The Power of Guilt

15 12 2008

journaldmIn blended families, there are few things more powerful than guilt. It is the emotion that fuels many of the negative things that happen in stepfamilies. It is the reason that Dads become permissive parents and allow their children to run wild. It  is often one of the reasons Moms are combative and challenging to co-parent with. In 2003, the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage published a study called Divorced Mothers’ Guilt. The study found that the guilt they felt for putting their children through divorce often kept them stuck in one emotional place and unable to move on with their lives.

Anecdotally, I can attest to this just from listening to moms during interviews. I have always been curious about the moms who originally ask for the divorce and then act as though they are the victims or become vindictive or angry later when they weren’t at the time of the divorce. It could be the guilt talking.

And so for all of us, how do recover from guilt? How do biological and stepparents move on from feeling guilty about an affair, or a divorce or a remarriage? If anyone has some good ideas, please feel free to comment. In the meantime, here are some of my thoughts:

Say your sorry. Take the children out for one-on-one time and apologize. Call or e-mail your former spouse and tell them you are sorry for everything that happened. Marriage researcher John Gottman describes in his books how repair attempts can reduce conflict in relationships. If the breakup of the marriage happened because of an affair, leave defensiveness behind, own up to your responsibility and say your sorry.

Look to the future. Instead of remaining stuck in anger and guilt about what happened in the past, focus on your hopes for the future.

Remember we’re alone. Each of us has our own particular path to walk in this life. A divorce and remarriage will affect children for their rest of their lives, but at the end of the day they will have to deal with it on their own. Give them the tools they need to move through their emotions in a healthy way instead of letting them manipulate you with your guilt.

Let go of what doesn’t serve you. Guilt is really a useless feeling. It doesn’t move you anywhere, just keeps you stuck in the past. Wouldn’t you rather choose to let go of the guilt? Challenging things happen to children. How they respond to it can build their character and yours if you allow everyone to move on emotionally.

Be true to your inner truths. Guilt can strip biological parents of their core values. For instance, if a parent would typically believe that boundaries are good for kids but lets them all go because he feels guilty, he is not only depriving his children of the parenting they need, he is abandoning his own belief system. Seriously, guilt is that powerful.

So what do you feel guilty about? How does the guilt of your partner or the ex affect the dynamics between all the members of your blended family?

What stepmoms can do for dads and their kids.

10 12 2008

Before you read this post, please read the research by Constance Ahrons that sparked this list. In my book and on this blog, I have said many times how important the relationship between your husband and his kids is. Not only because I value my own relationship with my father, but also because much research has been done on how negatively impacted children are when they don’t have their fathers in their lives.

So what can we do to help foster the relationship our partner has with his kids?

Encourage one-on-one time. When your stepchildren are visiting, suggest that your husband take each one of them out at a time for a walk, a visit to the park, a meal, so they can have time together.

Support involvement. If your stepkids have school events, games, or concerts tell your husband to attend them with or without you. I clearly remember looking for my father at my sports games and feeling such deep disappointment when he didn’t show and joy when he did.

Let him do the parenting. As a stepparent, you play second fiddle to the biological parent when it comes to discipline. If Dad is showing signs of becoming a permissive parent because he feels too guilty about what he’s done to his kids to parent them, then show him this post. He needs to parent his kids for them to feel loved and safe. Disneyland Dads are harmful to their children’s development. And as the stepmom, you shouldn’t be asked to discipline his kids. It’s not fair and it has the potential to ruin your relationship with the children.

Create traditions. Because stepfamilies take so long to feel like family (7 to 12 years according to researcher Patricia Papernow) do everything you can to build traditions that are just for your new family. One tradition my stepmother started that I deeply appreciated was a gift she made. Every year she put together a photo album of each of us kids with our dad. Though she was a part of those albums, too, she stayed in the background. By putting together those albums every year she was fostering my connection to my father.  

Let go of jealousy. Your stepchildren will have a relationship with their father until the day he dies. So think big picture here. That relationship will affect graduations, weddings, funerals, the birth of children, etc. etc. etc. If you’re really in this relationship for the long-term, then you simply can’t be jealous of the time he spends with his kids. If you have your whole lives together, then there is plenty of time for Dad to spend with you, any children you have together, and your stepkids.

