Step-parenting is tricky, not least because it means blending two cultures, cultures which can have as many hidden, nuanced differences and preferences, as obvious ones. They may have different communication styles, different ideas about humour, making rules, how to run the home, and different expectations about parent-child interactions and sibling relationships.To make things trickier, the subtleties and depth of family differences only really emerge once you’re in the nitty-gritty of daily life together. It’s complex stuff, so for me, the way to simplify and prioritise happy relationships is to concentrate most on the underlying foundations of what it means to love and feel loved. Here’s the key stuff to remember, the non-negotiables for being a good step-parent, from my years as therapist, mum, step-daughter and step-mum:
Love and Respect are Verbs
If we don’t feel respected for our values, identity, and preferences, we tend to get pissed off and resentful. The importance of showing respect in practical everyday ways, applies to all relationships in the family – between the kids, between the adults, as well as between the parents and kids. Fighting words, taking other people’s things, making mean jokes, leaving people out or inconsistent rules are just some of the problems families in therapy typically complain about. The norms of one part of a step-family can easily be felt as hurtful by the other. Kids and adults need understanding of what it means to treat each other with respect in practical terms.
A great family conversation to have is “What leads me to feel respected and disrespected personally?” Every family member can state their values, and every family member can take note. For example, maybe Dad craves the sense of love and respect he gets from getting offers of help. Maybe Mum craves the respect she feels from being engaged in conversation by the kids rather than being grunted at. Perhaps the youngest wants to feel the loves from people putting away their devices when she’s talking. And maybe one kid feels genuinely upset by the jokes that their step-sibling thinks are harmless. You don’t necessarily know this stuff unless you ask.
Focus on Finding Common Ground Early
Be vigilant in identifying things to share that light you all up as soon as you can. Maximise sharing that common stuff to bring you together as a group and keep growing your bonds over time. It could be movies, a sport, travel, anything that holds some interest for each member of the family. You’ll find something you can all enjoy together if you’re open-hearted and open-minded.
Accept that Blood Is Thicker Than Water
Some old adages are generally true whether you like them or not. When you’re a step-parent, like it or not, your family home is not a place of unspoken blood ties. There are not necessarily life long, shared family norms like in your previous home.
Fact is, when you’re connected by the same blood running in your veins, family relationships can usually take more disagreements, misunderstandings, and tension without risking permanent damage. With step-parents, a cut in closeness isn’t going to feel as visceral. It’s much easier to distance or shut each other out when step-personalities inevitably face differences. So, you just have to be a lot more careful, open-minded, cautious and understanding of differences than you might have been with your own children, when families are coming together
Patience and Speaking Mindfully Are Everything
Families are systems and if a schism forms in one relationship due to being hasty and emotion-led, it will affect the entire landscape of the family, including and especially the couple relationship at its centre. Speaking your mind just because you feel like it is over-rated. Building trusting, loving relationships calls for listening and mindfulness more than it calls for strong opinions and enforcing rules. So be patient, think before speaking or be ready to spend time cleaning up mess and hurt.
Hard work? Yes. A long haul? Yes. But it’s worth having patience and managing your frustrations mindfully when the alternative risks doing damage.
And take heart because your efforts will pay off in the love and respect. It is worth being sensitive, patient and mindful of the ‘other culture’ many times over. The last time “My Way or the Highway” thinking led to everybody feeling loved and respected…was never.