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stepparent boundaries

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Getting to a place where one is emotionally ready to date, and perhaps marry, again after a divorce is never easy. Many say that a divorce feels like a death, and you have to grieve that part of your life before moving onto the next. However, there is one group who may argue that divorce is not like a death, and that would be those who’ve lost a spouse to actual death. With divorce, sometimes the decision to split is at least mutual, and there may have been plenty of time leading up to the official divorce proceedings during which each person could process the change. But having a spouse pass away is, unlike divorce, never a choice. It’s a complete shock. It’s unfair. With divorce, you can say that love story just played out, but with death, the story didn’t get a chance to play out. For this reason, deciding to date or remarry after losing a spouse in that way is never easy, but, research has found that it is somewhat common. It is more common for men than women to remarry after the death of a spouse, but both groups do participate in second marriages, after being widowed.

 

As if the transition for the individual who is widowed to become romantically involved with someone new isn’t complex enough, when you add a child to the equation, it is even more layered. You’re adding all of the complications of introducing a new parent figure into a child’s life, but this time, to a child whose biological parent died. It’s very fragile and can lead the new stepparent feeling a bit lost on their place in it all. We spoke with licensed counselor and founder of Profound Counseling Crystal Moore on how one can navigate these sensitive waters.

 

Crystal Moore-Hallman LCMHC

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Discipline and boundaries

While two biological parents may feel they have full power to oversee and dictate the disciplining of a child, when a stepparent comes into place – especially at a sensitive time, like after the loss of a biological parent – boundaries surrounding discipline can be messy and need to be cleared up. It’s important that the stepparent knows when it’s appropriate to step in, or stay out of it. Moore says, “It is important for the step-parent and biological parent to discuss boundaries. One boundary to consider is discipline. It is important for the step-parent to allow the biological parent to take the lead in disciplining the children or child.”

stepparent boundaries

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Who is this new person?

Moore also mentions that the new stepparent shouldn’t have expectations surrounding how the child views them. The child may not now, or ever, feel comfortable seeing the stepparent as a replacement for the one who passed away, and that is okay. “Another boundary to discuss is the step-parent’s title,” Moore says. “It’s important to understand that they are not the mother/father and the child may not want to address them as mom/dad.” As a stepparent, one might feel like a neutral party who could be helpful when conflict arises, but that’s another boundary not worth crossing says, Moore. “It is important to not come between the biological parent and child in the middle of a conflict.”

stepparent boundaries

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Remember you’re a co-star

When it comes to the family unit the stepparent is entering, they can benefit from seeing themselves as a co-star but not the leading role. They have a supporting role in this family unit, and rather than try to lead the charge, are better off helping along whatever decision the main players have decided is best for the family. Moore says, “When it comes to parenting step-children it is important to be a supportive resource to the child and the biological parent. Do not take on the role of authoritarian or disciplinarian. This can create discord in the family. Taking on the role as a supportive spouse and step-parent can create a positive connection in the family.”

stepparent boundaries

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Prepare for ups and downs

A stepparent entering a family where a biological parent has passed away is entering a very delicate situation. When they’re entering a family of divorce, there will already be the elements of “Who is this new person?” and “You’re not my real parent.” But when the other parent passed away, there is the added element of grief. The emotions of children and teens can be a roller coaster under the best of circumstances, so under these specific ones, they can be quite tumultuous. “The step-parent should be considerate of the child losing one of their biological parents. The step-parent should be cognizant of the grief the child will experience. Sometimes grief shows up as anger and sometimes as sadness.”

stepparent boundaries

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Is the child healing?

As a new stepparent, you’ll need to extend a tremendous amount of grace and patience to a child who has lost their parent. The journey to healing will be long, and to expect a smooth, cheery, vibrant family environment overnight is unrealistic. That being said, it is okay to encourage the living biological parent to ensure the child id taking steps to heal. Moore says, “Hopefully the biological parent implements scheduled counseling sessions to assist with managing grief.” This won’t only ultimately be better for the child, but it will also help them begin to accept and even enjoy their new family unit.

stepparent boundaries

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What about the outer family?

The main priority for a stepparent here is to make sure they know their role in the family, and provide love and support to their spouse and stepchild. This is their nucleus, and the most important people in their lives now. However, they can’t help that there are other people who were affected by the death of the biological parent, and who will have feelings about a new person entering the picture. Moore says, “When it comes to the deceased parent’s friends and family, the step-parent should be cognizant that these people have lost a loved one and exhibit as much kindness as possible. The step-parent should allow the biological parent to take the lead in these relationships and not impose their own views.”

stepparent boundaries

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Dealing with young children

Entering a family who has lost a parent where there are very young children is a completely different scenario than entering one where there are teenagers or older children. The experiences and challenges of the stepparent here will vary greatly. Moore says, “The age of the child will play as a factor in these dynamics. If the child is young they are not able to communicate their feelings effectively. It is important to explore the child’s feelings by asking open-ended questions rather than assume. Young children may at times attach themselves to the step-parent and allow room for connection.”

stepparent boundaries

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Dealing with older children

Stepparents to teenagers who’ve lost a parent will experience the upside and the downside of this fact: older children can communicate. That means they’ll let you know what they’re feeling in clear terms, including when those feelings about the new stepparent are not very positive. “If the child is in their teen years, they are better communicators but still the parent will need to explore the feelings. Teens may not attach themselves immediately and therefore the step-parent will need to present as a friend rather a parent to create connection. This also applies to an adult child,” Moore explains.

stepparent boundaries

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Your happy moment is their saddest

If you are someone who connects with and marries a widow or widower, you’re part of a rare hybrid of conflicting events. Finding somebody you want to marry should be one of the most positive times in your life. But when that event means entering a family where a parent has died, your happiest moment is also a part of someone else’s tragic one. Space was created for the stepparent through tragedy. Accepting this new stepparent can feel, to the children in the family, like a form of abandoning or disrespecting their biological parent. They may be too hurt to accept this change. Moore says, “The step-parent should be prepared for rejection by the child/children and have a clear understanding of their role in parenting.”

stepparent boundaries

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Stepparents will need to be part of the healing

Even though, as a stepparent here, this isn’t your loss or your grief – you may have never even known the parent who passed away – by entering this family, it becomes your grief. That also means it becomes part of your job to participate in and facilitate the healing, any way you can. When you enter a family, you take on their stuff – the good and bad. “Understanding that the family has experienced a significant loss is very important in navigating and creating a positive blended family. Participating in family counseling sessions can also help navigate the challenges,” says Moore.

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