Stepparenting is a tough job. You’re dropped into the middle of a parent-child relationship that has already endured the anguish of divorce, and you’re often seen as an unwelcome replacement. Scott Wooding, a Calgary psychologist and the author of Step Parenting and the Blended Family, talked with Today’s Parent about the typical mistakes stepparents make and how to avoid them.
Q: You say in your book that a stepparent is unavoidably handicapped when it comes to discipline. Why is that?
A: Discipline is a big issue in every family, but it’s even more difficult for a stepparent because you don’t have the biological bond that tells kids you have the authority. They tend to resent it when a stranger is telling them what to do, as opposed to a natural parent. It’s especially difficult if the stepparent has never had children of his or her own. If you don’t have any experi-ence with kids, you have to do a lot of reading and get caught up as much as possible or it’s going to be a huge culture shock.
Older children are especially good at sabotaging relationships. It’s subconscious, but they’re darn good at it. One way is by passive resistance: They just don’t do what the stepparent asks. Then the stepparent goes to the natural parent and says, “You need to deal with this.” Or the child may complain constantly about how bossy or mean the stepparent is. Unfortunately, the natural parent tends to get caught in the middle either way.
Q: How can the parent and stepparent get in sync on discipline issues?
A: Whenever a conflict over discipline comes up — normally because of differences in the parents’ own backgrounds — it makes things very difficult, and some marriages even break up over it. Where it gets particularly tricky is when the stepparent has a more rigorous approach than the natural parent. The stepparent will make demands on the child, but the natural parent isn’t willing to enforce them. They’ll say, “Oh, don’t worry about that,” often in front of the kids. Instead, they should be discussing this in private and getting to some sort of compromise. Typically, the firmer stepparent has to back off a little. You need a mechanism for discussing these differences. Sitting down with your partner and talking about emotional situations is extremely difficult, but it absolutely has to be done.
Q: Is it ever appropriate for a stepparent to say, “You’re the natural parent, so I’ll let you make the call here”? And does the natural parent ever have the right to say to the stepparent: “You have to let me make this decision”?
A: No to both scenarios. If you and your partner are completely at odds over how to respond to a child’s behaviour, then you’re in real trouble. Whenever there is a stepparent who has a very different approach from the natural parent, it eventually wrecks the relationship. You don’t want to agree to disagree here; you want to compromise. If you get this one wrong, the kids are going to run right up the middle and play parent against stepparent.
Anger and breakup baggage
Q: The breakup baggage from the previous marriage is a huge obstacle for parents entering a new relationship. But quite often the children are carrying around breakup baggage too. How does this play out?
A: When parents are single for a while after a relationship has broken up, they can often become dependent on an older child: They treat the child almost as an equal or as a confidant. Then, all of a sudden, this child who is used to being a major influence on her parent’s life is relegated to being a kid again because now that parent has a new wife or husband and doesn’t need a confidant. People don’t usually see this coming, but I see it damage relationships between parents and their kids because, quite often, kids relish the role of confidant. Then it ends and a lot of anger and frustration results, and the child tends to sabotage the new relationship wherever possible.
Here was a classic case that I ran across: There was a father who would host a big party every year, and he always had his 14-year-old daughter do the seating arrangements. Then he remarried and the stepmother wanted to take over this function. The daughter was resentful, and her dad was caught in the middle. As it turned out, the daughter got to keep her job, and she seated the stepmother at a different table from her dad!
Another part of that dynamic is that the new stepparent represents the end of the child’s dream of getting his parents back together. Every kid that I’ve ever run across really wants his parents back together, and they just don’t see how impossible that is. Once they find out that their dream is never going to happen, because this new person is now in the relationship, it brings about a lot of anger.
Q: How does that anger show up? And how can stepparents handle it?
A: Children are particularly good at finding vulnerabilities. This can happen wherever there’s a difference in philosophy between the stepparent and the parent: It could be discipline, allowances, curfew hours. Any place where there is a difference between them, kids — especially teenagers — are liable to exploit it.
It’s not really a conscious process. Kids only know that they are angry and upset; they don’t sit around and plan ways to upset the stepparent. And that’s one of the mistakes that stepparents make: They don’t realize that kids are acting under strong emotions that come from the shattering of their dreams. It’s not personal, and if you can just understand that point, your life is going to be a lot easier. But it’s hard not to take it personally because it sure looks like it’s directed specifically at you.
Q: In many blended families, each partner brings children into the relationship, and then the couple has another child together. SW: What are some of the main concerns here?
A: The problem is often that kids expect that the new partner will love their biological kids more than their stepkids. They look for signs of this, and they may almost go out of their way to create incidents where that seems to be the case because they’re hypersensitive. There is a high potential for the new child to be resented, and the new situation to be resented.
There are so many dynamics that can occur in this situation, and nobody can be ready for all of them, so it’s about dealing with each situation as it comes up. The family meeting is something that I consider an absolutely vital part of stepparenting and blended family relationships. You’ve got to provide a forum where concerns can come out, and to do that, you’ve got to be non-defensive. If the child brings up a concern during a family meeting — and it might be totally in his own mind — you can’t get upset about it. A kid might say that his stepdad is being unfair because he won’t let him stay out late, or he won’t let him do this or that. And it might be totally unreasonable: The stepparent may have been well within the lines. But you can’t just say, “Don’t be stupid — you’re way off base.” You have to ask why the child thinks that, and take a look at the situation, even if it seems frivolous. Because sometimes the kids are right. There are very few parents who can actually listen and respond calmly to what may seem like a wild accusation, but it’s an important skill: the ability to hear someone out fully. Get the child to do most of the talking. This kind of family meeting is a way you can resolve more problems in stepparenting than almost anything else I know of.
Q: One of the toughest challenges is introducing a new partner, especially if the kids are teen-agers. What are some of the things that can go wrong here?
A: I discuss one case in my book where a father moved way too fast: He fell in love with a woman and, within three months, they were married. Right at a crucial time in his kids’ lives, when they were 14 and 16, he blew it. His new wife turned out to be a very nice lady, and they’re very compatible, but that wasn’t the point. The kids needed a chance to get to know her, but they never got that chance, and one of them was completely alienated. She hasn’t seen her dad since.
When your kids are teenagers, you have to involve them right from the get-go. At first, you don’t even bring the person home: You let the kids know you are dating, but you don’t need to go into any details. But when it becomes serious, you need to say, “I’m getting serious about this relationship, and I would really like you to meet this person.” Then you have to take it very slowly. Do a lot of activities together over several months as both sides get to know each other. A year would be a reasonable length of time before you jump into marriage, assuming that during that year you have included the kids in a lot of activities.