Let's Talk Stepparenting

The Challenges of Being a Stepparent

Getting Real With Shadra Bruce

Parenting, as rewarding as it is, can be a tough job. There are a lot of demands and pressures that go with raising kids, but they are often offset by the enormous fulfillment that comes from raising children.

Stepparenting is even harder.

Stepparents often do all the things parents do – providing emotional and financial support for the kids, participating in and encouraging the child’s success, and putting their own needs aside to meet those of the children. You do the work of a parent, in most cases, either full time or part time, but get none of the recognition. You raise the children, love the children, financially support the children, and guide them through life, mostly from an unseen and under-appreciated place. Stepparents do not even get a line on the family tree!

It’s not about recognition, of course, but it’s never easy to make efforts that are not recognized or appreciated. It’s no surprise that some stepparents end up feeling as though the efforts are not worth it. More than once I’ve worked with a stepmom who is so overwhelmed by playing the role of mom while being treated like the unwelcome intruder that she is ready to give up. It’s really, really hard to be still in the building phase of a new marriage while having extra people to care for whose needs and wants are complicated by their insecurity about the changes that are happening in their lives.

No wonder so many end up divorcing again. Stepparenting is HARD.

There are no easy answers. Successful blended families happen because the biological parent supports the stepparent, because the adults act like adults, because the families embrace open communication and mutual respect, because of deep commitment and a willingness to persist, and because of luck. Most of all, though, successful stepparenting comes from being willing to put your heart out there, even when it might get stomped on a bit.


Is Your Mama a Step-Mama?

Getting Real With Elizabeth Sanchez

They say you don’t really appreciate your parents until you become a parent yourself. I fully experienced that feeling twice. Not because I gave birth to two children, which I did, but because I became a step-parent and then later became a parent.

And my mom knows exactly how that feels.

Every time I want to kick somebody because after introducing my children, they inevitably say, “Ooooh, so he’s not really your son.”

Every time someone asks, “Wow. You really love him, don’t you, even though he’s not yours?”

Every time someone gives me a dirty look because he looks too old to be my son, which clearly means I am a high school dropout with three kids in tow. (Note: I look young for my age and he looks older for his age; it’s the perfect combination.)

Every time I want to scream in frustration, I call my mom. She has five kids, four of which she gave birth to. She also has four grandchildren, three of which are mine. She has heard everything I’m hearing now, and nowadays she also gets, “Oh, so he’s not really your grandson.”

Uh. Yeah he is.

My mom has always had a thick shell, and when people criticize her, her superpower is the ability to deflect it as if she was wearing Wonder Woman’s bracelets. She’s my role model for so many things, and I’m so grateful that I have someone to learn from when it comes to loving all your kids. ALL of them.

Wonder Woman, aka my mom, taught me that the relationship between you and the son that was your husband’s family before you were is sacred. Sometimes people want to point out that my brother isn’t really my brother, he’s only my half-brother. My mom brushed those comments aside with such ease that it was always easy for us to do the same. She was always a listening ear when he was little. She was a constant voice of reason when he was a teenager. And she remained supportive when he became an adult and a father himself.

Just like in “Is Your Mama a Llama?” by Deborah Guarino, my mama is his mama, too.

Loving my oldest son ever since the very first time I laid eyes on him is as effortless as loving the babies I held in my arms in the delivery room. But then again, it never occurred to me not to love him. Thanks to my mother, there was never anybody in my life that taught me otherwise.

On the contrary, I learned all about how to be a step-mama because my mama is one, too.


4 Steps to Resolving Issues in a Blended Family

by Shadra Bruce

Building a successful blended family can be a very difficult process for everyone involved. I often suggest that stepparents need to talk to their spouses – that open communication is the best path to resolution – as often as possible. However, when you are talking to your spouse about his or her children, some approaches work better than others do.

In talking to biological parents who have remarried, one of the most difficult problems they have is when their spouse has a problem with their child and, rather than focus on the problem, attempt to make it personal. You love your spouse. He loves you, but he loves his children, too, so when you attack them, he will defend them.

Stepchildren young and old are coping with a new situation involving a parent, and may not necessarily be on their best behavior, but taking their behavior personally can be very damaging to your marriage and your ability to have an eventual relationship with the child. When there are problems, you need to approach your spouse with an open heart and an open mind. These tips will help you navigate conversations about the kids:

  1. No matter how angry you are about something that has happened, don’t speak in absolutes: your stepchild is not “always” bad or will “never” behave. When you speak of your stepchild this way, your spouse will become defensive and not listen to the real issue.
  2. Understand that children, right or wrong, will try to soothe their insecurities in any way they can, especially if they have experienced a volatile divorce, death, or separation from the other parent. They will see you as a threat. This is normal behavior on their part.
  3. When you talk to your spouse about an issue with your stepchild, focus on the issue, not the child. Speak about how it affects you: “When Johnny tells me he doesn’t have to do what I say, and you don’t correct him, it undermines my authority and makes me feel like I am not part of the family” works better than, “You let Johnny get away with murder all the time!”
  4. Pick a time to talk to your spouse when you are not angry or upset. Think about what you want to say first. Make sure you know why you are upset, because sometimes we stepparents are still working through our own insecurities and see the kids as a threat, too – and that’s something we need to resolve within ourselves.

