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Preteen girl takes selfie with mother and little sister in the kitchen

Source: Courtney Hale / Getty

My stepdaughter turned 18 today. And while I knew this day was coming for a while, I didn’t expect it to make me as emotional as it did. To say that I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I chose to marry someone with a child is a gross understatement. When we first met at me and her father’s business school graduation, she was a skeptical and conflicted 12-year-old girl. I was a naive 23-year-old young woman who struggled inwardly to empathize with a child who was still grappling with the weight of her parents’ breakup. Thankfully, we have both grown and evolved since then.

Blending families is certainly not for the faint of heart. And though I can now look back on our journey and say that it was worth some of the hell we endured as a family, I didn’t always feel this way. There were multiple times when I wanted to put on my track shoes and run. Thankfully, we made it to the other side and we have both, directly and indirectly, taught each other a lot on this journey. Here are some of the harder lessons about step-parenting I’ve learned along the way:

It’s not personal, but it will often feel that way

Most children want to see their parents together. As a result, boyfriends, girlfriends, and spouses will often be seen as the enemy and the person who is standing in the way of the reconciliation that they desperately want to take place between their parents. Unfortunately, this can sometimes result in a child acting out in some unloving ways towards their step-parent. It can be confusing, frustrating, and heartbreaking to the step-parent who has shown nothing but love and kindness to the child. At the end of the day, the attacks are not personal even though they feel that way.

Don’t ignore your feelings

I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t shed some tears over some of the issues I experienced with my stepdaughter over the years. There were moments when I felt foolish about letting the tears flow behind issues I was experiencing with a child, but letting it out made me feel better and made me better equipped to have healthy interactions with her when she was standing in front of me. Holding things in is a bad idea because you never know when you’re going to explode and you definitely don’t want to do so in the child’s presence. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to vent to trusted loved ones about the issues that are taking place. It’s important to try to empathize with what your stepchild may be going through, but it’s also okay to be upset. Don’t deny your feelings.

Don’t tolerate disrespect, but always be the adult

Parents, teachers, and anyone who has worked with children in any capacity can tell you that these kids will try you. And they will definitely try to test boundaries. As a step-parent, you should never tolerate disrespect, but you should also carry yourself as the adult in the situation at all times. There were moments when I was so deeply frustrated (and probably hurt) that a part of me didn’t even want to greet my stepdaughter when she walked through the door. But I always knew that this would send the wrong message and resorting to such antics would cause her to see me, the adult, as a peer who was willing to go tit-for-tat with her. When you’re in the thick of it, it can be highly tempting to resort to petty behaviors, but it’s best to remember that you are the adult in the situation and you should always carry yourself as such.

Let go of the temptation to hold grudges and lead with love

Even in the moments where your stepchild can’t stand you, you are still a parental figure in their lives. As a result, you have the responsibility of modeling the positive behaviors and attitudes that you hope to see from them. As much as humanly possible, choose to lead with love and check yourself often.

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