I’ve never been a fan of absolutes, but people seem to be drawn to listicles (myself included), so here is a concise list of knowledge I’ve acquired as a result of both my education in Humanistic and Clinical Psychology and my experience as a step-mother of two beautiful young human beings.
I was very fortunate that the man I would call my husband one day happened to have two daughters who were ridiculously easy to fall in love with. They were adorable, bright, charming, funny, and not least of all, weird. Before we were engaged, one day I told him, “I love you very much, but if ever there is a tragic event that occurs where I can only choose to save you or the girls, I’m very sorry, but you’re shit out of luck.” He said he understood. Whether you find yourself blessed like I have been, or in a situation where the children present with more challenges or resistance to you, I believe the points in this article will be of use to you. If not, feel free to write me some antagonizing comments about how I have wasted a perfectly good ten minutes of your life.
1. Let them come to you.
Children are naturally curious, and they will be drawn to you when they are ready. There is no need to force affection too soon. It may come off as insincere, and children tend to be put-off by adults who are inauthentic. Be aware that there may be a period of “checking you out.” For example, “Is this person good for my mom/dad? Are they going to tell me what to do? Will they let me eat candy? Can they cook? What does this all mean?” Make yourself a friendly, benign presence and be open to them when they do approach you. This is a big change for them, and it is beneficial to be sensitive to that. The first time I met my husband’s daughters, before we were married, we were at his parents’ home. His sister and her children were also there. This was an ideal place to meet, because they were somewhere they felt safe and comfortable, and there were other adults they trusted who were around to give their approval of my presence in the family. We played card games and got to know each other in a non-threatening environment. While I don’t think it’s necessary to meet your partner’s children at a family gathering, I think it helps to create an informal atmosphere where they feel comfortable.
2. Never, EVER speak badly about their biological parent (either of them)!
This is a sure-fire way to lose their trust immediately. This may seem like a basic rule, but it is one you should be very mindful of, as we may say things unintentionally, or out of negative, heated emotions (particularly if there is a difficult personality in the picture.) If you need to vent, call a friend, talk to a therapist, or be like me and write scathing letters you never intend to send. You could also passive-aggressively post things on Facebook, but this will most likely backfire. The goal is not to start a war. If there is a situation where the parent has done something very obviously wrong or abusive, that needs to be addressed, it is helpful to talk in generalities; for instance, “Sometimes adults make decisions that are (fill in the blank)... but they love you very much...” If you find yourself in a situation where the child is having difficulty opening up to you, a helpful way to start a conversation is, “I was wondering if you could help me with something… I know a little boy/girl who is dealing with (fill in the blank problem). What do you think I should tell him/her? How do you think I should help?” This works very well with young children; not so much with teenagers, who will probably roll their eyes at you and write you off immediately as a derelict.
3. Admit When You’re Wrong
We are all bound to make mistakes. Rather than ignore or try to conceal them, be a good example to the children by admitting it, and then inviting them to share their feelings about the situation, so they can help problem-solve with you and learn from the mistake. You will be surprised how apt they will be to do the same thing for themselves in the future.
4. Be an Authority
As much as children love to have fun, they need structure and boundaries to feel safe. And if they don’t feel safe, no one is having fun. Left to their own devices, children are reckless, and it is up to the adults in their lives to provide a consistent environment with rules and expectations. If my expectation of you is that you do your homework to the best of your ability and complete your piano lessons, it is because I believe you are capable, and I love you enough to pay attention when you are not doing these things. If I didn’t care, or didn’t think you were worth it, I would just mind my own business. This concept can easily be explained to children and adolescents. Even if they initially pout or resist, trust me: you have planted the seed that you believe they are worthy, cared for, and loved.
5. Be Gentle
Being an authority does not mean being aggressive. Think of the Dalai Lama. He is a gentle, effective, authority. It is not even always necessary to be loud to be firm. The more you stand your ground and be consistent, the more you will find you can also be gentle.
6. Don’t Give Unsolicited Advice
I have used these exact words before: “I do not give parenting advice,” followed by, “If you want my opinion, feel free to ask.” Conversely, co-parenting with an ex can be a wonderful thing, in the event the biological parent does ask for your advise. Do this with caution, and try to approach any situation as being a team effort. I take a back-seat to parenting, but other people may have a different personality than me. Ideally, your spouse will want your advice, and you will work together to come to agreements about what to do about a particular set of circumstances. In cases where you do not agree, be mindful that certain phrases can be inflammatory. For instance, if I say, “Johnny is doing X because you do Y…” my husband’s emotional brain will interpret that as, “You are a lousy parent!” Even with my education, I have made this mistake. A better way to handle things is to say, “I wonder if Sally doesn’t want to go to school because of (fill in the blank?) How do you think we can handle this? What can I do to help/support you?” Sometimes it’s even appropriate to say, “Do you remember feeling/acting like that as a child? How could the two of you be similar?” Ultimately different things work for different people, and you have to figure out what works for you, your spouse, and the other biological parent. This make take some fine-tuning, but in the end, it is well worth it!
7. And Most of All… Have Fun!
Of all the roles I have played in my life, being step-mom is by far one of my favorites. I have been overwhelmed and somewhat surprised by a wildly nurturing mothering instinct that has been sparked in me, and that feeling is powerful. I have bonded with these spectacular little humans on an emotional, spiritual, and intellectual level. Don’t be afraid to be that nurturer! If you are a woman, embrace that “Momma Bear” instinct. We all gather several mother-figures over the course of our lives (I certainly have), and they are all to be cherished. I get the opportunity to enjoy this role without having had to bear the pain of ripping my female parts open. (Every year, on Mother’s Day, I make sure to thank their mother for birthing them!) In my case, they also came into my life already potty-trained, so BONUS!!! If you are a father, embrace that male instinct to protect and father! My own step-father has been a wonderful example that children do not have to be biologically yours to treat them as such. Step-children are bound to you through choices and fate as well as whatever religious or spiritual connotation you find suits you. At the risk of sounding corny, children are an absolute joy, and with just a little bit of planning and good boundaries, you can have a most excellent, kick-ass family together.