Do you have things you do to support your partner’s relationship with his kid(s) that have worked well? Let us know what you do so the rest of us can try it!

Stepmoms Speak

12 11 2008

Christina Hines is the author of Navigational Skills for Stepfamilies. The following is an excerpt from her book. Used with permission.

Lack of Awareness

When we navigate without awareness, we still remember the “Wicked” Stepmother in our Cinderella stories. We live inside the lingo, the language of “Broken Homes” and “Step” and everyone suffers on all levels. “Broken” takes on a tone as If there is something fundamentally wrong that will always be fundamentally wrong. Step has a tone as if someone is stepping on someone else’s toes or property, as if by stepping “in and on” you are doing something morally illegal.

Inside of this broken stepping on toes limited thinking…. 

We teach our children that love has conditions. “You are free to love everyone! Except the woman who now lives with your father.”

We provide our children with “Disney Land” weekends to ease the guilt we feel inside of us for not being there in the day-to-day.

We get divorced and cling fiercely to making sure our children experience “family traditions” only we don’t stop to understand what we are really doing to them.

Let’s see how this works. We tell our children “Get dressed, brush your teeth, eat breakfast, put your jacket on – you are going to Dad’s for three hours to have his tradition. Next, while you are in mid-play, you will need to put your jacket back on, come back home, we’ll drive to grandma’s and have our tradition (notice, at Dad’s you had HIS tradition but when you are with me, you are having “Our” tradition.) Take your jacket off and then mid-play, you will need to put your jacket back on. Next; we will get back in the car, drive to our house. Take off your jacket it’s time for bed! Now wasn’t that fun?

Children literally spend half of the day in the car. A quarter of the day taking their jackets off and putting their jackets back on.  A quarter of the day just digging into a wonderful play experience only to have it cut short once again.

Family traditions start to take on a tone of hurry up, let’s go, wasn’t that fun and we do this for your sake. Children’s little heads spin. They can’t remember whom they are playing with and everything feels to the child like there isn’t enough time. We literally teach our children how to not focus fully. We teach our children how not to experience something fully and then we label and medicate them when they can’t seem to focus.

More of what’s Inside of this broken stepping on toes limited thinking…

We send them over to the other parent’s house exclaiming “Oh I will miss you so much while you are gone,” and then the child spends half the time at the other parent’s house worrying about how lonely and upset the other parent is with visions of the “missing” parent crying missing them so much and unable to enjoy their time fully because they are too busy worrying about the other parent’s experience. We teach our children to always feel like something is missing.

We get out of one relationship to get right back into the “same” relationship with someone else or we go for someone completely different and spend all our time comparing, complaining and “pining” for what we no longer have when we didn’t enjoy what we had when we had it. Never fully enjoying our present moments.

We watch a child grow and develop and we have reverence for the process yet we have no tolerance and lack reverence, time or patience for the emotional evolutionary process of growth and development that needs to happen inside of marriages or inside of divorces or our remarriages.

We treat our children like partners and our partners like children.

We ignore our pain, bury it, pretend it doesn’t exist and we hide behind children using them as an excuse on why we can’t move on or worse, we use them like bait on a fishing rod to attract a potential parent for them verses trying to attract a partner for us who will eventually be a good stepparent.

We set our new relationships up to be stressful and chaotic because we didn’t take the time to process our emotions and then we get mad at our new partner for expecting us to be fully present to them.

We expect our new partners to love and accept our children and us unconditionally while we don’t accept and love them unconditionally.

We set the stepparent up by sabotaging their relationship with our children by bending the rules when the stepparent isn’t home or by blatantly coming out and saying, “I don’t mind but your stepmother is on my back.”

We set our children up to feel abandoned and to resent the person who does what we do for our children – by allowing our children to sleep in bed with us at night and then “kicking” them out when an adult comes into the picture.

We blame the “other” parent when our children lie, manipulate or act out on our time with the children. We say the children are doing that because of who the other parent is and oh what a great parent we are.

