Remarrying with children often creates a complex dynamic. Expectations may not be clear, and people aren’t sure how to behave. There are all kinds of questions like: When do we bring children into the picture? Once married, what do children call the new spouse? How will discipline work? How will any ex-spouses and their new spouses impact what happens in your household? Working through these questions can be complicated.
“Most couples enter into remarriage with a tremendous amount of expectation and hope,” says Ron Deal, author of The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family. “They expect positive things and are well-intentioned, yet in most instances, they are naive about the trip they are about to take.”
Believe it or not, transitioning into a stepfamily requires some prep work. If you are embarking on this journey, Deal’s recommendations can be helpful.
Remember there are no ex-parents, only ex-spouses. No matter how strong your feelings may be about the other parent, they are still an important part of your child’s life.
Julie Baumgardner President and CEO, First Things First
Be intentional about bringing both families together to get acquainted. Keep the lines of communication open, so children know what is going on.
Keep perspective. This is new for everyone, so expect to feel lost. Seek understanding and realize that blending takes time. It may even take years for your family to really unite, but it’s better than causing a lot of frustration by moving too quickly. Be patient with the process and have a “slow-cooker” mentality.
Talk with others. Before you begin, educate yourself about stepfamily living. Ask other stepfamilies about their experiences and the things that surprised them. Find out how they handled the early days.
Help the kids. When appropriate, encourage biological parents to consistently spend one-on-one time with each child. Since this is also foreign territory for children, prepare them to expect a variety of feelings about the changes and encourage them to talk about it.
Pick Appropriate Names. Discuss what to call one another (Stepdad or “George,”) and decide how to introduce one another in public. Understand that kids may have different names or terms for stepfamily members depending on who’s in the room. For example, they may call a stepfather “Daddy,” except when their biological dad is physically present, until relationships stabilize. Don’t pressure kids to use labels that make you comfortable; try to follow their lead.
Be a team. It’s helpful if parents and stepparents can seek consensus in household expectations. Have lots of parenting meetings.
Build Relationships. In the first year, it’s a great idea for stepparents to focus on building relationships with the children. Just be sure to move at their pace, not yours.
Discuss your discipline strategy. Agreement on this is critical. Stepparents should take on the role of discipline with stepchildren very slowly.
Keep your visitation schedule consistent. Give children continued access to the other home. Forcing kids to lose time with the other household could inadvertently cause kids to resent your relationship. A stepparent needs to communicate a “no threat” message to the other biological parent. Biological parents need to know that you understand your role as a new person in their child’s life and will never try to replace them. This message helps the other parent not feel intimidated by your involvement with their children. Hopefully, it will also increase their openness to your role as stepparent.