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Step children: How to parent beyond the stereotype

Stan Byrne
July 10, 2012

I first met my stepdaughter 15 years ago. When Mercedes climbed into the backseat of her dad’s car that day, she was a few days shy of starting grade four and cute as a button. But sitting in the front seat, I suddenly felt completely out of my depth. I didn’t have any experience with step parents — other than reading Cinderella, and that was no help.

Since then, however, Mercedes has brought an incredible amount of joy to my family, and our relationship is easily one of the best aspects of my life. So in honour of this often maligned parent figure, here are five time-tested tips for being a great stepparent:
1. Team work
Rather than trying to solve issues that arise by yourself, tackle them as a team. “The key to a successful blended family is stability, predictability and presenting a united front as a couple,” says psycho-therapist Sandra Pribanic.

Hayley Jakob,* mother of five, including two stepdaughters, agrees. “I will usually not discipline the girls without my husband’s participation," she says. "If they have done something that I feel warrants intervention, I will discuss it with him beforehand, and we will address it together.”

Indeed, most seasoned stepparents learn to step back from disciplining the children. As James Simpson,* father of two boys and two stepchildren, puts it, “I am not the disciplinarian, but I am an adult figure in the house and I support my wife. I try to model the behaviour I want to see.”
2. Don’t take it personally 
A new marriage or relationship can be exhilarating and wonderful, but many children feel confused, left out, and angry about the enormous changes this entails. “Children are affected when a parent remarries, regardless of their age,” says Pribanic. “Discuss your function and place in the family with your partner and the ex so that the children aren’t caught in the middle.” And if your stepchild's emotions lead to some harsh criticism of you or your actions, remain empathetic towards her pain, and let petty comments slide off your back.

3. Spend and encourage quality time
Give your time generously to your step children, remembering that your spouse probably had more time for them before you came along. Step aside sometimes, too, and encourage special activities for the kids and your spouse to do without you.

And since blended families often mean extra appointments, carpools and responsibilities, don't forget to spend quality time with your spouse. As the kids get older, you may want to get away together (even close to home). "Take time every year to get away with your partner," Jakob suggests. "Unlike ‘conventional’ families, step families are nuanced and it is so important to validate the partnership.”
4. Listen and Learn
It is your job to get to know your step child, not the other way around. Ask questions, listen, and follow up on conversations. You don’t need to speak about heavy topics. It's the every-day stuff that builds trust and camaraderie.

Talking to your spouse about parenting styles will also help. “I was handed a few parenting books when I moved in, and reading them was the best thing I could have done — for my biological children, as well," Simpson recalls. "I had to educate myself in order to be on the same page as my wife.”
5. Think long term
Sometimes children have to reach adulthood before accepting a step parent. It is, indeed, a special relationship that is built over the course of years, not months or days. From personal experience, Jakob knows how much things can change from the difficult first years as a stepparent. “In the beginning, I loved the girls so quickly and so furiously as ‘my own,’ and they were more resistant to me as a parent," she says. "But now, I feel much more reciprocity in our relationship. They turn to me as a parent; we are very, very close.” Commit to loving your stepchildren unconditionally and the rest will come. Eventually.

Want to talk to other stepparents? Join the Step Parenting board in our forums.
*The names have been changed by request.

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