 We blame the stepparent for pointing out our children’s behaviors and focus on the stepparent instead of focusing on parenting our children 

Women walk around comparing themselves to each other while competing for who’s better, prettier, has a better body, looks younger, makes more money, has a better house. As if a child cares about any of those things. (Who is that really about?)

Men are so confused, not knowing who to listen to, the biological mother or the stepmother. Knowing perfectly well that he’s completely screwed either way, lying to each woman causing more problems for themselves crying, “Women are crazy people!”

We haven’t learned to “play nice” inside of our adult relationships while we tell our children to “play nice” with others. Or, we no longer care about teaching our children how to play nice, we would rather they think of only themselves. We haven’t learned to share the joys of child rearing while we tell our child to share or, we tell our children that they don’t have to share. We haven’t learned to respect each other while we tell children to respect others or, we don’t care if our children respect others and enjoy our children’s ability to be fully self expressed to the point of pure rudeness. We play a lot of ego oriented superficial games and waste our time and life energy on things that do not matter and have absolutely nothing to do with our children.

With all or half of this going on inside of the lives of stepfamilies, it’s easy to see why there is so much stress involved. Most of it has nothing to do with being a parent or having a child. Children are not the problem at all. Most of it has to do with our inability to navigate the issues that belong to us.

The Doctor Is In: Susan D. Stewart (Part Two)

12 11 2008

Susan StewartSusan D. Stewart is a sociologist at Iowa State University and the author of Brave New Stepfamilies. The is part two of our interview.

How do you conduct your research?

My research involves secondary data analysis. So these days there are numerous nationally representative data sets of children and families that contain all kinds of information about family living arrangements, measures of well-being for children and adults, depression, juvenile delinquency, and academic achievement. It costs millions of dollars to put those together so it’s very high-quality data. My research has mostly been analyzing data and looking for patterns. I’ve done a lot of work on non-resident parents-parents without custody of their kids-visitation patterns, and child support. Now I’m contemplating collecting my own data because I’ve found that states are mandating joint custody. They have just passed a law in Iowa that assumes joint custody and so what this means is that if a couple gets divorced it means if both spouses want custody of their child then they get shared custody. In other words you would have to prove that your spouse is mentally ill or a drug addict or abusive in court. It used to be the courts were much more in favor of one spouse getting custody and the other having visiting rights. I think a lot of this is motivated by the men’s movements with Alec Baldwin leading the charge. Conservative men who are feeling like they don’t have control over their children and their families. The worry is that men will choose shared custody to get out of paying child support. I get no child support even though I only make two-thirds of what my ex-husband makes because apparently judges don’t like to quibble over small amounts. It’s a worrisome trend.

Why this relates to my research is because most of the national data sets are based on this model of custodial parent, non-custodial parent. Parents today are increasingly both custodial and non-custodial. One weekend a resident parent, the next weekend a non-resident parent because we switch back and forth every week. I think it’s horrible. I hate it. I don’t think it’s good for my child. The effects of it are not known. Any studies that have been conducted on joint custody have shown that kids do better than kids raised by single parents. Yes, but a decade or two ago, the kids in joint custody were a very select group of children. The parents got a long and chose this and cooperated. But this is now being forced on people. I had no choice. My ex-husband wanted to have custody of our daughter too, and he is not so flawed that anybody would say no. I think more and more states are moving toward this model. And it’s good in some ways. It’s not good for kids to not be involved with their dad. But I’m not sure for the general population that this should be mandated. I don’t know what the effects are going to be.

And so I want to study this and it would involve collecting my own data because the studies out there right now either put children in categories of resident, non-resident in situations where it’s really much more of a shared arrangement. We just don’t have the numbers to accurately study. That’s what I’m working on. Of course, it’s partly motivated by my own experience.

These non-traditional family structures are here to stay. What do you think stepfamilies, cohabitating couples with kids, and gay and lesbian couples need in order to be successful?

Trying to fit yourself into the traditional model never works. I think the biggest mistake new stepparents make is to try to operate as a traditional parent. Usually what happens is, especially with discipline, they do the discipline before the relationship has really developed. And so that sets up a bad dynamic because you need the love, the emotional connection in order for the child to respect the discipline and monitoring by the stepparent. I feel like there should be more of a backing off for everybody. Be patient and allow time for relationships to develop.

