From Single to Married with Kids… Understanding your not so enthusiastic stepchildren

Children are at the very center of any new blended family. They tend to get forgotten because the couple is so in love, optimistic and ready to start the new life with their new partner. It’s important to always remember that all step-families are born out of loss. The new couple lost a husband/wife and the children have lost either mom and dad through separation, divorce or death. It is difficult for the children to deal especially since all children have an innate need to have their parents together regardless of their age. The truth is children are usually many steps behind when it comes to dealing with the loss of one or both parents and therefore it takes a lot of time to adjust to having a new parent; the step-mom or step-dad in their life.

Not all children adjust at the same time. It’s not surprising to find that one child warms up to the step-parent faster than his/her siblings. Other factors that affect this period of adjustment and new family formation include the ages, stages and sex of the children. Its key to always remember that all children need loving and trusting relationships and it is up to biological parents to reassure them of this through words but most importantly through their actions as well.

Here are some things to expect with regards to gender and different ages of the children. This will help you understand your child and their behavior toward the stepparent enabling both of you to respond and react in a manner that will foster good relationships for everyone.

What to expect by gender:

Girls will often be uncomfortable with physical displays of affection from a stepfather. Therefore do not take offence as a stepparent. It’s not a rejection of you as a person. As the mother do not push your child to hug or make other physical gestures that they are uncomfortable with. With time they may come around to doing it but it’s also possible that they never do. Do not take it personally.

Both girls and boys prefer verbal affection such as compliments to physical affection like hugs and kisses. Try and stick to this. The children will generally guide you so go with their pace for example, if you try to hug them and they pull away, then that’s a sign that you are not there yet so avoid it. If you tell them “I love you” and they are silent again know that your relationship with them has not got to that level yet. When they are comfortable with it they will let you know, through their actions.

Boys also tend to accept a stepfather more easily than girls do.

What to expect by age

Children Under 10:

At this age children are usually very open and tend to be more accepting of new adults. Usually easier to for a stepparent to form a relationship with. They may also adjust more easily to the new family setting because they usually have a strong desire for a complete family. At the same time they are prone to competing for their parents love, affection and attention. As a step parent you need to allow your partner spend time alone with his/her kids in order for them to get this. This works to your advantage since the children slowly stop viewing you as the threat, the person who is stealing mummy or daddy.

Being younger of course means that the have more every day needs and therefore will require attention of the biological parent.

Kids between 10 and 14 years:

Children in this age group have the most difficulty adjusting to step-family. This is because they already have a strong relationship with their biological parents. They also had a great deal of family history before the parents split. This means that they require more time to get over the loss and additional time to bond before they can start accepting step-parent and getting in line with the new family norms. They also take longer to adjust to the stepparent being a disciplinarian so slow down on this one, let their mum and dad take the lead on this.

At this age children will not openly demonstrate feelings yet they will also be the more sensitive ones compared to younger children. They need more love, support, and attention than younger kids so it’s up to dad and mom to constantly reassure them of their unwavering love and support despite the new family arrangements.

As a stepparent be patient, and don’t push them. Slowly work on forming and building a relationship with them.

Teens

They are just discovering themselves and usually slowly move away from family life. Their involvement becomes less and less as they try to form their own identity. It tends to be more difficult to form a relationship with them as a step-parent so please be patient. Try to find things you have in common that you can do together. They also need to know and feel loved, they need to be secure even though they will not openly express it. Reassure them as you would younger children

Adult children

Contrary to popular belief, they do not understand the new family arrangements and share the same issues as younger children.  They feel betrayed by a parent’s decision to remarry, they too desire to have their parents together. If they are in the same age bracket it makes it even harder to accept the stepparent. They may hate seeing displays of affection between their bio parent and the stepparent. Pressure from the bio parent to accept their new love is also difficult to cope with.

Having been in the family for so long, letting go of the family history is extremely difficult. Since they have moved out of the nest, with their own careers and maybe even their own family life makes it difficult for the stepparent to establish a relationship since there is no day-to-day interaction. Other factors that come into play are inheritance.

The best thing to do is to give them time as well to adjust the new situations. Being adults also means that they have the capability to step up and proactively work on establishing a relationship with a stepparent. The biological parent should explain their actions, why they love and need their partner and request their child to understand and respect their decision. After all they are human too. And just like all human beings they need a companion, love and happiness.

