With two of three remarriages ending in divorce, it’s clearly challenging to successfully create a happy and lasting stepfamily. Preparation and good communication go a long way to helping you overcome the challenges of re-marriage, blending families, and stepparenting

By Jeffrey Cottrill

Stepfamilies are very different than a “traditional” family where all the children have the same parents and require new rules, guidelines and agreements than you might have been able to use before. Experts say that clear, all-inclusive plans are necessary to make a stepfamily work. Who spends time with whom, and when? What rules apply to everybody; what rules don’t? What is everybody’s role in the family? What are the budgeting/disciplinary/recreational systems?

“The couple needs to establish ground rules, like a business plan, and both partners have to agree on those rules and schedules,” says Jeannette Lofas, Ph.D., LCSW, the president and founder of The Stepfamily Foundation. “A common error is when the couple has no rules at all. But every one of us has internal rules, and if a situation doesn’t function as you want, you get uncomfortable. Time should be allotted for the parent and children, and for the couple.”

“Communication is so important,” stresses Margorie Engel, MBA, Ph.D., the former president of the Stepfamily Association of America. “It’s essential that the couple talk together on how the household will operate. The natural parent should provide the information to his or her own children on house rules, so that it doesn’t look like the ‘bad stepparent’ taking over.” You may experience initial — if not continual — hostility from your stepchildren if they feel you’re trying to replace one of their natural parents. “It’s important for your stepchildren to understand that you’re not a replacement for the lost parent, but an addition,” she says.

Dr. Lofas points out that children of divorce may be less than thrilled about their parent marrying someone new. “They’ve experienced the losses of their original family and one biological parent,” she explains. “Stepparents need to know that some of the things kids say are normal. They see themselves as rivals for love: ‘who comes first, daddy, the new wife, or me?'”

Some anger, sadness, or acting out is perfectly normal for children of divorce. As a stepparent, you need to stay calm, kind, and adult in the face of outbursts — and to avoid getting “hooked” by the hurtful things your stepchildren say or do to you. They have a right to their feelings — but they do not have a right to be verbally or physically abusive to you. “Be very kind to your stepchildren, and validate any feelings they may be having about their parents’ divorce, but do not be a doormat,” recommends Diana Shepherd, Editorial Director of Divorce Magazine and stepmother of three. “Make it crystal-clear that you expect to be treated with the same courtesy you extend to them. This is definitely a two-way street: if you’re rude to them, you can expect rudeness in return. So establish ground-rules early on about what is — and what is not — acceptable behavior.”

Shepherd also recommends taking parenting counseling with your partner. “It’s really important that you’re on the same page in terms of your expectations. Talking to a parent about his/her children can be a delicate matter, and arguments about the kids can cause a rift in your relationship. A parenting counselor can give you objective advice based on years of training and experience. The counselor isn’t on your side or your spouse’s side: he/she is looking at what’s best for the children.” This objective advice tends to turn down the heat in discussions about hot-button issues such as discipline.

The biological parent should always be the head disciplinarian in a stepfamily, so don’t expect to immediately become an authority figure to your partner’s children. According to Dr. Peter Marshall, child psychologist and author of Cinderella Revisited: How to Survive your Stepfamily without a Fairy Godmother , “you can’t get too involved with discipline too soon, because that’s almost inviting children to say, ‘you’re not my father/mother! You can’t tell me what to do!’ You do need to have a measure of authority as an adult, but you have to ease into parenting, developing your role slowly. Children accept their biological parents first because they have met the kids’ needs and taken care of them. When the natural parents exercise discipline, it’s based on an emotional attachment, an established relationship.”

Jeffrey Cottrill is the former Managing Editor of Divorce Magazine.

See related articles:
The Challenges of Re-Marrying and Becoming a Step-parent
How Blended Families Differ from Nuclear Families
Stepfamily Dynamics