The Doctor Is In: Joshua Coleman

27 10 2008

Guest columnist Dr. Joshua Coleman practices in San Francisco and Oakland, California. His new book, When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You And Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along (HarperCollins) came out last year.

Dr. Coleman is an internationally known expert in parenting, couples, families and relationships. Sign up for his FREE monthly e-zine at

Stepmothering: What You Need To Know

Being a stepmother is hard and sometimes thankless work. While some are able to establish close and comfortable relationships, many struggle with the role. In addition, children are typically more tolerant and accepting of stepfathers than of stepmothers. Here are some important reasons:

1) Loyalty Factor
Children often have intense feelings of loyalty to their mothers after divorce. Professor Linda Nielsen, author of an excellent book titled “Embracing Your Father: How to Build the Relationship with Your Dad that You Always Wanted” conducted a 15-year study of daughters in college. She found that most college-educated daughters discriminate against Dad when it comes to giving him the same chance they give their moms to get to know one another, to talk about personal matters, to have meaningful conversations or to allow him to express sadness or grief. Dad is still more likely than Mom to be treated as a critical judge and a banking machine. These feelings of loyalty to Mom can directly interfere with a stepchild’s desire or ability to bond with the stepmother.

2) High Expectations of Self
For better or worse, women come into marriage with the expectation that they should be loving, nurturing, and supportive. A stepmother who tries to be close to a stepchild who is uninterested or unwilling may walk away feeling resentful and rejected. One of the largest, best-controlled studies of divorce (Hetherington, 2002) found that one fourth of grown stepdaughters carried intense feelings of negativity about their stepmothers and only one-fourth described their relationship as close as adults. 

3) High Expectations from Husband
Men are likely to hold their wives to the same standard that women hold themselves to. That is, they often believe that their new wives or girlfriends should be able and eager to step into the mothering role. This is both unrealistic and unreasonable. 

4) What to do?
Be a friend, not a mom, to your stepkids unless it’s completely clear that mothering is what they really want from you.  

Let your husband do the disciplining, not you.

Be assertive when you need to be. Your stepchildren may test your limits. While you can’t assume that they’re going to want to be close to you, you can hold them to the same standard of respect that you’d expect from anyone else. Therefore, they can’t call you names, they can’t take your stuff without asking and they can’t boss you around.

Take the long-term perspective. Your partner chose you, his children didn’t, so it may take them quite a while to adjust to the divorce and accept that dad’s primary love interest is no longer their mother. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is a good (or tolerable) relationship with stepchildren. Typically, it takes years, so try not to get too discouraged by the inevitable ups and downs.



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