Escape the Stepparent Trap

Written by Kathy Watson

Conflicts over parenting plague every stepfamily. Here's how to get past them.

Greg Netzer remembers a particular snowy night in Michigan with his 7-year-old stepdaughter Hannah. It was cold and there was a full moon. Hannah's mother, Sarah, was teaching late.

Make sure your adult needs are met. It's hard to parent well if you and your spouse have no time together.
Avoid no-win questions like "Who are you going to listen to, me or your ex-husband?"
Let your kids decide what they will call the stepparent. Don't push "Dad" or "Mom."

"We went sledding in the moonlight, and it was just hilariously fun," says Netzer. The experience stands out in his mind, he says, because it was free of the adult conflicts that so often characterize stepparenting.

James H. Bray, a clinical and family psychologist in Houston, Texas, says that while conflict between parents in nuclear families is normal, it is more intense and almost unavoidable in blended families.

Bray, who is co-author of Stepfamilies: Love, Marriage and Parenting in the First Decade, points out that people come into a stepfamily with different ideas about parenting. It's the blended family's task in the early years to figure out how to come together and forge agreements.

He concedes that conflicts don't disappear even after stepfamilies deal with the basics. "It can become a loyalty issue," he says. A stepfather, for instance, may think his wife is siding with the kids rather than him over discipline questions.

Bray's book, based on a 10-year study of 200 blended families in Texas, concludes that every stepfamily has to master four things to be successful:

-Parenting skills
-A strong marital bond
-Rolling with the constant changes of stepfamily life
-Developing a working relationship with the nonresidential parent

So how can these goals be accomplished?

Related Items

Success in Children of Single Parent Households

Marriage and Parenting Advice from Harville Hendrix

DVD: Stephen Covey 7 Habits

Dealing with the Neighbor's Annoying kids

"The most important thing," says Bray, "is to talk about your assumptions and ideas about parenting, and realize that there's more than one way to parent well. You need to keep your eye on the outcome you want. If you feel the biological mom is too lenient, but the kids are doing well, then whatever that mom is doing is working."

It also helps, says Bray, to realize that kids are going to listen to biological parents more effectively than to a step parent, and to keep any jealousy this entails at bay. Avoid being critical of the nonresidential parents in front of the kids. And if you enter a stepfamily with adolescent children, discipline issues need to be revisited by everyone involved, because the kids will be used to other rules.

The fact that Netzer loves his stepdaughter has not erased the need to learn these lessons.

"There's this weird balance you have to find, being someone in Hannah's life that she has to listen to and is important to her, but I'm not the final say," Netzer says. He found early on that if he set the rules, his wife might come in later and change direction. "The whole undermining of authority thing, there's a bit of humiliation in that. I just hated the turnabout, and I felt terrible, and Hannah got a mixed message. We had our share of troubles with it."

How has he dealt with it? "Sarah is the bottom-line authority. Because we share time with Hannah's dad, when Hannah comes in and says she wants to do something, I say 'You need to check with your mom.' "

Sarah and Greg now have a son, and Greg fully participates in parenting him. "The current under our words is slightly different," says Netzer. "With Owen, we're full partners. With Hannah, I'm like the national security adviser."

Netzer agrees with the experts that there's no road map to being a good stepparent. He says that you've just got to figure it out as you go along, realizing that it's always going to be a kind of balancing act for everyone in the family.

Related Items

Success in Children of Single Parent Households
Motivate and Empower Your Children
Teaching Children Respect

Joomla! Debug Console


Profile Information

Memory Usage

Database Queries