How to be a good stepparent – and avoid the wicked stepmother label

Bonding with stepchildren can be challenging, but recognize that you’ve entered a family where grief is likely. Your new spouse’s children may be mourning the death of a parent or their parents’ marriage.

More from Parenting Isn’t for Sissies

Jennifer DuBose, M.S.,
C.A.S., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private
practice in Batavia and writes a monthly column for Chicago
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Bear in mind that children sometimes blame themselves for their parents’ divorce and often hope against hope that they will somehow reconcile.

In any case, your presence in their lives serves as a constant reminder of their loss, so you’ll need to exercise an abundance of patience until they come around and accept-or at least tolerate-your new union.

What’s a stepparent to do?

Take an interest in the children and their activities. Go to their games, pick up books at the library you think they might enjoy or talk with them about their hobbies. Expect them to resist your gestures at first and remember: It’s not about you. Many children feel guilty that they’re betraying their other parent, or an older sibling whose angst over this transition is particularly entrenched, if they develop good rapport with a new stepparent-even if their absent parent is deceased. So make sure you communicate that you’re not trying to replace their parent.

Try to see this experience from the kids’ perspective. How would you feel if you were in their shoes? What changes are they being asked to endure? Any chance you get to give them control over some aspect of these changes-whether it’s letting them select paint colors for their new bedrooms or the board game your new blended family will play on your next pizza night-take it. Those are opportunities to build a bond, and you’ve got to start somewhere. Over time, a shared history of new memories will be the glue that enables your new family to hang together.

In the meantime, you might consider making an overture to your stepchildren’s other parent, if she’s available. However you choose to reach out, express that you want to do what you can to help her children adjust to this huge change in their lives. Ask if she can share something about them-or offer a tip-that will help you bond with them. You may encounter resistance at first, regardless of who initiated the divorce. But if your shared goal is to support the children in adjusting to their new circumstances, perhaps you and she can build an alliance, or at least an understanding, that helps to pave the way to a brighter future for everyone.

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