Double Damage - Stepchildren Can Feel It

I have no real idea what it is like to be a step-parent. When I married my husband now, he had a son from a previous marriage but he was already an adult, so it seems that is different. Being a child when you get a step-parent can feel odd. You instantaneously are looking up at a new adult figure after losing the two key parents you have had from day one.   And this new one you never picked out is an authority figure in, not only your outside life but your home. 

Part of the challenge is trying to assimilate how the pieces fit together in the family dynamics.  First and foremost, the fact a divorce happened in the first place to put this scenario in place makes it apparent to a child, it could happen again. Hence, this adult could be fleeting also. Does the child let down their guard and form a bond when, if the marriage doesn’t work, this new adult will not be a permanent fixture in their life? Reality bites and early on these kids from divorced homes have learned marriages don’t always work.  They are often skeptical of new spouses in the home. They also tend to associate the new stepparent with the reason their parents got divorced, no matter how much time has passed by. Every child dreams their parents will remarry each other.

It is always immediately apparent to the kids they are labeled stepchildren. The chain of command is their natural parent is in charge.  To be careful the new adult doesn’t overstep things, it is drilled into the kids heads but in the meantime, it can have an opposite effect, implying this new person doesn’t really want you but is forced to live with you and take on the role. Often time’s kids feel the spouse is playing the game, trying to win over the parental person so they can win the hand in marriage.  Thus, anything the new adult does is regarded with suspicion.

Resentment is normal and a natural emotion for step-children.  Kids are wise and know that initially actions are not taken out of love.  The adults are often motivated by love of their spouse,  that is reality.  Experts say, no one falls in love with a child immediately. Bonding and learning to love a child takes time. The children are part of the package and usually not the best part of the package! Thus, when discipline and nurturing starts out by a step-parent, it is conceived as more of interference by the children unless it is more of a very gradual process. This makes it hard on both sides, for the child and the adult.

Anytime words are said in heated moments that are reminding children they are not the step-parents child it is going to create a major rift.   This makes the children feel as if they are unwanted baggage.  This happens far too often when children act up, things said such as “You are just like your mother.”  Children are well aware their parents have faults and this also causes them to feel there is something wrong with them as well, if someone is constantly pointing out defects of character in regards to not only them but their missing parent. 

A few statistics below gathered from Smart Step Families Websites:
Second marriages have a higher failure rate than first marriages.  This seems to be particularly true when there are children from a first marriage involved. 13% of adults are step-parents, approximately 29-30 million! 42 Million Americans are remarried.  100 Million Americans have a step relationship. One-third of all the marriages taking place today are forming step-families. So this issue is quite real, pertinent and facing our society daily.

Disciplining is the single hardest issue that faces step-parents. Children must be dealt with and held to basic rules but there is a fine line between holding down the fort, keeping children safe and crossing over boundary lines too soon. When children are pushed quickly to new rules and regulations that have not been issues before by a step-parent, this is not going to fair well for anyone.  The spouse may back the step-parent, as they should,but the children are going to feel resentful as if their live is being turned upside down even more so. 

Assimilation must occur over time, on all fronts.  Also, harboring unreal expectations of children and creating a laundry list of everything children do wrong to garnish punishments out by the natural parent is not healthy to foster a bond with stepchildren.  Taking time to befriend children, at first, helps foster care, concern and real respect so that, over time, punishment is met with understanding.

Anything done to create mistrust with children and causing even more resentment early on may build a bridge inside a child that will be impossible to knock down.  It can also further complicate the bond that they have with their natural parent, which will infringe on their development in years to come.  This is really an unfair price for the child to pay since they were not responsible for the divorce but simply a fall out casualty. 

 Too often, children react impulsively with step-parents.  Many issues can be resolved if handled with compassion. Dealing with them with severe punishment, harsh name-calling and such will do nothing but create hard feelings. 

Many believe it is not necessary for a loving relationship to even develop in step-parenting relationships but instead it is imperative one develop a kind of mutual respect and care. Whatever gets developed takes time and patience.  The marriage of the newly formed couple must be fostered but it should not be at the cost of a child’s normal development either.   

It is interesting to see, down the road, the next generation may not see the significance of these blended family dynamics, how they played out. When this occurs, it has a far reaching effect. It leaves children and adults in the family lines wondering why so and so was left out of the family. It also creates misunderstandings when behavior that was deemed inappropriate or feelings were severed as to what went wrong and why wasn’t it rectified. 

These situations in blended families gets very complicated when things go wrong and not everyone in the inner circle knows why. Many times no one wants to discuss it either.  So the issues are thrown under the rug. It is easier to just cut out the people that bring up the past, anything unpleasant rather than try to fit the missing pieces together.  Inevitably pieces are missing, future generations are hurt and lives go on being affected deeply by a divorce that happened years ago.   The unhealthy patterns of the family will continue too and play out unless the chain is broken in many of these families.  Seeing it broken and fixed is imperative as in today’s world, as the statistics showed, is full of blended families. We all pay for step-parenting gone a muck. 

The best answer seems to be to know, going in, when you marry someone with children, treat the children as you would your nieces and nephews. If you sense issues, seek help outside of the family.  Allow the children to be kids, to make mistakes and to be angry with someone new in the family dynamics. Know that they are uncomfortable and don’t put them down for not reaching your expectations initially.  You are probably not meeting theirs either.  With time, respect and care, you may develop a relationship that can withstand the test of time and build up a family instead of continuing to break it apart.