When I was contemplating getting remarried, he became way too involved with my daughter too soon and then the relationship didn’t work out. And stepfamilies do have higher rates of dissolution than traditional families. Then we are left with a child who says, “Where is the stepdad?” Well it didn’t work out. But really it was not even a year relationship. I do think that a big problem is we have the Dr. Laura view on divorce, which is people who get divorced should be punished which means they should not be dating. You should be in this self-imposed exile for your sins. You’re never supposed to bring your child around any partners. You’re never supposed to have your boyfriends or girlfriends sleep over. Basically you’re supposed to live like a monk for the next two years, which is how long people think it takes get through a divorce. I don’t agree with that. I think people move in and out of children’s lives a lot. They make new friends. So it’s not that you shouldn’t have new people in their lives, but just don’t get them too involved too soon.

And the stepparent should not get too involved. I think a lot of men do this. They want to take care of a woman and her children and be the head of household, be the disciplinarian. That’s how men are trained to be, and I think that can be bad especially if the children are really involved with their dad. For stepmoms, I think the biggest mistake there is that women are more in charge of taking care of children in the house and they put the new stepmom in that role unfairly so she is stuck with a lot of yucky routine jobs taking care of the house and the children. When that relationship should also be given time to develop. I think stepmoms have it particularly bad. I said this in my book-it’s the hardest role in a stepfamily because you have all the pressures of being a mom and all the scrutiny of being a stepmom on top of that without any of the support. So you are thrust into this role and you may not have even wanted it. You may have no experience with children, but everyone expects you to be this instantly fabulous mother.

I also think the finances should be talked about ahead. All of this should be talked about. There is one older study that shows a very tiny proportion of remarried couples actually talk about these things before they get married. They think it will all work out. I think people should talk. How are you going to manage the money? How will decisions be made? Set up some scenarios and see how you would respond and what your partner thinks of that. It’s not very romantic, but it’s a good idea.

What about the biological parents? What advice would you give them?

For women who are the biological parent in the stepfamily I think it’s easy to give up control over your own kids. And I would caution women to not do that. And same thing with biological dads. I would encourage a co-parent relationship between both biological parents. There has to be an acknowledgement that increasingly there’s going to be more of a role of the non-resident parent. And it’s better if everyone can communicate and get along. It’s asking a lot, certainly, but for the kids…I am very mixed about it. I’m a sociologist and parenting is socially constructed so you don’t necessarily have to be a biological parent to be a good parent. But because these relationships are so knew I think the biological parents are really the ones who know their child the best. Whether that’s because they are biologically related or they’ve just spent the most time with their kids. Don’t try to be an instant family. Accept who you are. And that these children are going to grow up with multiple parents which can be really good. What can be better for kids than to have more adults invested and paying attention to them as opposed to less?    

In the book Between Two Worlds, author Elizabeth Marquardt talks about how children are stuck in the middle of their biological parents. And sometimes exes don’t realize the negativity they are passing along to their children. What do you think about that?

I felt really bad today because my husband and I went to a parent-teacher conference where it was revealed that my child doesn’t seem as happy go lucky as the other kids. She’s nervous and sort of lashes out if people want to interrupt her game playing. She gets very anxious about her clothes and weird stuff like that. And as I was sitting there with my ex-husband it wasn’t going well. He was doing a lot of stuff and I was doing a lot of stuff that was really just about us. We probably looked awful to this teacher. She was really good. She said, “I always ask myself, would I be this concerned if the child had two parents who were married or is it that I know that she has to go back and forth between two parents and am I making these issues out to be more than they really are?” It’s really hard. I know better. And my ex-husband should know better. But at the same you have to be careful to not attribute all of your kid’s behaviors to the fact that she’s coming from a broken home. That’s a big mistake. Kids have their personalities. I am a nervous person by nature. So is my ex-husband. Maybe that’s just my daughter’s personality.  