I hope this has helped you gain some insight as why children may act a certain way when a stepparent comes into the picture and how you can respond and act or help your partner and children reduce the friction during the transition.

I would love to hear from you, your experience, what you would love to see me write about, questions and comments. Write to me wendy@livinginstepafrica.com

Have a great week!

 

Your girlfriends wont throw you a stepmothers shower so read this

Contrary to the extremely popular myth that stepmothers  are evil, there are quite a number of great ones out there. The smart ones. The ones who don’t try to replace the biological mother nor insist that the children call her mom. The ones who prepared to handle the complexities of step-family life. The ones who discover the things they can control and let go of the things they cannot. I could go on and on but that’s an article for another day. Am pretty sure you know one, a good friend of yours, your sister or may be even your mother. These step-moms always look like they have it together. They are happy and cheerful most times, giving you all manner of stories about their family, their spouse, their children and their family life in general. Listening to them am sure you have found yourself saying “You are so strong. I have no idea how you do it, if I were in your shoes, I would not be able to handle this with the courage, grace, dedication and commitment that you have.” If you are a step-mom you have probably heard this a million times from your friends and family. I know I have.

However, the truth is that there is really no such thing as a perfect step-mom. They may seem perfect from the outside but the truth is they struggle. Everyday, they struggle with the tiniest of things that ordinary families just don’t have to deal with. They constantly choose to rise every time they fall and believe me falls are in plenty in step relations especially for a family that’s just starting out. It eventually eases with time but with step-families every unique stage in family life especially for those that are centered around the children has the potential to generate memories of loss, new feelings of inadequacy or guilt, fear and other insecurities. All of which, if not handled properly can easily escalate to conflict for the couple and the children.

For those who are already stepmothers with several months or years under their belt, you will definitely understand what I have to say next since you have been through it. However if you are new to this or are dating a man with children and planning on settling down then this is for you. Unfortunately there are no models or manuals and your girlfriends will definitely not throw you a stepmother shower so here are some of the experiences all stepmothers go through that you are bound to experience yourself. This is to prepare you for the journey to come, to comfort you during any one of these moments and to give you courage and strength to keep going but more importantly to let you know you are not alone.

You will cry …. a lot

The dynamics of step-families are so different from those in original families. If they are not handled properly they have the power to turn into conflict causing you much stress in your relationships both with the children and with your spouse. Between meeting the children, meeting your ex-in-law, embracing your identity crisis and adjusting to suspicion, resentment, rejection and biological parent loyalties you will have plenty of moments to cry your eyes out. There is nothing wrong with that, its a good, healthy way to release your feelings. However,  after you wipe your tears you will have to take action in order to change your situation. Start by setting the right expectations. Step-families take time to bond and become one, for everyone to be comfortable with everyone. You are not the only one adjusting and not all the members will adjust at the same time. The adults tend to adjust much faster while the children are usually way behind. Do not ignore this fact. Learn how to deal with with all the dynamics. Equip yourself with right knowledge and apply this in your situation and slowly by slowly, step by step, day by day you will learn how to deal and live with it all. It will take time and lots of time so be patient.

You will doubt yourself

It is not surprising for stepmothers to question their abilities, their position and their success even when there are signs all around them that they are doing something well or at the very least they are on the right track. You will find yourself asking “Why did my partner pick me? who am I to raise and love someone else’s children? what authority do I have to parent yet I have never had children of my own? who am I to have a strong successful family? Can I really do this? what in the world did I get myself into?

These doubts will always creep in every once in a while. They can be your own internal thoughts or negative ones from people around you.  Honore de Balzac said “When you doubt your power, you give power to your doubt.” During these moments you will have to ground yourself. Don’t focus on past experiences and comments from other people. Surround yourself with people believe in you. Those who know you for who you truly are and remind you when you forget. Balance the negative by writing down 5-10 positive things about yourself and finally, take a break. If you are feeling overwhelmed and feel like things are not going so well, take some time away from that situation and focus on something totally different. Sometimes shifting your focus away from what you are stuck on helps you take a new perspective when you come back to it.

You will wish you could run away

Many stepmothers occasionally wish they were not in the situation that they are in, more so during the tough times. This is totally natural for us humans to do when things don’t go as we have planned. The Israelites did it when they were stuck in the dessert for 40 years before finding their way to Canaan. They were convinced that slavery was better. There are times you will feel stuck. You will have no idea which direction to go and your past will seem more attractive than your present. During this time its important to remind yourself of the big picture. Your promised land. The reason why you do what you do day in day out with dedication. That will help you refocus your energies positively.

