Navigating The Tricky Waters of Being a Stepdad

Navigating the tricky waters of being a stepdad

The American family is evolving. Fifty years ago, a nuclear family of two biological parents and children was the norm. But divorce rates and growing numbers of single parents have opened up more opportunities for the formation of step-families (one biological parent, one non-biological parent plus children of the biological parent).

Today, over 50 percent of families include partners who have remarried or recoupled, and 1,300 stepfamilies are being formed every day. Some predict that the number of stepfamilies will eventually exceed nuclear families.

Step-families that consist of a father, stepmother and his biological children make up only about 15 percent of all step-families. The most common composition of step-families – about 85 percent – consists of a mother, her biological children and a stepfather.

Families with a stepfather, then, constitute a disproportionate number of step-families. But stepfathers seem to have a particularly difficult time becoming integrated into the family unit. As a family counsellor who has researched step families for over 25 years, I’ve found that many stepfathers have misguided expectations about the role they’re supposed to play.

Three primary misconceptions

Practitioners of cognitive therapy believe that people often act or behave based on previously held assumptions.

Unless someone understands their own underlying assumptions, it’s unlikely they’ll change their behaviour. So a key aspect of cognitive therapy is getting people to explore and understand their assumptions. It’s the first step toward changing destructive or self-defeating behaviours, and this approach forms the foundation of my latest book, “Stepping In, Stepping Out: Creating Step family Rhythm.”

So what misconceptions do stepfathers seem to possess? I’ve found that three social myths seem to undergird their assumptions.

1. Being a stepfather is just like being a biological father.

Being a stepfather is nothing like being a father, even if the stepfather is also a biological father. Because the stepchildren did not “pick” their stepfather – and might simultaneously feel conflicted about their attachments to their biological father – they will likely be wary about affection toward and receiving discipline from the stepfather.

In the end, a stepfather has no history or legacy with these children. So it’s pretty normal for a stepfather to experience feelings of being unwanted, dismissed or peripheral; but it’s also important for the stepfather to recognise that this isn’t a reflection of his capacity as a man or father.

2. A stepfather needs to establish authority, and discipline the children if necessary.

Stepfathers might wish to assume the “hard hand” in the family. Their wives might even want them to. But this is almost impossible to effectively do. The foundation for effective authority and discipline is trust, but because stepfathers lack prior experience with the stepchildren, they haven’t developed the trust necessary to mete out discipline.

Instead, in step-families, it’s the responsibility of the biological parent – with the stepparent providing input – to create, relate and enforce family expectations. A united parenting approach can be helpful, but the mother should be the base of authority.

3. Stepfathers need to compensate for the absent biological father.

I’ve found that most attempts at coming between children and an absent father will backfire – and result only in acrimony toward the stepfather.

Stepfathers cannot define themselves by what another man did (or didn’t do). In addition, any overt comparison with the absent father will generate more ill will than gratitude. In instances when the biological father plays a prominent co-parenting role, it’s wise to step aside to allow the father and children the special time that each needs – and to respect the role that that absent father still holds in the affections of the children.

There’s still an important role to play

While it’s critical for stepfathers to understand they aren’t a replacement for the biological father, they can play a supportive role in the home by being a patient and caring presence. By simply maintaining a healthier marriage than the one demonstrated by the kids’ biological parents, stepfathers can be a positive role model.

In the end, it’s a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge comes in rejecting previously held beliefs about what it means to be a father. Stepfathers – and I count myself as one – must avoid outmoded notions of compensating for the absent biological father or paternal dominance.

The opportunity comes in devising a parenting role that expresses the best and fullest aspects of being a man and a father figure. Done consciously and deliberately, the role and function of the stepfather can be tremendously fulfilling for all, and a source of lifelong joy and pride.

The 6 Don’ts of Being a Stepdad

Stepdads are often ignored in the literature because so much of the focus is on stepmothers. Since June is the time to honour dads, I want to focus this article on stepdads. 

Men who marry women with children take on a role that not many could possibly be prepared for. While you most likely come into this with all good intentions to be the man of the household, you might wonder why you feel left out and why your stepchildren and wife are often upset with you or siding against you. This is very hurtful and perplexing for many stepdads.

When I talk with stepdads, I generally find men who want to have some role in the lives of their stepchildren. They want a male role in the household, but, like all of us, those roles are based on either what we imagine the father role in a family should be or what we had growing up. When we take those ideas with us into a marriage where children already exist, stepdads are often left confused and hurt.

If you are a stepfather, here are some things that may help you to know and understand:

1. Don’t expect to be the disciplinarian of the family. You might expect that your wife and her kids will put you on even footing now that you have moved in together. You expect that they welcome your ideas about disciplining and about how a family should function. But, be careful. You can find yourself resented for the very role that you thought you were to fulfill.

Research tells us that a stepparent should not be the primary disciplinarian until he has built a level of trust, love, and care with the children. That may not be for several years if the children are young, and it may never happen if the children are older.

Instead, work with your wife to develop household rules with consequences. These rules should include what everyone in the house needs to do (i.e., keep the living room clean and clean up the dishes after eating) and rules for each child. Keep in mind that living together may represent changes children were never ready to make, so changing how they do things might be met with resistance. 

Be sure to meet as a family and talk about the rules, and include the kids in the discussion so they can participate. When a rule is broken, you can then talk to the child about breaking a rule instead of disciplining him. As one adult stepchild shared with me, “I could have followed the rules of the house, I just couldn’t follow his rules.”