You and your spouse can work through many of the issues you have with building your new family structure, but it takes time, patience, and love.

Have you read Shadra’ s book, Stories From a StepMom, available on Amazon Kindle? Read more or request a review copy.

Let's Talk Stepparenting

Being a Good Stepparent

by Shadra Bruce

Becoming a stepparent can be as nerve-wracking as becoming a parent for the first time. It’s not much different: there are expectations, a role to be performed, and a child’s life influenced by your decisions, actions, and behaviors. Unfortunately, when we aren’t with a child from the day he or she is born, we often don’t feel the same connection or sense of responsibility. In fact, it happens quite often that we see our stepchildren in an adversarial way: they are what stand between us and the man or woman with whom we want to share our lives.

Being a good spouse and partner to the person you love, however, means being a good stepparent to your spouse’s children.  It’s not easy – you are the interloper, the ultimate symbol of the dashed hopes of a child who wants his parents to reunite, the reason everything is changing. It takes a great deal of strength to become a good stepparent.

Being a good stepparent starts with letting go of the adversarial view that you might have of the children. The child is not the enemy, the wall between you and your spouse, or the excuse for failure. Get to know the kids. Talk to them about how you feel about their parent and be open with them about your own insecurities. Respect them as people. Even if you and your stepchildren have had a rough start or years of difficulty, it’s not too late to recognize the value of developing a healthy relationship with each other. Imagine the joy your spouse will feel at not being torn between you.

Being a good stepparent also means treating both the stepchild and his or her biological parents with respect. This is not always easy – often, there are valid reasons why divorce happened in the first place and it can be difficult to remain silent about the more negative aspects of the biological parent you replaced. Bite your tongue. Don’t show disrespect about your stepchild’s parents; vent to a friend or family member if you have to, but recognize that your stepchild’s very identity is shaped in some part by their biology, and your lack of respect affects them.

In the end, it’s simple: you love your spouse; your spouse loves his or her children. The better the relationship you have with your stepchildren, the stronger your blended family can be. Being a good stepparent can have a lasting impact on your life and theirs.

Have you read Shadra’ s book, Stories From a StepMom, available on Amazon Kindle? Read more or request a review copy.

Let's Talk Teens and Tweens

Inheriting Teenage Stepchildren

When you marry into a family and inherit teenage stepchildren, you will encounter a different set of challenges than if you marry into a family with younger children. Older children, particularly tweens and teens, are already struggling to establish an identity of their own and establish a place within the family that is more concrete and individual. When you come along as stepparent and rock the boat, it can cause a great deal of stress for the teen.

One thing to realize when becoming a stepparent to a teenager is that the more you can respect him or her as an individual and the better you are able to treat him or her like a person separate from the biological parent you have married, the more likely you will be to gain his or her respect.

Talk to and treat your teen stepchild the way you wish to be treated and talked to. Teens, biological and step alike, are notorious for being experts at making adults lose their otherwise even tempers, but the better you are able to remain calm or even walk away when you have to, the easier you will be able to manage a real relationship with your teen stepchild.

You have a real opportunity with your step children to develop the relationship that will take them into adulthood. Teens struggle with so many things — peer pressure, future life, self-esteem, school — that another positive role model in their lives can be very helpful. However, most teens will initially feel threatened by your presence, so be straight with them. Let them know that you respect them and aren’t there to interfere, that you want to be a part of their lives but that you don’t expect them to think of you as Mom or Dad.

Don’t try to win their admiration by being the “cool” parent who provides alcohol or lets them get away with everything. Be clear about supporting the expectations of the household, but be there, too. Be patient and allow the relationship to build slowly. Step parents are often the “safest” people teens have to talk to — and they may turn to you for advice on everything from relationships to school problems if you give them the chance.

Let's Talk Stepparenting

Advice for New Stepparents

Being a stepparent can be fulfilling, enriching, and rewarding … but it can be stressful, frustrating, and depressing as well. Particularly in the beginning of your new role as a stepparent, your emotions will probably feel like they are bouncing all over the place. Not only are you building a new life with the person you fell in love with and married but you are also expected to fill a role beyond that of spouse, and that can be very intimidating.