You will be lonely

You will feel like a total outsider in your own home.  This is mainly because you have to fit in to a ready made family with its own history and traditions formed way before you came into the picture. Before you fully adjust to this accommodating old family traditions and developing new ones it will be easy to feel like the stranger in the family. Don’t despair, you can overcome these feelings. It will be important for your partner to help integrate you in the family. Changes like moving to a new house will help everyone get a sense of a new beginning for the new family since its neutral. Allow your partner to spend time alone with their children. What this says to them is that you are not stealing their dad away from them which will make them view you less as a threat and more as a friend. Take baby steps. Rome was not built in a day and neither was a successful step-family. Take it slow, let the children guide your pace. During those lonely moments, call up your girlfriends. Time spent laughing or crying with your friends helps restore and rejuvenate you.

You will overcome

Its not all doom and gloom. Despite the challenges, if you are set on succeeding and do everything in your power to achieve it, you will reap the rewards. Like I said, there are many great stepmothers out there, they went through the same ups and downs and succeeded. The only difference between those to make it to the other side and those who give up and quit, is perseverance. Only those who stick with it, those who are committed to the process are victorious. Ensure that you always have the proper perspective. Equip yourself with knowledge about step-family life whether its through reading or coaching and apply the strategies and tools you learn in your own circumstance. Then and only then will you have solid foundation on which you can build the kind of family you desire. One day you will look back and say it was well worth it.

Happy Hump Day!

Meet your ex-in-law: Part 2 Dealing with the challenges

In my last blog post we discussed the new member of your step-family, your ex-in-law. We saw how he/she is a big part of your family whether you like it or not and got into the most common issues and sources of conflict in your family due to this dynamic. If you missed it you can check it out HERE.

Today we will go through how you deal with these challenges, avoid unnecessary conflict and confidently deal with the ones that do materialize

Loyalty Declaration

Your partner needs to communicate your presence and relationship to both his ex and the children. He/she needs to let them know they have a new partner (the step-mom or step-dad) who is now going to be a member of the family. This should be done early enough during dating when the couple determines the permanency of their relationship. This gives everyone ample time to adjust the change slowly and at their own pace in all aspects of step-family life like the emotional, physical, spiritual, financial, legal changes involved. It also goes a long long in giving the step-mom/step-dad that first credibility before they form their own relationships with the existing family

No Threat Message

This is probably the single most effective way to avoid unnecessary conflict. The no threat message says to the biological parent that you realize you are not their children’s biological parent and neither are you trying to replace them. The earlier this is communicated verbally, in writing and with actions the better for all family members. This is especially true for the biological parent and their children.  For the children this will give them the freedom to love everyone without feeling like they are betraying their biological parent. Small gestures can go a long way to communicating this to children. For example, letting the children make phone calls to their parents, freedom to visit their parents, not badmouthing their parents in their presence

You are not moms/dads replacement

Its important to realize that you are not the replacement for the children’s mom or dad. The role of the step-parent is usually very ambiguous and confusing if one is not well educated on the step-family dynamics. Very many fall into the trap of staging a hostile take over forcing everyone to recognize and respect their position and authority. This approach will always backfire. Give yourself time to bond with the children and slowly you will earn their respect and they will look up to you as an authority. During this time your partner should take the lead role in the parenting aspects. Its also important that they discuss with the children minimum standards of respect for you the step-parent. The love will take time to form and patience is key

Couple Strength

This is extremely important for any step-family. The dynamics of this family presents a lot of challenges and if the couple is unable to present a united front, the challenges can escalated to levels that increase the stress and strain in the marriage. Discuss issues respectfully with each another and agree on resolution with each partner working on their contribution. Talk about the ex and the challenges you are struggling with and together with your partner agree on the best approach to overcome them for a stronger family. This also applies to any other challenges that will come your way

Be open to learning

Finally the secret to success of step-families is getting smart about step-family life. Getting smart means learning all you can about step-family dynamics, how step-families function, operate best, and why they have the unique challenges that they do. This will help you make informed decisions not just based on your emotions/feelings. Adopt the attitude of a learner.

Have a great week!