Should Step Parents be Parents?

Should Step Parents be Parents

Many couples who begin the process of blending their lives and their children do so with welcome anticipation and yet also with some trepidation over these new frontiers to conquer. As we know, expectations can breed disappointment when imbued with high hopes, good intentions and naiveté.

Blending is more challenging than creating a family

The blending of two separate families is going to be a far greater and more complex challenge for most than was the creating of the initial family. This new territory is rife with unknown and often unforeseen potholes and deviations in the road. A word to describe this journey would be new. Everything is suddenly new: new adults; children; parents; new dynamics;  home, school or room; new space constraints, arguments, differences, and situations that will crop up for months and even years into this new family arrangement.

Reviewing this panoramic view of blended family life, there can be a maze of unexpected problems to solve and mountains to climb. In light of the tremendous challenges that may be created, can the process be eased so that both the children and the parents find ways to adjust?

Challenges that children face

One of the most significant, important and potentially-troubled aspects of blending families is that which is created by the new step-parent role. Children of various ages are suddenly confronted with a new adult who assumes the role of a parent in their lives. The term step-mother or step-father belies the reality of that role. Becoming a parent to someone else’s children is not done by legal documents and living arrangements. The assumption we make that a new spouse implies a new parent is one which we would do well to reconsider.

Biological parents have the enormous advantage of nurturing their relationships with their children almost from conception. It is an interpersonal bond built over time and carved out of vast quantities of love and trust. It occurs almost invisibly, without the parties ever being aware that their willingness to participate in the parent-child duet is forged moment by moment, day by day, year by year. Mutual respect and the giving and taking of comfort, guidance and sustenance is learned over many moments of connection and becomes the foundation of healthy, functional interactions between parents and children.

When a new adult enters this relationship, he or she is necessarily void of that previous history which has created the parent-child bond. Is it reasonable to expect children to suddenly enter into a parent-child form of interaction with this new adult in spite of this profound difference? Step-parents who begin the task of childrearing prematurely will undoubtedly butt up against this natural barrier.

Addressing problems through a child’s perspective

Many problems related to step-parenting could be avoided if matters are addressed from the child’s perspective. The resistance that children feel when receiving direction from a new step-parent is both natural and appropriate. The new step-parent has not yet earned the right be a parent to his or her spouse’s children. Earning that right will take months and even years of daily interactions, which are the building blocks of any relationship. Over time, step-parents can begin to forge the mutual trust, respect and friendship which is vital to ensuring a solid and satisfying relationship.

The old pedagogy that children should take direction or discipline from any adult is now long abandoned in favor of a more respectful, heartfelt approach consistent with the stages of human development. Children are very sensitive to the subtle nuances of relationships and the degree to which their needs are being met. A step-parent who is similarly sensitive and empathetic to the child’s needs will recognize the difficulty in becoming a parent before the child is ready.

Take time to build a friendship with new step-children; respect their feelings and provide enough space between your expectations and their need to respond. As an adult residing in this new family situation, avoid thinking that the children must adjust to both the presence and the preferences of a step-parent in matters relating to child-rearing. Without taking sufficient time to build the foundation of this new relationship, all attempts to impose parental guidance and structure may be deliberately and justifiably resisted.

Step-parents need to become truly familiar with their spouse’s children first and to nurture a genuine friendship. When that friendship is not burdened with an artificial power dynamic, it can blossom and grow towards a loving, reciprocal bond. Once that happens, step-children will naturally accept those necessary moments when parental guidance happens when offered by a step-parent.  When that is achieved, a true blending of parents and children is accomplished.

Brenda Whiteman
Counselor, B.A., R.S.W
Brenda Whiteman, RSW, practices psychotherapy, is a counsellor and registered social worker in private practice in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. She has extensive clinical experience in primary health-care settings, children’s mental health agencies, public and private educational milieu as well as authoring many articles for newspapers and professional journals.