The step-parenting role differs from family to family. In some cases, you will see the stepchildren very rarely (every other weekend a month and a couple weeks during the summer). In other cases, the stepchildren may live with you all the time. In either case (and all of those cases in between), adjusting to your new role can be a difficult process.

Hopefully, before you married, you and your partner spent a great deal of time talking about each other’s expectations and ideals.  Hopefully, you had plenty of time to get to know your new stepchildren and they had time to adjust to the idea of your arrival into the midst of their family.  Whether you had a long time to prepare or the situation was thrust upon you, there are things you can do to make the process easier for everyone.

•Understand that everyone’s emotions, not just yours, are probably off-kilter as a result of the new family unit.  Be patient.

•Don’t expect everything to go well from the beginning; allow everyone space and time to get to know each other and learn each other’s quirks.

•Talk with your spouse about setting down certain ground rules right away. It’s important to establish an expectation of respect immediately. Your stepchildren can have time to adjust, but that doesn’t mean they should be allowed to be disrespectful, mean, or vicious.

•Address issues immediately. Talk with the children – don’t preach to them – about your desire to build a successful blended family.  Address and acknowledge their concerns and their feelings.

•As the stepparent, you are often the “new” person, the variable who changes everything. It can be unsettling, and often your own insecurities can be the cause of some of the early struggles. Talk about your feelings with your spouse and let them know when you are having difficulties. Be sure to take time alone together to build your marriage; don’t spend all of your energy on the kids.

Take it one day at a time. You and your stepchildren will get to know each other better. Day by day, your role as a stepparent will become more defined and comfortable.

Have you read Shadra’ s book, Stories From a StepMom, available on Amazon Kindle? Read more or request a review copy.

Let's Talk Stepparenting

Holiday Guidelines for StepMoms and StepDads

Getting Real With Shadra Bruce

With the holidays coming, I have offered some advice to biological moms and dads out there about how to make sure your children don’t suffer through the sometimes very difficult tug of war of the holiday season. Even more important is the advice I offer to the step moms and step dads out there who sometimes dread the holidays more than look forward to them.

I was in a lucky position: my husband had full custody of his children, so I was a full-time step mom with very little interruption from bio mom. Life, for us, was sometimes nothing more that our daily routines…until the holidays rolled around.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, the woman who hadn’t had time to help the kids when they were sick or attend their parent-teacher conferences or take advantage of her visitation wanted to have her “every other holiday” and disrupt our Christmas and Thanksgiving plans.

Of course, that was my attitude – that it was a disruption. Quite frankly, I didn’t like the idea that I had to do all the hard work all year long and then she could swoop in and drop a few gifts on the kids and be the hero of the holidays. It aggravated me, it made me cry, it made my run to my mother’s house and vent until I was exhausted.

BUT it made the kids happy. These three kids that I loved so much were starving for the attention of their mom, and even if it only came once a year for a holiday photo op and an ultimatum from Grandma that she would indeed see her grandkids at Christmastime, it meant everything to the kids. They needed that connection to the other part of them, so regardless of the turmoil I suffered internally, I forced a smile on my face, wished the kids a great time, sent them bearing gifts, and worked our holiday schedule around their availability.

Your situation may not be like mine – no blended family or step parent situation is exactly alike – but what can be the same is your attitude. I know it’s hard, but what really matters is doing what is right by the kids involved. That means letting them be with all of their loved ones on the holidays; it means not fighting or causing drama that makes the kids wish Christmas never came. It means putting aside your own issues, agendas, and hopes, and working to make the best possible memories for the kids – yours, his, hers, all of them.

It’s not easy, and it’s okay to be frustrated. It’s also ok to have limits and to desire (but not expect) cooperation in return. If you have any doubt about whether or not what you do makes a difference, try it this year and see the happiness it brings to the children in your life.

Let's Talk Stepparenting

Make the Holidays a Time to Bond with Stepchildren

89 days (2,137 hours as of the publication of this article) until Christmas.

There is no better time than the holiday season to strengthen the bond between you and your stepchild. Whether you are in a new step parenting role or the relationship you currently have is strained, the holidays give you the perfect opportunity to develop or share traditions that can strengthen the relationship you have with your step child.

It doesn’t really matter what you do, as long as you find a way to do something together. The time you share during the holidays will help sustain your relationship throughout the year. Children of blended families often have a difficult time knowing where and how they belong during the holidays; you can help your stepchild feel involved and a part of the family with any number of activities:

•Conspire with your stepchild when holiday shopping for your spouse. Not only will your stepchild have insight into his or her mom or dad’s likes and dislikes, but you’ll be sending a message that you trust them, respect their opinion, and rely on them.

•Share a tradition from your childhood. If there was something special you used to do with a parent or grandparent, try sharing that activity with your stepchild. String popcorn to go on the tree, go Christmas caroling, or participate in a charity event.

