By Christine Murray, PhD, LPC, LMFT, Director of the Healthy Relationships Initiative
Our Healthy Relationships Initiative (HRI) team is excited to partner with Triad Moms on Main on this blog series. In this series, we offer general guidance to relationship or family questions submitted by TMoM community members. If you’ve got a question to ask, please share it anonymously here.
Do you have any tips for being a stepmother? I have two children of my own and am marrying a man with two more children who are a bit older than mine and are in middle school. We will have them 50% of the time. I’m already worried about the discipline part of it and knowing when to step in and when not to! ~ Stepmom-To-Be
Kudos to you for being proactive in thinking ahead about how to manage this major transition that’s coming up in your family! I’ve addressed a similar topic in a response to a previous question on the transition to becoming a stepparent, so I suggest you check out that post for some general pointers about this transition, including the discipline issue. That post also provides a link to the National Stepfamily Resource Center, which may be a great source of information for you as you make this upcoming transition.
In this post, I’ll delve deeper into some of the transition issues that stepfamilies face, especially navigating discipline differences and fostering positive relationships among new stepsiblings. Relationships among your and your husband’s children will have a big influence on the overall transition to becoming a stepfamily. As I shared in the first post on becoming a stepparent, it’s important for you and your husband to have regular, one-on-one conversations in which you can talk through different aspects of the stepfamily transition. One of the biggest hurdles for stepfamilies can be coming up with a discipline plan that respects different family dynamics but also fosters consistency and connection among the children.
Before you get married, it’s likely that each of you have slightly (or vastly!) different styles for disciplining your children, and this is especially true since you mentioned the children’s age differences. In addition, discipline in a stepfamily can get complicated when there’s shared custody with other parents, and that’s another important piece for you and your soon-to-be husband to discuss as well.
You can foster a positive connection among the new stepsiblings by having consistent rules in your home, as well as by having open communication with the children about any differences among them regarding the rules. For example, the older children may be given more freedoms than the younger ones, and you can explain this to the children so they understand why the rules may differ between them based on their ages.
Different sets of rules for different children can lead to chaos in a stepfamily, so try to build a shared set of rules and consequences to guide behaviors in your family. It can be useful to keep these broad so they can address a range of issues, like “In this house, we treat each other with kindness and respect,” “We clean up the messes we make and contribute to household chores,” and “We respect each other’s space and personal belongings.” You could even develop these rules together as a family and then display them somewhere that everyone can see.
Changing rules can be a tricky process. However, think of it like how teachers establish rules for their classrooms at the start of every new year. Your new family configuration is a fresh start that will require new guidelines to keep relationships strong and get everyone on the same page.
Beyond discipline considerations, think through other ways to foster positive relationships among the new stepsiblings. Some tips to consider include the following:
(1) Come up with a routine or ritual for transition times when children come back to your house after being at their other parent’s house. They may need some time to themselves to get settled, or you all may enjoy a low-key activity like starting a family movie to watch together.
(2) Continue to have one-on-one time with just your biological children, even as you adjust to life in your new stepfamily. Children can have a lot of mixed emotions about becoming a stepfamily, so it’s important for them to feel like they have a strong connection with their biological parent in the process.
(3) Help the children to see that you and your new husband are a strong team. Let them see you working together, having positive communication between you, and enjoying each other’s company. It’s important for them to see your relationship as a stable, healthy one so they can feel secure settling into their new stepfamily structure and building connections with their new stepsiblings.
(4) And finally, don’t underestimate the power of fun for building strong relationships in your new stepfamily. Find fun activities that appeal to all the kids to do together as a family. This may require some creative thinking with their different ages, but it’s worth the effort. There can be a lot of difficult challenges involved in the process of adjusting to life as a new stepfamily. Try to make the transition as enjoyable as possible by having fun, laughing, and playing together as everyone gets to know one another and bonds as a family!
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