10 Things Step Parents Can Do to
Strengthen the Relationships in a Blended Family
Step parenting is challenging. No question. Here are some tips that can help create less turmoil and stronger bonds in your blended family.
1. Take care of your relationship with your partner.
All relationships need care to keep the connection strong and the fire of love burning bright.
Think bonfire. Build the fire and feed it. If the fire is out, you start with paper and twigs and a spark. You may need to try again. Add bigger sticks and branches until you have the fire burning well. Add fuel as needed to provide warmth and a place to burn up things you no longer need and cook good ideas into form.
When you are nurturing children, the need for care of your relationship is even greater. The swirl of endless demands on your time, energy and emotional resources can take a heavy toll on the bonds between partners. This sense of connection is worth creating and nurturing as it can create a sense of purpose and pleasure as well as smooth out many of the challenges that arise.
Back in the 1990’s, I had an old Plymouth Voyager. One day the bold that secured one of the shock absorbers fell out and the shock absorber hung limp and useless. The littlest bump would cause a loud band as the spring bottomed out. The springs still worked to a degree, but it was a dangerous, noisy, bumpy ride. Spending time with your partner restores your shock absorbers.
In a blended family, the challenges and relationships are all the more complex and difficult. Feelings of protectiveness and conflicts over loyalty can seem insurmountable, but there are solutions. They begin with taking care of your relationship with your spouse.
Nurture Romance. Find time to be alone. Create a date night where you don’t talk about the children or problems. Talk about the things you love about each other. Talk about your first days, months together and the things that drew you together. Talk about your hopes and dreams. Laugh. Snuggle. Read to each other. Rediscover the things you love to do with and for each other.
Listening is not the same as waiting to talk. It involves the desire to understand. Listen to know of the other person’s experience of their day, their relationships, happenings and frustrations in the family, whatever they want to share. Get curious.
Listen. Listen. Listen. Listen without arguing or agreeing, without defending or taking sides, without advising or correcting. Keep the focus on what is really going on with the other person. Ask them questions that help them go deeper and listen some more. Ask them what they wish would happen. Ask them to tell you one good thing from their day.
We all want to be heard. We all want to be understood. Give that as a gift to your family. Separate your own need to be heard. It is important and deserves a time, but just for now, give the gift of listening.
This is not the same as complaining or blaming. Try forming your sentences like this – When ____ happened, I felt _____. Talk about your frustrations, but commit yourself to also sharing your joy. There are good things all around you. Get in the habit of noticing and mentioning them. If you need to share difficult experiences, focus on what happened and how you felt not on what others did wrong. Be vulnerable and dare to be seen with all of your heartaches and your joys.
4. Perform Random Acts of Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty.
Do it often. Daily. Pick a flower. Write a note. Give in those small ways that makes your partner feel loved. Ask your partner what makes them feel loved. Do it fully and freely. Enjoy the feeling of giving. Ask your partner what makes them feel loved. Do the same for the children. Small acts of kindness are easy to give and sometimes more easily received than large efforts especially when bonds are new. This kind of giving is for the purpose of giving, not for the purpose of getting something in return.
5.Have your partner’s back.
It is important for the parent and step-parent to provide a unified front. This shows the children that the parents are in charge and, despite what the children might say to the contrary, gives them a feeling of security. It is okay for your kids to know you need to delay a decision until you can talk with your partner. If disagreements over rules occur, try your very best not to criticize each other in front of the children. Come to an agreement about how things are going to be handled and present them as “We have decided…”
Better yet, hold family meetings and make rules and decisions together. Hold all family members to following through on agreements made in family meetings.
6. Take care of your relationship with the children.
Being genuinely interested in children, their thoughts, feelings and what is happening in their world is the best way to deepen bonds with them and help them feel loved. (Isn’t this true with all of us?)
Spend time with your children. Find out what they like to do. Discover common interests they share with the step parent and encourage activities they can enjoy with the step parent or with the whole family.
Make sure that the biological parent has the opportunity for time alone with their children. Children in a blended family may really miss this kind of time and it is important to make time and emotional space for it.
The step parent can foster bonds with the children by listening and learning what their interests, concerns, needs are. It’s great to offer help, but don’t jump in and do things without asking them first. Talk with them about what they would like to call you – explore the possibilities and be open.
7.Never. Never. Never. Never make disparaging remarks about the other parent.
Just don’t do it.
You can honor the feelings of others without fueling judgment and criticism. These things are simply not helpful. The other parent is still their mom or dad and your best position is one which desires a good relationship between your children and their other parent. In some cases, that is just not possible in the present, but things change. If relationships are difficult, your criticism only makes it worse. If relationships are good, your criticism can cause great stress, turmoil and resentment in your children.
My divorce was hostile for years. My list of complaints was endless (as, probably, was his). My mentor at the time told me that that the only person I could change was myself and that if I changed toward him, the relationship would change.
I knew he was right, but It was so hard. I began just by greeting him politely and step by step, the relationship did change.
When my son turned 16, I asked him what he wanted for his birthday. He said he wanted the whole family to be together.
It was not easy that first time, but I held an outdoor birthday party/barbecue and everyone was polite and focused on my son and he was peaceful and happy. Since then there have been countless family gatherings and it is comfortable now. It is not as if we will ever be best friends. We have just gone so far in different directions. But my children get to have both of their parents, without conflict or having to choose. And I am at peace, which is worth everything to me.
8. For the step parent, take some time away.
While it is good to look for opportunities to genuinely bond with and enjoy the children, don’t try so hard to make everyone happy that you lose sight of your own happiness. Children know when you are being genuine and they will usually respond to that. Children also know when you need them to like you and will resist or manipulate you.
Find supportive people with whom you can share your concerns or join a support group for step parents. Get ideas and find out what has worked for other families.
9. Keep some old family traditions and create some new ones. Talk as a family about how to celebrate holidays, birthdays, special occasions. Try not to change too quickly things that are really important to family members. Be creative. Create new occasions. Look closely at your family’s ways of having fun and build on them.
Where the ex-partner is concerned, let go of everything but the love given and the love received. People do as well as they know how. When they know better, they do better. I don’t know of anyone who has been led to better behavior by way of the hostility of others. I do know of people who grew kinder, more responsible by being loved. If there is abuse involved, you must of course protect the children. You can keep good boundaries and still be kind.
Resentment is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies. ~ Saint Augustine
Please feel free to leave comments or questions below. I would love to hear from you.