Being a step parent may just be the most challenging family role a person can have. Not only are you reminded on a regular basis by the children that you are not their mother or father, often times the biological parents interefere. This can sometimes mean just the parent that is not your partner, but can also mean your partner. I was talking to a stepmother the other day who just could not make sense of her relationship with her stepdaugthers. She began to relay fight after fight that they had had with each one having an over the top reaction from the stepdaugther for the situation. My mind started racing through the possible reasons for this, the stepdaugther sees her as a threat as she takes away attention from the father, stepdaughter is resentful of having someone tell her what to do, and finally loyalty conflicts in which she feels she can’t like stepmom because it is a betrayal to mom. As I explained some of these possibilities as well as others to her she began to tell me about some of the wonderful times they have had together and I began to believe even more that mom, who lived far away, most likely sees stepmom as a threat and may be interfering in this relationship either intentionally or unintentionally.
Of course each case will be different depending on the individuals that make up your stepfamily and their biological families, but here are some ideas and tips to help you work through this issue.
Never talk bad about the other parent. You may believe that the other parent is a deadbeat, is conniving, or is an unfit parent, and this may or may not be true. No matter what, however, you cannot say things like this about them in front of their children, especially if you want to have a relationship with your stepchildren. No matter how often the kids hear it, they will not start to believe you. They feel a sense of loyalty to their parents and even if you are able to provide a more stable and loving home for them, they will not see it as long as you are trying to point this out to them. The best thing you can do is keep your mouth shut and hope that they come to see that you are not adding to their feelings of being torn between you and their biological parent and therefore be more relaxed and happy being around you. Or even better, if you can swing it, incorporate positive statements about the parent to the children so they can see that you are not looking for them to pick you over their parent and that there is no need to rebel against you.
Show the other parent that you are not a threat to them. If you have the type of relationship that you can or do talk to the other parent, make sure to incorporate statements that show that you are not trying to replace them. You can do this by asking for their advice on how to handle certain situations, by asking about their rules so there is a sense of continuity between households, and giving compliments about some of the parenting decisions they have made. You may choose to phrase these such as “as their mom, what do you think is the best way to….” If this doesn’t work, you may even need to resort to having a sit down discussion with them and be more open about how you see your role with his/her children and make it clear that it is not as taking over for him or her but as a support person for your spouse and as a friend/mentor/coach for the children. In a perfect world, this would work, however, I understand that not all individuals are able to hear this and understand without having jealousies and feelings about you being in their role with former spouse and children pop up. Remind them that you are just trying to help make it easier of their children and hope for the best, but don’t take it personally if he/she does not make big changes.