Avoiding the Wicked Stepmother Role and other Step-Parenting Tips

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SOUTHERN UTAH – Many families in Southern Utah are made up of blended families, however when “parenting” is often discussed, the step-parent can be left out of these important conversations.

St. George News was asked by our readers to write a story on tips for step-parenting and we received answers from many experts around the nation on working with blended families. For those looking for more information or local classes, the Head Start in Washington City offers classes for step-parents. Call 435-634-0280 for information.

Before You Blend

1. Be proactive and plan before the blended family formed. Use the family meeting to discuss roles (especially regarding discipline) and concerns about the step-parent moving in.

2. Be aware of the relationship the non-custodial biological parent has with the step-child. Make sure the step-parent is not exacerbating feelings regarding loyalty.

3.  The older the step-child, the less the step-parent should be the primary disciplinarian. A step-parent should make sure they have standing in an issue prior to getting involved in discipline.

Dr. Richard Horowitz, Parent Coach & Author

Follow the Basics

1. The biological parent, ultimately, is always responsible for their child.

2. The biological parent needs to bring the step-parent into the child’s life in a way that thoroughly sets the stage for the role the step-parent will have.

3. The biological parent needs to be very clear about the boundaries they want with the step-parent.

4. When the step-parent is not handling a situation well, as in any parent’s situation, the parents need to step back and regroup behind the scene and talk through the situation.  Always, they need to present an undivided team presence with a child, even when and particularly so when they do not agree on certain behaviors.

5. When a child is acting out towards the step-parent, the step-parent should be firm in the behaviors that have been agreed upon with the biological parent – if they cannot implement them, then asap the parent team needs to discuss and take appropriate action.

6. Ultimately, the biological parent leads the way in the parenting behaviors, style, decision-making.

Sharon Gilchrest ONeill, Ed.S., LMFT

Tips for Step-Dads

Avoid bad mouthing the natural father to or in front of the children, no matter how much of a knucklehead he may be. Blood is thicker than water, so your bond with the kids will have to be built up over time of being respectful and having a relationship with them.

Unless the children do not know the natural father, the step-dad should not be the disciplinarian until the bond has been built; mom should be the primary disciplinarian.

Step-dads do have a say over house rules, but unless he has a great relationship with the kids, mom should manage individual behavior- focus on building the new family as a team (hold family meetings, spend time with the kids, support the kids mom).

Bill Corbett, Award-winning author, TV Host

Time Out for Step-Parents

When a step-parent is not handling the situation appropriately, as the partner, you should say, “let’s take a time out” and go away from the children to talk privately about your concerns and worries with their inappropriate behaviors/parenting style.

If you are concerned with the step-parent of your former spouse, it is appropriate to communicate your concerns to the other parent and say, “I am feeling concerned when Sally does ____”. Your child’s safety and emotional well-being is worth the conversation, even if it is difficult and uncomfortable.

Clair Mellenthin, LCSW, Director of Child and Adolescent Services
Wasatch Family Therapy
[email protected]

Give it Time

Hopefully, single adults with children will talk about the issues of co-parenting and blending a family before they try it. Raising children together involves values, parenting and discipline styles, religion and ethnic traditions, which must be understood and agreed upon by the parents.

Blended families can be a challenge, but I also have many adults in my practice who say a caring, helpful step-parent was the best thing that happened to them. Your stepchildren will challenge your authority, but don’t forget, they do this with their birth parents, too.

The most important thing is to give the various relationships time. Single parents should never rush into marriage before they’ve worked out their parenting, discipline, household rules, finances, etc. If you’re not of one accord, your children will use it to “divide and conquer” — to the detriment of everyone, including themselves.

In “The Unofficial Guide to Dating Again” I have lots of guidelines for dating as a single parent which begins this process on the right foot. Once you’ve done the deed, however, you’ll have to work through anything that didn’t get handled.

I highly recommend family meetings (which include everyone) on a weekly basis. I have guidelines for conducting the meeting in a productive way that will also be enjoyable. Children should also be involved in making decisions. When the children feel they’ve been heard, they’ll be less resistant to family rules. If the children have a say in devising reasonable punishments for infractions, they’ll feel the rules are more fair.

