When I found out I was being given the amazing opportunity to write an “advice column” for MadameNoire, using my knowledge and experience as a clinically trained social worker with a focus on Child and Family dynamics, I immediately went to my tribe to ask them what topics they wanted me to address. The response was overwhelming. What I found interesting was that many in my tribe are grappling with issues related to “blended families.” As someone who is a part of a blended family both as a child of divorce and re-marriage and later in my own relationship where my spouse was already a father before we met, I have been down this road and I know some of the unique twists and turns blended family life can throw at you.
From the responses I received about blended families, two main themes kept popping up:
- How to Make a Genuine Connection with Step-Children
- How to Discipline Step-Children and Whether You Should as the Non-Biological Parent
Let’s tackle these issues one at a time.
How to Make a Genuine Connection with Step-Children
First we must acknowledge that there is no one size fits all solution. You will most likely have to try different approaches and different ways to connect with step-children until you find something that works. In general, the best way to connect with step-children, even surly teenagers, is the same way you would connect with anyone.
You can start by:
- Taking an interest in the things they are interested in — even if it’s not your thing. You need to meet them where they are. So if they are into video games, do you know which games are their favorites? If not, read up! Do you know if they are into sports? If so, what positions do they play, who are there favorite teams and players? Have you gone to their games? Do you know who their friends are? What makes them happy? What classes do they like at school and which ones do they find boring? The point is, you need to get to know them and the best way to get to know someone is through their interests.
- Be understanding by considering their perspective. In blended family situations, until you forge a relationship of your own, the step-parent is often the odd person out and the target of the feelings the children have about their parents break up. This isn’t an easy position to be in. However, it is important to remember this is hard on the children too. Period. As challenging as it is for you, it is even harder for them. Be patient, give them time, continue to engage with them, find common interests and opportunities to create a unique connection that is directly between you and them and in time it will take root.
How to Discipline Step-children and Should You as the Non-Biological Parent
This is a decision that you and your partner, the biological parent of the children, need to make together. There are a lot of factors to consider before you start disciplining step children. Things like, do the children live in your (shared) household, how old are the children, what is their relationship like with their other parent aka “the ex” and is the ex cool with you disciplining the kids, what is your partner’s relationship like with the ex, have you talked with your partner about disciplining the children, etc?
In an ideal situation, you should absolutely be able to discipline step children in a way that you and the biological parent agree upon. In the real world it is a lot messier than that. These tips can help you navigate this thorny terrain.
- Make sure the biological parent has your back and strive for unity with the biological parent. This means you have had conversations with your partner and the children about behavioral norms, expectations, values, boundaries, and consequences. With those things in mind make sure your parenting and disciplining philosophies are aligned.
- Don’t punish in a way that is inconsistent with the biological parent.
- Listen to the child(ren) and while not allowing them to get away with negative or disrespectful behavior, remember that it often takes years to bond and develop a trusting, loving relationship with step children so you don’t want your punishments to erode the relationship. So, while keeping them on track, the ultimate goal is to continue nurturing your bond.
The bottom line in creating a loving blended family that can survive the unique challenges blended families bring is: constant communication, patience, and knowing that if you are consistent and present a united front, things will smooth out and improve. Try to understand the child’s perspective, take an interest in the children and in their interests, and remain on the same page with the biological parent and with those collective steps, you will be well on your way towards creating a thriving blended family.