•Bake together. Spending time in the kitchen can be therapeutic. Bake sugar cookies that you can decorate and then make up plates of them to deliver to friends and family.

•Get up early the day after Thanksgiving and shop together. Give your stepchild money of their own and help them shop for all of the people on their list.

•Decorate the tree together. There is nothing more isolating than coming for a weekend visit to find that all of the holiday preparations have been made in your absence. Try to save activities that will be more fun to share with your step child.  If you have a live tree, let them help pick it out.

•If you don’t celebrate Christmas, share your beliefs with your step child and allow them to learn about different holidays that are celebrated among the religions this time of year.

The holidays can be an extremely difficult time for everyone in a blended family, especially if it is your first major holiday together. The more inclusive you can be, the better the holiday season will be for everyone.


The Value of Stepparents

What challenges we stepfamilies face! Not only are we adjusting to a new relationship, a new marriage, and perhaps a new home, but we’re doing it with extra people in the mix who also have needs, demands, and insecurities about the changes life has brought them. It’s no wonder so many of us give up, throw our hands in the air and decide it is too hard. No wonder so many of us end up divorcing again, leaving remnants of yet another broken family in our path.

Stepparenting is difficult. You do all the work of a parent, in most cases, either full time or part time, but get none of the recognition. You raise the children, love the children, financially support the children, and guide them through life, mostly from an unseen and under-appreciated place in the family tree – not that there is even a line for you there!

Throughout the time that Dave and I have been raising our kids, we’ve had our share of challenges. The kids went to one school that refuses to grant me the right to even sign permission slips for my stepkids, even though I was the one who handled all the day-to-day “stuff,” without having a form signed by my husband allowing it. When we wanted to obtain guardianship of our son when he turned 18, because he has Down Syndrome and we still care for him, we had to have his biological mother sign off on it. Step parents are often undervalued and underappreciated.

This month, we celebrate National Stepfamily Day. Stepfamily Day is celebrated every year on September 16. It is worth celebrating; more than 33% of us in the United States are involved in a step relationship and 1300 new stepfamilies are formed nearly each day in our country. The definition of “family” is definitely changing.

With that change needs to come, perhaps, a change in attitude and perception concerning stepparents.  It is time to recognize the larger role stepparents play in the lives of children. Stepmothers are not wicked; stepchildren are not to be led into the forest and fed to the witch who lives there or denied their shot at the prince. Stepparents fulfill a key role and fill a gap in a child’s life and heart that might otherwise go empty. It’s time that the meaning of family is updated to recognize all of those people who contribute to the happiness of a child.

Get Shadra’ s book, Stories From a StepMom, available on Amazon Kindle.


Advice for Adult Stepchildren

My aunt and I have been through similar situations. Her dad and mine both lost their wives (our mothers) too soon.  Her dad and mine have both remarried. We are both suddenly being thrust into the world of being adult stepchildren, and having having both been on the other side of the table, you would think it would be easier.

While neither of us have handled it perfectly (I threatened not to go to my dad’s wedding; she accused her dad of being crazy; we both felt our fathers were acting somewhat stupidly), we have both learned a great deal about how not to handle the situation.

Advice for parent and impending stepparent of adult child

Ok, we’re grownups. And you don’t owe us any kind of explanation whatsoever about how you choose to live your lives. We are being selfish.  Please realize that you are the only parent we have left, and regardless of how long ago our other parent died, it is still difficult for us to think about losing (or even sharing) you, even if that’s what makes you happy.

Don’t make it harder – don’t threaten to withhold your love or disown us or exclude us from your life just because we’re having a tough time accepting your plans. Try to be understanding. We know we should be done grieving and happy to see you happy…just give us time to get there.

Understand that our children (your grandchildren) still want to have a special place in your life, even if your new spouse also has kids and grandkids who will be demanding your attention.

Advice for adult stepchildren

Try to put yourself in your parent’s shoes. Whether your mom or dad is widowed or divorced, life alone is just not something many people contemplate. If your parent has found someone who makes him or her happy, accept that.  The more you support your parent, the more likely it is that you will be included in his or her new life.

Realize that while it has been convenient to have your single parent at your beck and call, that you have a life of your own and quite often, your mom or dad is not included in that life.  Your parent needs to still feel like an individual with a life of his or her own – and that may mean you have to let go a little more than you might be ready to.

Advice for both

Please don’t think the worst of each other or exchange words in anger.  Don’t go out of your way to say or do hurtful things.  Give space when needed, but still try to maintain your relationship.  Set boundaries for each other if you need to, but remember, you’re still family.

Get Shadra’ s book, Stories From a StepMom, available on Amazon Kindle.