Sally Connolly, LCSW, LMFT has been a therapist for over 30 years, specializing in work with couples, families and relationships. She has expertise with clients
Step fathers often enter a new stepfamily with the expectation that they will bring order and discipline to a loving mother who is too soft with her children. This is especially true if she has sons or teenagers. Mothers also might also set this up as well by feeling somewhat overwhelmed with problems with their sons and having a belief that boys need a strong male to help guide them.
Some step dads mean well but have trouble figuring out the puzzle of stepfamily life.
When Greg and Marsha married, she was really struggling with her son, Chad. Marsha had been a single mom for 5 years and Chad, who was now 12, was used to having a say in many of the things happening in the family. He acted, and expected to be treated, older than he was. Some of this was good, in many ways he was very responsible. In other ways, it was a problem as he had no difficulty challenging his mother and finding his way to getting what he wanted.
Greg saw the problem with this and decided that what Chad most needed was a strong male hand and role model. Marsha seemed to want this until she found out how much Chad resented her new husband. She often felt as though she had to pick sides and, no matter which side she chose, someone was always unhappy. It felt like a “no win” situation for everyone.
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Some step dads seem to have it figured out from the beginning.
Todd married Sandy and instantly became a stepfather to 11 year old Tracy and 13 year old Sam. Todd had 2 sons of his own who were 15 and 17 and often out and about with friends and events.
Tracy and Sam spent half of the time with their dad although their visits were inconsistent because of his travel and activity schedule. Sam seemed to be having the toughest time with these transitions. This was only aggravated by his A.D.H.D. diagnosis which caused struggles both at school and at home.
Todd was able to see the big picture with the children and recognize why they had some of the problems that they did. He knew that transitions were difficult and their father was having a hard time with some aspects of his personal life. Sam’s attention deficit really called for consistency so Todd worked with Sandy and they both talked with Sam’s dad to come up with a plan that was best for the children.
Todd took things slowly. He encouraged Sandy, as she handled most of the discipline with her children, while just finding ways to build a relationship with Tracy and Sam. He offered to take them to school, fix lunches and showed up and cheered them on for school activities.
Times were rough at the start but Todd was able to keep the whole picture in perspective. His sense of humor, patience and dedication to Sandy, along with a positive vision for the success of their family eventually succeeded.
Keys to becoming a successful step father.
1. Envision the big picture. With the help of your wife, friends in a similar situation, reading or a support group, gain some understanding of the complexity of step family life. Learn about your own challenges as well as those of your wife and the children. There is no quick or easy “fix” or “blending” and there are absolutely no easy answers.
2. Build a relationship with the children before attempting any kind of discipline. This will pay off in the long run as children can find ways to accept discipline (teaching) from some one that they have a relationship with and someone that they know truly cares about them and their lives.
Look for things to like and appreciate about each of them. Find time to spend with each one individually on a regular basis even if it is just for 5 minutes. Ask about their day and their lives.
I often encourage new step families to act as single parent families for the first year. Let the natural parent handle all of the discipline while the new step parent builds a positive relationship.
3. Understand your role as a step dad. Recognize that you are not, nor will you ever be, their natural father. Even if you have the best relationship in the world, it cannot and will not ever be the same. In addition, you cannot expect to have the same feelings for them as you do your own children.
Talk with your wife about your role with the children and with her. Define a role that fits for both of you but allows you the flexibility to see as your main purpose, for at least the first year, to concentrate on building a relationship with the children.
4. Share, privately, any important concerns that you have with your wife about the children or parenting. There will be many things that you will need to be talking about as you all learn how to live together. Find ways to do this from a positive rather than a complaining or critical place.
It is best for the children NOT to know about your disagreements most of the time. If their mom changes much or the two of you come up with a rule that they don’t like, they will blame you for sure.
5. Reach agreement together about the house rules. Some of these decisions might come through private conversations with your wife; however, family meetings are a great idea. The more that you can involve the children and allow them to have a voice, the more likely it is that they will be in agreement with whatever is decided.
6. Always be loving and respectful to your stepchildren’s mother. Children really do want to see their parents in happy and healthy relationships. Whatever the reason that the natural parents are not together, it may have been a hard ending and children need to see a loving and healthy marriage.
7. Nurture your marriage. Don’t let the stresses of step family life get in the way of your relationship with each other.
Find ways to have dates, spend time alone and build on the positives in the relationship. Talk a lot with your wife about the small successes and steps in the right direction, even more than you talk about the problems.
Living in a step family … and succeeding in meeting and figuring out solutions to the complexities, can be very rewarding. You and your wife can look back on these times with mixed feelings and memories but be grateful that you survived with the strength of your love and ability to figure out the best ways to work together.
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