2. Don’t take it personally if your step-kids act out. It is likely, at some point, you will feel like your step-kids are rallying against you. It could be when you move in, when you try to take on the role of the dad, when you appear “better than” their bio dad, when they assume you hate their bio dad, or when they come back from a visit with their dad and feel loyalty binds. 

They may act out when you get married because then they will know for certain that their fantasy of their parents ever getting back together will never happen (and, remember, deep down all kids have this fantasy). Turbulence between you and your step-kids can come in the forms of acting out, defiance, talking back, and not adhering to rules. Rarely is a child evolved or mature enough to handle the complex feelings that come from being in a step-family.

Of course you are going to feel your feelings of hurt and anger. And when the kids act out, you are going to feel a loss of control – and no one likes to lose control. I cannot tell you how many times anyone in the role of stepparent will throw their hands up in the air and say, “I cannot take this one more day!” 

But take a deep breath, and then take a step back and breathe again. Rather than saying to yourself, “What an ingrate,” just think about what might be going on for the child at this time. Is what appears to be resistance an expectation that he or she will just accept all the changes in family roles and not have a chance to be heard? If you can talk to your step-kid without being accusing, you might be very surprised with what you end up hearing.

3. Don’t take on the role of the bad guy, even if your wife wants to put you there. Some women want to be the good parent and don’t want to be the heavy with disciplining, and will put you in the role of the bad guy. You may come in and take that role as a stepdad, but more than likely it will backfire on you, and either your spouse or your step-kids will hate you for it.

If you feel like you are the bad guy and really don’t want that role, talk to your wife about the problem without criticising her or accusing her of being a “bad” parent. Talk about how you are going to handle this “together.” The strongest parenting happens when there is a team in the household. 

If you and your partner develop the rules and the consequences when those rules are broken, then you can support one another to implement the consequences. You certainly get to have a say in what goes on because you live there, too. Your wife needs to know that if she leaves you alone in implementing the rules and consequences, it can only hurt your relationship.

4. Don’t expect that your stepchildren will like or appreciate everything you do for them. Kids are usually disrespectful anyway. They may learn to say “please” and “thank you,” but most are ruder to their own parents. Once you move from the role of being the new guy or the boyfriend into the step position, guess what? There’s a good chance they’ll be rude to you, too! Congratulations! You’re now in real life with kids.

What you have to remember is that most kids didn’t want their parents to divorce because it makes life much harder on them in ways you probably don’t even think about. Research shows that most kids wish their parents stayed together so they don’t have to live in two different households, so they don’t have to feel split and loyalty binds that are uncomfortable, and so they don’t have to “hear” one parent (or stepparent) talk badly about their other parent. These pressures are often far too difficult for children.

Also remember a golden rule of parenting, and especially of step-parenting: don’t take things too personally. If this were that easy, I wouldn’t have to say it. I’ve said it to myself as a mantra many times. It’s hard but, trust me, it helps. So bite your tongue, click your heels together, and say your mantra (“I won’t take it personally, I won’t take it personally”) over and over until you calm down.

When you are calm, you and your partner can talk (either alone or together) with the kids about respect. Say something along the lines of, “I treat you with respect. I wouldn’t be rude to you or not thank you. And I would like you to treat me the same way.”

5. Don’t live in the fantasy that you will have the role of the dad like you expect. Your expectations will often be unrealised, and you will be unhappy. Kids in step-families who have a dad around will often feel disloyal if they love you. Kids think in very black and white terms — “If I like Jack, then that means I don’t love dad.” It becomes uncomfortable and confusing for them. This is often an intolerable position, and you may be trying to develop a relationship only to find you are being rejected. While this hurts, and I know it does, it often isn’t personal.

Instead of trying to be or compete with their actual dad, keep trying to develop a friendship with your step-kid. If your step-kid goes to ballgames with his dad, you can develop something else to do with him – something that can be just about you two. This may take your step-kid out of a loyalty bind because kids can handle other relationships, they just can’t handle the ones that cause them to feel disloyal.

6. Don’t let your step-kids feel rejected by you. Try to consider that when you are upset at the behaviour of your step-kids, they feel your dislike far stronger than they will feel the same anger from their own parents. This is because you don’t have the history or the bond with them that tells them, deep down, that you love and care for them. 

Kids don’t like to not feel loved and cared about, and they are always ready to feel rejected. None of us like to feel rejected – in fact, it’s often why we, as the adults, become angry in a step-family system. But, really, we cannot expect a mere child to figure this out and do the right thing.

Just for a second, imagine that when you were a child you were living with an adult who you knew didn’t really love you. Then imagine how it would feel if that adult was angry at you or gave you the “glare” we give when we’re mad at someone. When our parents are angry with us or give us the “look,” we at least know they love us. The parent-child bond goes a long way. But this bond doesn’t extend to you and your step-kids, and can leave them feeling rejected. Try to talk with your stepchildren about their behaviour in a way that makes them feel heard and understood. When you can talk to your stepchild from a place of understanding, it can go a long way to developing a bond between you.

Remember, raising someone else’s kids is very, very hard. What is most important is that you can talk with your partner and express your hurt and frustration. Be sure to do that in a way where you aren’t blaming her, but so you can problem solve together. I know you could not have known how hard the role of stepfather would be. But you got involved because you love your partner, and this is the most precarious and important connection. 

So take the time to remember why you love her and recommit to one another. The stronger the love, the more you can survive any turbulence with your stepkids. With enough patience and time, a relationship with your stepkids will follow. 

Just don’t give up!