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The blended family: Be careful before you “step” when involved in kids transitioning between households

He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. Matthew 23:11-12

One of the most confusing and humbling jobs to have in life must be the job of a stepparent.  Even the name is confusing.  Is this a step-up, a step-down, or what?  Is the name referring to the idea of moving stepwise, or is it about staying one step removed?

Before you go any further, let me inform you that the information in this article is geared more for a stepparent where both of the biological parents are involved in the child’s life.  If you are a stepparent because the child’s biological parent is deceased or has abandoned the child, then you are really the parent.

Stepparents observe the interactions between the biological parents and stepchildren from a birds-eye view.  So, it’s tempting to try and step-up and provide what he or she sees as a fresh, objective approach in an attempt to rescue their spouse from torn and tattered patterns.  But, I say, be very careful before you step!

One thing that never seems to get easy for kids, no matter what age and no matter what they say, is transitioning from Mom to Dad and vice versa.

It’s a top complaint of kids who come to therapy, whether or not it’s the reason they came to therapy in the first place. Given that transitioning the child amongst parents can be so rough on the parents, it’s easy to fall into the trap, consciously or accidentally, of having the exchange be more about what’s best for the adults involved.

It’s important to keep in mind that exchanging children is one of those consequences of divorce that is really more of a burden on kids than on parents.  The kids are the ones who have to manage this strain over and over again.  The closest analogy to their situation is that of a traveling salesperson.  Shuffling back and forth between parents is a necessary evil.  For some kids it’s the first time that they have to really come to terms with the fact that we don’t live in a world that’s always fair.  The children didn’t cause the divorce, but yet they’re the ones who have to accept their complex living arrangements.

As a stepparent you may be noticing that this is problematic in your stepfamily.  What do you do?

Here are four paramount recommendations:

  • Carefully consider the routines occurring in the transition.  Have positive rituals planned ahead of time (bike ride, trip to park, walk along creek, reading time at the local book store/library, trip for yogurt, etc.).
  • Don’t ask/grill a child about their time with the other parent – the things that went on with the other parent.  If they offer information simply listen and summarize or compliment if possible.  Make these transitions as free of conflict and about what’s best for the children.  Table conflict by saying that you can discuss those issues later.
  • At some other time when things are going smooth at home, ask the children for feedback about what would make their transitions easier.  Obtain such information as what clothing to have on hand to help reduce or eliminate the need for packing, what school items to have available, what type of a work space would help them study, etc.
  • Occasionally, you may even want to tell your children that you realize that this is something they must do and give them a simple, authentic “thank you.”

Keep in mind that it’s not the job of the stepparent to intervene and take over this process.  The job of the stepparent is to juggle encouraging their spouse, waiting patiently while the spouse is working this out in their mind, and  holding the spouse accountable so as to not drop this process if it becomes challenging.  This is where things can get tricky or even downright ugly.

If you are serious about creating a healthy blended family climate, without compromising you marriage, it’s essential to step back for a few moments and consider that the correct role of a stepparent is most similar to the role of an Aunt or Uncle.

The upside of being an honored Aunt or Uncle is the revered yet casual relationship we get to enjoy with our nephews and nieces.  If we’re smart as Aunts and Uncles, we don’t want to lose our special position by nagging or lecturing our sibling; causing them to reject our help and leading to the erosion of the relationship we have with the child.  We remember that this is our sibling’s child, so we must assume the role of being a wise, clever mentor that honors the child’s well-being and safety as needed and uses effective timing, compassion and persuasion to urge that healthier behaviors emerge with our brother or sister.

As a stepparent, if you think of your role as the involved and esteemed Aunt or Uncle, you will likely avoid power struggles and serve as a close confidant to your spouse and a key person in the child’s life.  By taking a step down from the biological parents, you will find yourself in fewer entanglements with ex-husbands or ex-wives, and serve as an involved support to your spouse.

Excerpts from The Blended Family chapter of Rock Solid Parenting by Lenore Doster, Psy.D.

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