Integrating the stepparent into the family is one of the most important tasks you will face as a stepfamily. Your ability to do this successfully over a period of time is directly related to the success or failure of your marriage and your stepfamily. So, while we talk about stepmothering more, stepfathers and their behavior equally hold the key.
Have you heard about the stepfamily triangle? The biological parent is at the top of the triangle. The biological child is the point at the bottom left, and the stepparent is the point at the bottom right. What creates the relationship between the biological parent and child is three-fold. They have a biological bond, a legal bond, and an emotional bond. What creates a relationship between the biological parent and the stepparent is an emotional bond, and a legal bond. But what creates the relationship between the stepfather and stepchild? Nothing, except the depth of the emotional bond.
And the building of this bond really begins the day you get married. Since children generally have feelings of loss associated with the marriage of the biological parent and stepparent, it sometimes regresses the relationship between the child and the stepparent further. Living together before doesn’t help you either. So basically, when you get married, the stepparent/stepchild relationship is completely new, and you are starting from scratch. It is from this point that you slowly begin to build your relationship (no matter how much time you were dating before marriage).
If the shift for stepmoms is about being the center of the family, the struggle for the stepdad is his role as the head of the family. In stepfamily life, the biological parent and stepparent have to share this role. He can still be the male head of the household, but in stepfamily life, his wife as the biological parent is the female head of the household. She is the only one that has the relationship that is needed to handle certain areas. I think that many times, women who have been single parents are ready to let someone else be the head of the household. But in the same way that there can be no “instant Mom”, there can be no “instant Dad”, either. “Many times, a stepfather will assume an active parenting role too early (often with the wife’s encouragement) and thus fell into a trap of presuming an intimacy and authority that was unearned,” says James Bray, author of the book, “Stepfamilies”.
Another misnomer is if the man is a great father to his own biological children, that he should step in and treat his stepchildren the same. Dr. Bray says that they observed many stepchildren and stepfathers over a period of time, and saw the same results. No matter how great a Dad you may be or what great paternal skills you exhibit, most kids will respond warily to you. They want you to be about as close to them as a coach or camp counselor. “Stepchildren don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” according to Dr. Michael Popkin with Active Parenting Publishers. It will take longer for them to be able to affectionate with you or to accept you as a parental authority. Even then, your role may not be exactly as you want it to be.
So what is a real man to do?
Dr. Popkin says to understand that there are two basic parts to parenting- discipline (or to instruct) and support. Stepfathers (and stepmothers too) need to leave the disciplining to the biological parent, but you can provide support in big ways.
Lower your expectations. Expect rejection, and be glad if they do any more that that. Recognize that your children and/or stepchildren have their own development tasks, especially teenagers, and don’t take their rejection of you personally. They are trying to draw boundaries, be independent, and have developmental tasks (plus be a part of one or more stepfamilies).
Know that it is not about you. As my kids have become teenagers, the last thing they want is another parent. It is not you, but your situation.
Don’t presume affection or authority. Dr. Popkin says that the foundation of a loving parent-child relationship is based on mutual respect. Make sure to treat them with respect and courtesy in your tone, facial expressions and words.
Give encouragement and show empathy. I know it is hard when your stepchild is not being nice to you but do it anyway. You are the grown-up, after all.
Think of your role as being a “monitor” for your wife. Know what is going on but don’t comment.
Be willing to be uncomfortable for several years in this role. This is one of the sacrifices you will make in your stepfamily life but it is very important. Being willing to place your family’s benefit above your own personal feelings is crucial. Taking it slow with your stepchildren and supporting your wife’s parenting supports your wife, your marriage, your family, and ultimately, you. If you disagree with your wife, be careful and be slow to anger. Be respectful to her also. She’s been the mom longer than you, and any changes that she makes in her parenting style will have to be gradual (otherwise, you’ll still end up being the bad guy).
Keep educating yourself on the developmental tasks of your stepchildren. The more you know and understand, the better you will be able to deal with your stepfather role.