Recently, parents who became stepparents through second marriages have been asking me how they can do a good job in this new role. Everything’s relative, so let me provide some information on stepparenting.
Becoming a stepparent can be a most rewarding experience. If you have never had children, becoming a stepparent offers you the chance to help shape the character of your stepson or stepdaughter. If you do have children, your role as a stepparent can be critical in creating a supportive environment between siblings and stepsiblings. On the other hand, trying to parent when an ex-wife or ex-husband is still in the picture can be confusing and may lead to conflict.
So what do I recommend?
First, stepparents and biological parents must be unified as a team and support each other. In turn, they must be unified in how they plan to parent their children and stepchildren.
Second, be patient and understand the intensity of the feelings involved. Children mourning a newly ended marriage or maybe the loss of a deceased parent need time to heal before they can accept a new stepparent. Let the child or children set the pace. It may even be a few years before a deeper, more meaningful relationship can develop.
Other factors that make each stepparenting experience different can depend on age of the children, how long you’ve known them, how well your spouse gets along with the ex-spouse, and how much time the children spend with you.
Third, to truly succeed as a stepparent, put the needs – not the wants – of your stepchildren first. This means giving your stepchildren love, affection and consistent rules – and not toys and treats – to gain their love. A great idea is to create new family traditions with stepchildren, such as a family game night, bike rides, and other fun activities that your stepchildren may not have done before.
Finally, respect all parents involved, including your partner’s ex. Don’t use the children as messengers or go-betweens, asking them for information or intelligence gathering when they are at the ex’s home. Instead, do the communication work yourself if questions or issues arise between birth parents and stepparents.
Hopefully tips like this will be a step in the right direction when it comes to knowing what you need to do to be a superb stepparent.
Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM. You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives at www.UVMHealth.org/MedCenterFirstWithKids.