- National Stepfamily Day is September 16.
- We asked multiple experts to identify some of the most common mistakes stepparents make.
- Trying to replace your stepchild’s parents is never a good idea.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
“Their loyalty is likely to be with their parent,” she said. “And if it isn’t, the relationship risks being built on shared dislike rather than positive things like shared interests, respect, and emotional safety.”
Ray Sadoun, a mental-health specialist who works for UK-based provider OK Rehab, said the child might take those criticisms personally and could feel like you don’t respect them.
“Even when tensions are high, try your best to stay neutral when discussing the other biological parent. In the best case scenario, you would be saying nice things about the other parent to make the child feel safe and accepted in your home,” he said.
Amy Morin, a psychotherapist and author of books including “13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do,” agreed.
“Sometimes, stepparents have their own feelings to work through when it comes to the other biological parent,” she said. “Whether they have some jealousy about the fact that their partner has to remain in a parenting relationship with the ex or they are angry that the other parent didn’t treat the family well, saying negative things about that person hurts kids.”
She said it’s “usually an attempt to gloss over the grief process related to the broken family.” She advised asking yourself “how you’ve grieved and where you are in the grief process,” and to be ready to “create new experiences and traditions, and recognize that they will not look or feel the same as with your prior family dynamic.”
Epstein cautioned against this, as well.
“The stepparent isn’t the biological parent and it is OK to acknowledge that,” she said. “In fact, don’t try to compete. Instead, speak directly to the child about their parent and encourage the relationship between the child and parent. This will help make clear that this isn’t an either/or situation. … It may help the child let their guard down to also connect with the stepparent.”
Patterson said acting as an authority figure too soon “can be a recipe for disaster.” Instead, authority needs to be handed out by the partner.
“It would be better to speak with your spouse offline, offer support/counsel and allow them to impart the discipline. After a trusting relationship has been developed, the children will learn to view both parents (biological and stepparent) as authority figures and can accept discipline from each of them,” he said.
DiNardo said, on average, it takes five to seven years “for a process like this to really ‘gel.'”
“Make sure all adults are doing their own work to recognize the difference between what they want vs. need to happen in the process and what’s motivating these wants/needs,” she said.
Instead, allow time for the relationship to develop naturally.
“Perhaps schedule in some fun activities to do with them so that they aren’t expected to engage in deep conversation with you every time you meet,” he said.
“In a perfect world, all three adults will come to a consensus so that there is consistency between the parents involved and all households,” she said.
Presenting a united front is a key part of this, said Morin: “Stepparents may not agree with some of the pre-established rules. Until they work out those issues with the other parent, it’s important to present a united front to the kids to avoid creating further divisions in the family.”
“Healthy communication within the family dynamic is key and cannot be understated,” said clinical psychologist Dr. Kasi G. Patterson. “Strive to engage in open, honest communication with all family members from a calm and compassionate place.”
“Step-parents may withhold affection from their stepchildren out of concern that they are setting themselves up between the child and the other parent,” he said. “The greatest gift an adult can give any child is unconditional love. Finding the opportunities to express their love and affection for step-children in a way that feels safe is the challenge of stepparenting.”
To help the transition, the stepparent should allow the parent and their child to spend time alone, and the new relationships should be allowed to grow naturally, rather than forced upon the children.
“When children have been used to spending one-on-one time with their parent, the introduction of a new stepparent can come as a shock,” Sadoun said. “While this is something the child must accept over time, it isn’t fair to take away their alone time with their parent completely. Take yourself away every now and then to let the child spend time with their parent; it’s crucial for the parent-child relationship.”
“This can be tricky as either side may view this behavior as a betrayal. It is best to sit back and observe the interaction and only if asked, offer words of support that move the interaction towards healing and problem solving,” said Patterson.
Similarly, you shouldn’t outright insult your partner’s parenting style.
According to Morin, “Stepparents can also make the mistake of being critical of their partner in terms of how they’re handling parenting. This is destructive of the relationship for both with their partner and with the stepchild.”