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How to Be a Super Stepdad

Recent research estimates that one-third of Americans are stepparents, stepchildren, stepsiblings, or some other member of a stepfamily. That's a lot of reshuffled people trying to make it work together. And the number is growing. Some stepdads can integrate in their new children's lives almost seamlessly. More often than not, however, stepdads have to negotiate a mine field of resentment and conflicting loyalties, the children's relationship with or memory of their biological dad, and overprotective feelings towards their mother.

Stepfamilies tend to experience most of their troubles in the first two years. According to an article in Psychology Today, 60 percent of marriages involving children from previous marriages fail (as opposed to 50 percent for first marriages without children). But after five years, stepfamilies are more stable than first-marriage families, because second marriages are generally happier than first marriages.

Above all, realize that becoming a stepfather is a gradual process. The wedding vows bound you to your new wife and her children, but the emotional process of becoming a family unit takes much longer. So respect that slow timeline, don't rush any changes, and above all, give the children time to adjust.

Communication is key. Talk to the kids and really listen to what they say (and don't say). Talk to their mother to find out what they like, what they don't like and their individual temperaments. If there are multiple children, you may find yourself at different stages with different children. The youngest may take to you right away, the middle child may be cautious but welcoming, while the teenager may be resentful and hostile. This is normal and shouldn't concern you. You will probably always have slightly different relationships with each of the children. Accept each relationship for what it is.

Here are some more tips to help you build healthy and loving relationships with your stepchildren.

  • NEVER talk badly about the biological father. Even if he was a loser and a jerk to the kids and/or their mother. The kids may still side with dad just because he's their dad and you will end up looking like a cad.

  • Play second-string to mom when it comes to discipline. You don't have the luxury of inherent authority with your step-kids so disciplining them will be a fine line you must walk, especially in the beginning. You have authority because you are an adult, but defer to the kids' mom when laying down the law. But when she's not around, you can still offer firm reminders and reference their mom's decisions.

  • Let the kids set the pace. You can't force them to love you; it is a process and it can be a long, slow one. They have been through a lot, whether their biological dad died or their parents divorced. They may still be recovering from the loss. And if their mom was single for many years, your presence may be even more jarring. They've gotten used to having their mom all to themselves and possibly taking on a pseudo-adult role in the family. Don't force the kids to call you "dad," let them call you whatever comes naturally.

  • Spend time together, and apart. Carve out time to spend with the kids to really get to know them and give them a chance to get to know you. But also respect the need for the kids to spend time alone with their mother.

  • Understand that coming together as a new family will take time and may result in a group dynamic very different from your original vision of a family. Don't try to blend your separate family traditions - that may leave everyone dissatisfied and frustrated. Instead, create new traditions for your new family.

  • Lower your expectations. Step families do not need to be replicas of biological families. It's okay for them to be different and unique. The kids may never feel as close to you as they do their biological dad, and that's okay. The goal is to create a harmonious, healthy, functioning family group.

  • Don't try to buy their affection. Buying the kids tons of presents and spoiling them will not make them love you, it will simply teach them how to manipulate you and they'll end up resenting you in the end.

  • Be conscious of unequal attention or time spent on biological children as opposed to the stepkids. Don't lavish attention, praise or gifts on one or the other - that will quickly drive a wedge through the center of your family and put the kids in competition with each other (more than they inherently are).

Above all, remember that, just like life, coming together as a stepfamily is a journey, not a destination. Your relationships with your stepchildren will be forever evolving and changing. Your role as stepdad is to respect the past, be emotionally available in the present, and do your best to build a healthy relationship for the future.



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