Stepfamilies: The Ultimate Challenge!

If your divorce has passed and now you're considering remarrying, be prepared for yet another challenge. This is not meant to discourage you, but rather to inform you of a potentially difficult path that lies ahead. Knowing what some of the obstacles are may help you to have a more successful journey.

blended familyPerhaps one of the most common scenarios in stepfamilies is as follows. The stepmom or stepdad has to deal with their stepchild, who may resent them and fear that their stepparent is a threat to their "real mom" or "real dad". Often, the child may not like their new stepparent, not so much because of who the stepparent is as a person, necessarily, as much as the role that they represent.

Children in stepfamilies will commonly test the stepparent, and it’s only natural for them to do so. When it comes time for the stepparent to have to set a limit with the child, the sparks can start to fly! The child who may have already resented the stepparent, now especially resents them, because they "dared to act like a real parent" and tried to discipline them. The child may feel stuck in a loyalty struggle, and even if they really like the stepparent, they might feel guilty about it. It can be really tough to be a stepchild.. The child may think, or even say : "Who do you think you are? You’re not my real mother or real father!!!"

At this point, the stepparent may be feeling irritated, and it is only natural for them to feel that way, too! It is common at this point, for the stepparent to start to feel a little "testy" themselves, as at times like these, stepparenting can be rather taxing. They may lose their patience and become quite annoyed or yell at their stepchild, who may then turn to their biological parent for help. Typically you can hear something like: "Mom! Roger yelled at me!" or "Dad, your new wife tried to send me to my room, and I didn’t do anything!" Again, it’s "who do think you are trying to take mother’s (or father’s) place?!"

However, the biggest surprise of all for the stepparent is that when they turn to their new spouse for support, they often find instead that their spouse is angry at them, not the kid! Now they become exasperated, and commonly feel ganged up on by their spouse and stepchild. They may say something like "You expect me to act like a parent, but when I do act like one, you get mad at me. I give up!" It may all feel most unfair. Being a stepparent can indeed be very difficult and even feel thankless at times.

From the biological parent’s point of view, things can look very different. They are likely to feel protective or even overprotective of their child, and may be particularly sensitive about all the changes their child has had to endure due to the divorce.

This is especially true if the parent is feeling guilty about the divorce and the effect it’s had on the child. So when "Junior" comes into the room, crying and distressed that the stepmom or stepdad has yelled at them or punished them, their natural tendency to try to protect their child can easily pop up. The biological parent may be feeling like perhaps the stepparent is being too strict or harsh. They may say something like "Can’t you take it a little easier on ‘Junior’? Be a little more sensitive to the kid; he’s been through a pretty hard time this year!" They may feel agitated and conflicted, and become incensed at their new spouse. They may also become angry at the child and blame them for "creating all the tension", or become angry with both the child and the new spouse simultaneously. This too is only natural, and they will likely feel torn loyalties between their child and their spouse. It’s not easy being a biological parent in a stepfamily, either!

In short, all three roles have their own set of difficulties, and it can be stressful and painful to be in any one of these roles. In a sense, nobody is to blame, and everybody is to blame. What can people do to ease this situation? One thing many experts suggest is to have the stepparent defer discipline to the biological parent.

The stepparent needs to lay low in a sense, and let the biological parent be "the heavy" in situations with the child that call for discipline. The stepparent may do well to try to become more of a "friend" to the child, instead of trying to move into the role of a parent, at least in the early years of the new marriage. The stepparent is wise to move into the role of "the good guy" when they can, and if they can’t, they should strive to remain neutral, or maybe pull back a bit.

The stepparent should try not to move too quickly to assume the full role of parent, and should never say "I’m your mommy (or daddy) now." The biological parent needs to recognize and be aware of what a difficult role their new spouse is in, and be sensitive to it. The stepparent needs to be aware that the biological parent is also in a tricky spot, and needs to be sensitive to that as well. Lastly, both the biological parent and stepparent need to understand that the child is in a tough spot, and that the child may act in an obnoxious manner due to the very stressful and conflictual role they’re in that they never asked for. The couple also needs to support each other as much as possible, for each other’s sake, the child’s sake, the sake of the marriage and the new family unit.

MORE: 10 Groundrules for Stepfamilies