a re-evaluation of the relationships. Guilt, jealousy, unreturned affection, and even grief (children often grieve the loss of one of their parents) will be constant companions in the journey of transition. In this stage, the temptation to just throw in the towel and give up is not uncommon. This is the stage when rejection is often expressed and most felt. On the step-parent side, the efforts to connect will probably feel unfairly rejected. On the children’s side, the new parent will feel like an intruder or an usurper that needs to be resisted.
- As the family works through the stormy waters of these adjustments, eventually a new peace will set in. It will be much more realistic than the initial expectations. Things will not be quite as bad as it was feared in the previous phase. A blended family is not an ideal setting. Yet, in time it will eventually be accepted, and a new type of cooperation will begin to take place.
The Children Are Not the Problem!
Before sharing some tips that may help in these transitions, one important rule must be clearly established: the children are not the problem! The situation may be, but the children are often caught in the middle of things. Even though they may have problems adjusting, they are not the cause of it all. So, whatever happens, resist the temptation of blaming them for all your problems!
We see too many parents coming into our counseling center and asking us to change their children, as if they were the source of all their problems. Often it is very clear, however, that their marriage is falling apart for other reasons. In most of these cases, the parents are no longer “parenting”. We have the responsibility to show these parents that they must first begin with themselves. Only then will they be able to be honest and consistent enough to address the matters of their children. This, by the way, is not something we just made up. It comes from Jesus Himself, who told us to first take the log out of our own eyes, so that we can actually see well enough to help the other (in this case the children) with the tiny speck that is in their eye (Mt 7:3-5).
Some Tips to Keep in Mind
Having established that, here are some things to keep in mind. They are not in any particular order, but we think you will find them quite useful:
- As the apostle Paul modeled for us, we too should leave the past behind and concentrate on the task at hand, in view of the amazing future we all have in Christ. This includes our old ways of being spouses and parents. The new relationships will be quite different from those of the past. Eventually it will become very clear that what worked before may not work in the new situation. There will be a learning curve, and good growth will be produced as we allow God to shape us and mold us through these new experiences (Isaiah 43:18; Philippians 3:13-14).
- In addressing this topic, June Hunt joins others in inviting us to accept the presence of some very powerful emotions:
- Loss and grief (Everyone will experience loss to some degree. The children in particular will most likely experience some grief over the loss of one parent. For them, this sense of loss will be magnified by the presence of a step-parent.)
- Fear (The children may be afraid of what may happen in the new family or of losing affection, while the parents may fear rejection and a new failure.)
- Anger (This is a very common way to react to the perceived rejection, discipline, broken dreams and new obligations.)
- Guilt (The children will most likely experience guilt in more than one way. Often they feel responsible for the failure of the previous marriage. In other cases they may feel that extending affection to the step-parent may mean a betrayal of their natural parent. Guilt will also affect the parents. This is especially true if they discover that there is indeed a difference in the way they love their own natural children and their step-children.)
- Keep in mind that the routine often associated with shared custody may not always be in the interest of the children. They will feel uprooted, constantly on the move, and at times rejected by both parents. If this is your situation, reassure them of your love. Show them that you care and that you are happy that they are back. Tell them you missed them, and allow them some time to get readjusted to the change. However, beware of their tendency to manipulate you and check what they relate to you to make sure it is accurate, and not an attempt to influence you or play you to their “advantage.”
- Make sure your relationship with your spouse is strong, secure, and Christ-centered. Keep in mind that as important as your role as a step-parent is, it is nevertheless a temporary role, but your role as a spouse is for life. It is always important to show your children and step-children that you and your spouse are getting along very well. This will help in many ways, one of which is that it will eventually lift the fear of a new division in the family with a consequent renewal of painful losses.
- Establish family routines and traditions, but be flexible and don’t turn them into times to argue and fight.
- Respect the children’s relationship with their natural parent, and don’t attempt to replace it.
- Stand firm in your principles and in unity and agreement with your spouse. If issues arise, make sure to discuss them with your spouse in private, and avoid arguing in the presence of the children. However, if you do so, make sure to show the children that you can overcome it and establish peace again. Make sure your standards are balanced and consistent. Think of them as railroad tracks. They must be parallel and consistent to avoid derailing the train. Don’t change your standards according to your moods or the mood of your children, but be consistent and fair.
- Encourage open and honest communication with everyone in the family. It is really the only constructive way to address issues and reach the level of collaboration that you will need. Let the children know that you understand their challenges and difficulties (after you listen to them), but also that you have challenges and difficulties as well. It is through a collaborative approach that you will both be able to overcome them.
- In all things, rest firmly rooted in Christ, but resist (I mean resist!) the temptation to use the Bible as a scarecrow or a tool for punishment. Remember that the Gospel is good news, not a threat from a mean God!
- Lean on the love of God (Rom 5:5), and realize that as the need for His love increases, you have plenty of it at your disposal, and your ability to express it will also grow.
- Keep in mind that children, and especially teens, need a sense of stability. The changes that are involved in breaking up their natural family and later establishing a new, blended family are clearly a threat to that stability. Establish clear routines that are respectful of the new environment. Their relationship with their natural parent (whenever possible) may also help regain a sense of stability.
- Never, ever cause your children to have to choose between parents, or between their natural parent and the step-parent!
- Realize that it takes time to blend families. In some cases it may take up to 2 to 4 years. Patience and understanding will be prime needs during this time, as will be your realization that you are in for a marathon, not a short sprint.
- Resist the temptation of thinking that blending the families will be easy and quick. The changes involved are mental, emotional, and spiritual. They are not easy, and therefore will require much work, patience, forgiveness and fairness.
- Just as important as understanding and forgiveness is the need for every member of the family to clearly understand that they are fully responsible for their actions and their reactions. Even in difficult circumstances, we are still responsible for what we do or not do.
- Don’t attempt to be a super-parent. There is no such thing as a perfect parent. So, don’t be afraid to let your children and step-children know that. Parents have problems, too, and at times they may make mistakes. In such cases, it is important for the adult to take full responsibility for his/her mistake and admit it openly, modeling repentance and change for the whole family.
- We said it already, but it is good to repeat it: communicate, communicate and communicate (and remember Eph 4:29-32 as an essential rule for all communication.)
- As problems arise, never forget that your relationships are more important than the problems. So, keep working on the relationships more than the problems.
- Remember the collaborative style of conflict management. If you have not yet discussed it, ask your counselor to address it with you in counseling. It will be very important for you to be prepared and to know how to handle conflict in a constructive way with every member of your family.
We hope these tips will be of much help to you. May the Lord guide you and make you a beacon of His love and grace.