I always bring up this point, too. When you look at our European counterparts in Sweden and France and Germany where they have much more family diversity, if you look at the measurements of well-being over there they do much better than us. Kids raised in Sweden, for example, chances are their parents weren’t married when they were born. Most of the parents in Sweden are co-habitating when they have their first baby and divorce rates are extremely high. Denmark has one of the highest divorce rates in the world, but if you look at all the indicators for children’s well-being, they are doing better than us academically, they have less delinquency, they have lower infant mortality. Pretty much any measure of children’s well-being, they do better than us. I think it has to do with the fact that there is a lot more support there for family diversity.

In Sweden, co-habitating couples receive the same benefits from the government as married couples. There’s national healthcare. There’s paid maternity leave for husbands and wives. There’s subsidized preschool. There’s so much more help for families. In the U.S. you’re just on your own. We consider raising families a very private matter in the United States and it’s a terrible thing. You’ve somehow failed if your children don’t turn out. You have not done your job. We have less support than pretty much any other country like us. I think for people raised in non-traditional families it’s even worse. It’s really a mistake to blame family breakdown for the problems that children have. It’s one of many factors, but maybe if we looked at families differently, took a more broad approach, then we wouldn’t have so many issues with this.

When I talk to stepfamilies it’s easy to see that the whole idea of not feeling supported really affects their self-worth.

Yes. You pass that anxiety along to your kids. You might be a more permissive parent because you feel so guilty, but that’s not good for kids. Or you might go the other way and you worry about how your child is going to be perceived. I think the guilt factor is absolutely huge. And then parents not feeling self-worth pass it down to their kids. My ex-husband thinks that divorce is the worse thing in the world. That it is the greatest tragedy. Well of course our daughter internalizes that. He believes there could be nothing worse than having divorced parents, which I don’t believe. There are many things that are negative in life and this is one. I wouldn’t call it a positive thing necessarily unless there’s a lot of conflict there. The huge weight people put on intact marriage I think is really displaced.

Your Questions Answered

27 10 2008

My stepkids’ bio mom is a total pain and I don’t want to do anything to help her. She’s sweet as can be when she’s getting what she wants, but if we say no to switching the schedule she attacks us, even though we always take the kids when she asks (for days that aren’t in our usual schedule) if we’re free. The only time we say no is when we’ve already made other plans we can’t break. How do you deal with switching days when all you want to do is tell her to go jump in a lake?

I know exactly how you feel. And so do millions of other stepmoms. If your stepkids are school-age, the calendar can cause constant friction between two households. And you know you have to accept the struggle until the kids are off to college. (I’ve got 10 years and counting!) If there’s a way you or your husband can communicate with bio mom about how her reactions are making you feel, she might actually apologize and be better about it in the future. This does happen, ladies. However, if bio mom can’t see what she’s doing to you and your husband, then you’re going to have to find a coping strategy together. Marriage researcher John Gottman found that happy couples had five positive, joyful interactions to every one negative. So your best defense is to do something wonderfully fun with your spouse.

The difficulty with the calendar is that you really can’t make hard and fast rules about switching (such as no switching without 24-hour notice) because we’re talking about kids here who need to be cared for. If doing bio mom a favor really turns you off, then think about it as a service you’re doing for the kids and for your partner. You’re giving the kids much-needed time with their dad. And you’re giving your spouse the chance to spend time with his offspring, which he most likely craves. The good news for you? There is an end in sight. Someday, you won’t have to deal with her on such a regular basis. The kids will grow up and move out. It happens. Really. It does.

How do I approach my husband if I see his children misbehaving and he doesn’t see it? He gets defensive every time I talk about his kids at all. Can you help?

Honesty is always the best approach, but sometimes guys have a hard time seeing that their defensiveness of their children is actually harming their marital relationship. Once he has that ah-ha! moment, stepmoms report that the atmosphere at home drastically improves. However, how do you get a man to see that he needs to help you all bond and not drive a bigger wedge between you?

