Ron L. Deal
We all like to know what is expected of us, especially regarding our family role. Stepparents (found in about 30% of all US homes) often discover that the ambiguous nature of their role makes for great frustration. Being a smart stepparent starts by knowing your place in the family.
Knowing Your Place
First, recognize that you are an added parent figure in the child’s life; you are not a “replacement” parent. Children who feel that their biological parent is being “pushed out” by you will resist your influence. Instead, honor and encourage the biological connection.
In addition, realize that a child’s openness to you determines the pace at which you can move into their heart, and therefore, the amount of influence and affection you can share. While acting in loving ways facilitates bonding, the child’s level of openness to you is dependent upon factors that are in many ways out of your control: age of the child, relationship with the noncustodial parent, parenting style of the biological parent, and amount of time spent in the stepparent’s home. Therefore, flexibility is key to finding the best stepparenting fit. Listen to the child’s openness cues (words and actions) and respond in kind. For example, if the child calls you “mommy” by all means allow it; if that label isn’t comfortable for the child, don’t demand they use it.
As emotional connections with a child develop over time, stepparents can move through the following roles. Like the gradual acceleration of a train, stepparents slowly gain momentum, progressing from one role to another as their relationship with the child deepens. The challenge is to accept your current level of relationship while optimistically (“I think I can, I think I can”) moving forward.
The Babysitter Role. An adult has relational power once a child has come to trust and respect them. When the child feels safe with the adult and has developed an emotional attachment, they respond to the adult out of connection and love. Stepparents must earn this level of influence over time; it cannot be demanded. Until then, accept that you are limited to positional power like a teacher, coach, or children’s minister. Babysitters, for example, have influence only if parents give them power by communicating to the children that she is in charge while the parent(s) is away. The same is initially true for stepparents. A biological father, for example, can empower a stepmother, by saying, "She knows the rules and if you disobey her, you are disobeying me. She has my permission to enforce the consequences.” This borrowed power allows the stepparent behavioral management of the children while initially focusing their energies on relationship building. Then, another level of bonding can be achieved.
The "uncle/aunt" role. When a moderate relationship has developed, stepparents can relate to the child like an uncle or aunt. When my sister Cherilyn visits, she carries some authority with my children because she's their aunt. She is not a full-fledged parent in their hearts, but she carries a unique influence because to them, she’s family. When stepparents achieve this level of connection, they can become more authoritative, deepen emotional bonds, and share greater physical affection with the child.
The “Mutual Benefit” Parent Role. Eventually, some stepparents gain significant "parental authority” with some stepchildren. Younger children tend to grant stepparents this status more quickly than adolescents (think years not months). Yet it is worth the effort as waiting produces mutual benefits.
The Friend/Mentor Role. Later-life stepparents with adult stepchildren and part-time stepparents (with limited visitation) often find that being a friend or mentor with children is best. Like a father-in-law who seeks to encourage and support without over stepping boundaries, this role works best for stepparents who have limited time with children or have adult stepchildren.
God’s Provision for a Child
“It took me years to appreciate what my stepfather did for me,” said Jennifer. Now a 28 year-old mother, Jennifer was reflecting on how awkward it was at 13 to embrace her mother’s marriage and the family’s move to a small Arkansas community. “He provided for us and loved me—even when I wouldn’t give him any credit. I just couldn’t let myself love him for a while. I don’t know why; I just couldn’t. But eventually I relaxed and let him in, and now, we have an awesome relationship. What a blessing he has been in my life.”
Like adoptive parents for a child without a home, stepparents can be God’s provision for a child who has been through a series of difficult transitions. Finding your fit may not be easy, but for the child and yourself, it is well worth the effort.
Ron L. Deal is President of Smart Stepfamilies and author of The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to Healthy Family. This article was originally written for and published by Focus on the Family magazine.