Almost one third of children will live in a step family before the age of 18. That means there are increasing numbers of people becoming stepparents every day. Becoming a stepdad can be an incredibly positive and rewarding experience, or it can be one of the worst nightmares you can ever experience.
Many stepdads believe that the new challenges and stresses of taking on this role are unavoidable. The truth is that many of the negative outcomes experienced in stepfamilies are completely avoidable. If you want to have the best possible experiences and avoid the landmines, there are some specific things to know and do to get the very best results in your stepdad experience. Knowing is half the battle and believe me, not knowing what you are up against can translate into one battle after another.
Most people can agree that genuine, lasting relationships grow and develop over time. They do not just appear one day because we want them to show up. When the growth of a romantic relationship evolves into marriage, many of the relationship dynamics change. This is most certainly true when either person has kids. It’s important to remember in the stepdad journey that in the same way your romantic relationship developed over time, strong, healthy relationships with your stepchildren also take time to develop.
Auto pilot thinking can wreck your relationships
As with a lot of parenting decisions, many people default to their autopilot, subconscious thinking. This is the thinking that comes from our own past experiences and what we’ve added to our subconscious as ‘the way things ought to happen.’
For example, if you grew up in a home with a stepparent, chances are extremely high that the experiences you had in that relationship, good and bad, will settle in your subconscious and pop up again when you are in the same experience as an adult.
The good news is that if you had a very positive stepparent experience, then most likely if you find yourself in that same role as an adult, you will tend to replicate the type of interactions, attitudes, and beliefs that allowed you and your stepparent to get along very well.
But on the other hand, if your stepparent experience when you were a child was filled with a lot of resentment, disrespect, and tension, the chances are equally as high that you will tend to repeat, however subconsciously, those kinds of interactions.
There are many questions in the minds of stepdads
Most often, the questions that new stepdads have are ‘What is my role?’ ‘What are the expectations?’ and ‘Will they like me?’ In a recent study in the Families in Society Journal, the authors wanted to find out more about stepparenting attitudes and expectations. Specifically, they looked at attitudes and expectations in step-families and how those impacted how well the families functioned. The POW Ministries websites has a downloadable ebook that addresses these very questions that are so common among stepfathers.
They found three important indicators that are certain to create a poorly functioning step-family and that should be avoided:
- Adults in step-families who place top priority on their own biological children
- Step-parents who expect their stepchildren to be obedient to them
- Step-parents who believe that the children interfere with the romantic relationship
Adults in step-families who place top priority on their own biological children. The new step-parent can easily become critical and disappointed when this happens. It is especially disappointing to the new step-parent if their expectation was that there would be strong and equal treatment given to everyone in the blended family. In a newly formed stepfamily, when the biological parent plays favorites with their own children and consistently gives them preferential treatment, even above their new spouse, there is going to be trouble. When this happens, it immediately begins to erode the romantic relationship as well.
This second indicator of poor step-family functioning may sound a little strange at first. So what’s so bad about a stepdad expecting their step children to be obedient to them? Many times, the new stepdad believes that it is expected of him to be the disciplinarian and when he takes on that role and is met with resentment, it can be very confusing. The resentment may come from the wife, the stepchildren or both.
The best approach to take is to make sure that you and your wife have very intentionally discussed household rules and consequences. Once that has been accomplished, make sure that there is an open discussion with the kids as well about the rules, expectations, and consequences.
A guy I know once commented about growing up with his stepfather. He stated he didn’t have any problem following the rules of the house, just not ‘his (stepfather)’ rules. That situation can be completely avoided by taking steps to set the rules and consequences together with your partner and to then present them to the kids as a unified team speaking and acting with one voice.
Stepfamily experts, such as those at familyeducation.com, agree it’s very wise for the new stepdad to take it slowly in the beginning and to work to build trust and a loving relationship with the kids. You will find much more success with this strategy than immediately striking out on your own and assuming the role of disciplinarian.
Stepparents who believe that the children interfere with the romantic relationship – this belief will most certainly undermine and erode the core of the marriage relationship, and that’s understandable. The challenge is to quickly identify what is causing this belief and do everything possible to correct it.
For example, as mentioned here, if the biological parent is overtly giving priority treatment to their own kids, this can create a real resentment in the step parent. That resentment can then lead to a belief that the kids are interfering with the romantic relationship. It’s a vicious cycle that will create tremendous strain on the entire family if not addressed.
Being a great stepdad is one of the most important but challenging roles in a man’s life
Like most roles we take on, the more knowledgeable we are about the pitfalls and how to avoid them the more empowered we are to experience much greater success. Relying only on our own past experiences or opinions about ‘how things work’ can seriously damage the relationships that we have worked so hard to cultivate and grow.
So whether you are a new stepdad or have been one for quite some time, it’s never too late to keep learning and growing to better create the strong, healthy relationships all kids and families deserve. Choosing to leave a strong legacy is the most important decision you can make as a step parent.