Having a discussion about it can help, depending on how well you two can communicate. But sometimes you need an objective third party to help a parent learn how to let a stepparent in. At the same time, as the stepmom, we have to be sensitive to the fact that our stepchildren are not ours and that we don’t have the final say. We have to communicate to our spouses that we know it’s not up to us, but that we really appreciate it when they listen to our thoughts. That way we feel like we’re part of the team, part of the family. It takes a lot of trust for a parent to sit back and allow a stepparent to get involved, so you need to respect that. And your husband needs to respect your role as an adult in the house.

Stepmoms Speak

27 10 2008

I asked Laura Ruby, author of the novel I’m Not Julia Roberts (, to answer some questions about her experience being a stepmom.  

What is your greatest challenge as a stepmom? 
I think it’s the general lack of control. I’m a custodial stepmom and my husband’s two girls live with us, so I’m responsible for all the day-to-day stuff that happens with kids – meals, lessons, doctors’ appointments, help with homework, discipline etc. Yet I didn’t choose this house, the neighborhood we live in, the schools they attend, the doctors they visit, etc. I do have influence, but it’s not the same. I liken the job of a stepmom to an adjunct faculty member at a college: You have all the same responsibilities as a professor, but without the respect or the benefits. 
How do you deal with it? 
There’s the general stress-relieving activities: going for a run or a walk, taking myself to a movie, watching endless Law & Order reruns, talking to my cats, muttering darkly to myself. Mostly though, I try to remind myself that despite the frustrations, both my stepkids are happy and healthy and I enjoy them. 
Also, I redecorate a lot. : ) 
What is your greatest reward as a stepmom? 
Funny, it’s the little things that feel most rewarding to me. Like when my older stepdaughter, who’s away at school, calls me because she’s not feeling well and wants comforting. Chatting with my younger stepdaughter while we make dinner. Helping both of them dye their hair funny colors; a) it grows out and b) my hair was pink when I was a teen. 
For a stepfamily to work, everyone has to compromise. I had to get used to a new family, a new city and a new job, my stepkids had to make room for a new person in their lives, and my husband had to keep us all on an even keel. None of us has had it easy. But after more than a decade of living together, I can say that we did a pretty good job. I’m proud of us. 
How do you maintain your boundaries? 
One of the first things my husband did when I moved in is to clean out an extra bedroom, load it up with bookshelves, and call it my office. He taught the girls to knock before entering, and they always did. Whenever I felt overwhelmed or angry or resentful, I would retreat to my office to work, read, or just regroup. Having “a room of one’s own” saved my sanity. I think everyone should have one. 
What do you do to relieve stress? 
I call up a friend and talk it through. When that doesn’t work, I put on my iPod and dance around like a maniac. Hard to be stressed out when “Dancing Queen” is blasting out your eardrums.

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.

Your Questions Answered

26 10 2008

What’s a good activity for that first meeting with the kids? 

The first time you meet the kids who may become your stepchildren in the future is to plan something fun. The less pressure, the better. Ask Dad what his kids like to do. When I met my stepkids, we went to the park across the street and played. You could also have dinner and play cards or go for a bike ride. Watch out for activities that take up too much time. For instance, an all-day trip to an amusement park is probably a bit too intense for a first meeting.

What’s the best way to help discipline your stepchildren in a way that establishes you as an authority in the house but doesn’t step on the biological mother’s toes? 

Dad is your best resource. He needs to make it clear to his children that you are another adult in the house and that he expects them to be respectful of you. Then you and Dad set up the house rules together, away from the kids. The list should include mostly rules the kids are used to living by and some new ones that make you feel at home. Then Dad presents the list to the kids so you aren’t the bad guy. Because they are house rules, when you enforce them, kids are more likely to respond. If possible, the kids’ biological parents should be talking to each other so the rules in both houses are fairly similar. If you are conscious of Mom’s feelings and respectful of the way she has chosen to raise her children, hopefully conflict will be minimal.

Can you recommend ways to meet other women in similar situations so I can find people to share stories and advice with? 

There are several stepmom websites where women go to look for advice and discuss issues on the forums there; just beware the negativity you’ll find in some of them. You can also check out the stepfamily therapists and counselors in your area. For instance, in Minneapolis, Dr. Ann Orchard runs stepmom education classes. Many of the women who meet in her classes continue meeting for support and camaraderie afterward. Check here for a list of resources.