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How to Stepparent

Tips for a healthy stepparent relationship

When Lisa Fulfor remarried, she expected family life to be just like it had been with her intact family — only bigger (the mother of three would now be a mother of five ages 7 to 14) and better!

“Boy was I wrong,” the Frisco mom admits. “I am a social worker; I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t get the seven people in my blended family to get along.”

This was new territory for Fulfor. And she’s one of the roughly 42 million Americans who remarry, according to a recent Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. That’s two in 10 new marriages. So 40 percent of U.S. households are in a step situation.

“Blended families are becoming the norm,” says Katie Hilton, therapist and owner of Transitions Counseling Services in Frisco.

But taking on the role of stepparent — and loving someone else’s kids — is no easy feat. It’s one of the most difficult jobs. Step-parents struggle with feelings of guilt for not loving their stepchildren immediately, and they can feel like an interloper in an established family unit, among other challenges, notes Dr. Wendy Helker, who lives in Flower Mound but trains counselors, teachers and parents on relationships throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area. So the experience can actually be very isolating.

“Stepmoms who have difficulty bonding or feel judged or shamed may become depressed, and unfortunately, that’s not unusual,” Hilton says.

In fact, a recent study found that stepmoms, in general, have significantly greater feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and depression than biological mothers.

So what can stepmoms (really, all stepparents) do? 

“Let go of the idea of the happy blended family,” Helker advises. “Be patient with yourself and with your stepchildren.”

Research shows that it takes stepparents an average three to five years to build a new relationship with stepchildren.

Grace Thomas, a therapist with Reconnecting Relationships Therapy in Fort Worth says that blending a family is a lot like crockpot cooking: It’s best to keep the heat low and let it happen slowly.

“Women often try to put everyone together in a blender and make the perfect smoothie right away,” she says. “But what we should be doing is looking at every family member as a different vegetable in the crockpot. Each is going to warm and soften up at different times, so just like you can’t force ingredients to do things, you can’t push kids — or yourself — into relationships. It takes time to gain trust and to bond.”

It’s important to first remember that this family grew out of loss through divorce, desertion or death. None of them pleasant, and everyone needs time to process and grieve the loss.

So lower your expectations and then lower them again, and heed this advice:

WAIT IT OUT.

Come in too strong, “and kiddos feel like you’re trying to replace the missing parent; take too much of a step back, and you’re a cold fish,” Hilton explains. “As women we want to nurture and build these relationships right away, but that’s not recommended here.”

Fulfor, who works with Hilton at Transitions Counseling Services, says stepparents need to get to know their stepchildren as individuals. She and her stepson grew close seeing movies together. “Afterward, we’d have a long discussion about it,” she says. “This simple activity really strengthened our bond and connection with one another.”

RESPECT ROLES.

Don’t be the disciplinarian. That’s not your job. Hilton says the biological parents should handle most of the communication about rules. “Stepmom can play the role of a visiting aunt or friend,” she says. “She needs to be respected, but she’s not going to jump in right away when correcting a behavior. That comes later.”

But Fulfor says it’s a fine line. “You don’t want step kids thinking they can walk all over you, so set boundaries and hold the kids accountable,” she says.

FOCUS ON THE RELATIONSHIP WITH YOUR SPOUSE.

“My husband and I were spending so much time, money and energy trying to make all five kids happy, and it wasn’t working,” Fulfor laments. “We were exhausted.”

Research points to an overwhelmingly strong link between family functioning and couple functioning, she says. But re-partnered couples have a distinct disadvantage compared to first-time couples, who typically get to build a bond before kids arrive. Spend time with your spouse, communicate with each other, maintain a close relationship and always present a united front.

“Kiddos are smart,” Hilton says. “If they sense a break in the system, they’ll manipulate the situation.”

DON’T NEGLECT SELF-CARE.

“Talk to a counselor, your spouse or a friend,” Hilton says. “Just being able to share and open up is so impactful. It can make women feel validated, so don’t sit in silence.”

Fulfor admits that she didn’t know any other stepparents before becoming one, “and friends had the attitude, ‘you knew what you were getting into,’” she says. She found comfort at work, talking with a colleague who was also a stepparent and could empathize with her feelings. “It was reassuring to know I wasn’t alone in my step-parenting journey.”