Consistency is important, and so is setting boundaries. Change is difficult for everyone, so understand that it will take a while for things to settle down. If you’re consistent about enforcing the rules, loving and available as much as possible, and each child has some special recognition for his or her activities, talents and needs, your new blended family will work smoothly. Blended families also often have to deal with shared custody, with various children leaving at different times to spend time with the other birth parent. These changes require “re-entry” discussions and rituals, so everyone can adjust each time. (from the Unofficial Guide to Dating Again)

Blended families and ethnic groups mean that couples must learn to honor different traditions, lifestyles and preferences when they marry. The process begins with the wedding, when often more than one religious tradition and cultural style are incorporated.

Blending and fusing goes on for years, as your relationship develops and your family grows. New couples must learn to accept and appreciate each other’s holiday celebrations, foods, and also the more subtle emotional style of each other’s family. One family may think being loving is exactly what the other family sees as terribly intrusive. One partner may value sharing and intimacy, the other may value respect and privacy. Blending these styles is not easy, but the rewards are great. Couples may find they’re experiencing the “Disaster Equation:”

I love you the way I want to be loved + you love me the way you want to be loved = Neither feels loved, or appreciated for being loving. Learning to understand, respect and value each other’s styles leads to a solution: (I love you the way I want to be loved + the way I’ve learned that you want to be loved) + (You love me the way you want to be loved + the way you’ve learned I want to be loved) = both of us feel loved and appreciated for being loving + [bonus] each feels that the other cared enough to learn to understand. This is the great reward we’re all seeking in marriage.

Tina B. Tessina, PhD, (aka “Dr. Romance”)

Do Not Silence the Step-Parent

I encourage the parent and step-parent to be abundantly clear about their roles, and to agree to these issues outside of the realm of the children. This clarity will guide them in all future parental decision-making.

Difficulties in these families tend to take one of two forms, in my experience. Either the step-parent is over-involved in the discipline and the lives of the children, often in an over-compensatory way, or he or she is
under-involved, such that their role in the family and the household
becomes unclear.

Step-parents need to work not to take personally the feelings of the children. “You’re not my mom” is a common retort from a child, often in the face of discipline. Step-parents need to address such feelings calmly, accepting the reality, but stating their role clearly: “Nobody will take the place of your mother here, but I the adult in this household, and we have agreed that you will listen to me.” Something like that.

One thing I’ve learned for sure: it does not work for a step-parent to be silenced in the household. He or she needs to have a voice with the  children. No adult wants to, or deserves to, feel powerless in their  home. I suggest also that, early in the step-parenting process, the  ‘new’ family spends time together, and the step-parents spends some protected time with each of the children.

This type of arrangement is especially tough, as you suggest, when difficulties arise. This will always go better when the parental roles are clear, first of all. Second, the step-parent needs a voice, perhaps as a consultant to the primary parent, on such matters.

John Duffy

Avoiding the Evil Stepmother

1.    Generosity: Generosity of spirit and resources. Hoarding your money or your spirit just doesn’t work. You need to share it all. Let’s face it, by definition, step-parents often take the “hit” on the family’s frustrations over the core divorce. You cannot win that battle, so you might as well enjoy it and take it all with a grain of salt. No ego will work in this business. Silence is your best friend.

2. Clarity: Know who you are. You have to know who you are, what you stand for and what your boundaries are. Having said that, pick your battles. Do you really want to be fighting about the dirty room, dirty dishes and the many other dirty things that aren’t done? Really?? Also, know your role. You are not the policy setter. The biological parents do that. You strictly follow their policies. Believe me, this one will get you out of a lot of trouble! Stick with it.

3. Sense of Humor: Mandatory. You cannot win the game of step-parenting in the traditional sense. You can win in the long run, but you have to have patience. So, why not have fun in the meanwhile? Every time you may get talked about or teased, there’s a great joke there. Laugh at the humor of it all.

The Teenager: Get out of the range of fire. Overall, it’s the biological parent’s role to get a handle on the teenager. Remember…we only execute the policies, we don’t make them. But, this is also where your boundaries come in. For example, we raised four children. Of course, there was a variety of acting out. For me, my boundary is respect. You have to treat me with respect. In executing this boundary, you must have buy-in from your biological parent-spouse. They cannot sit back and let you take the “hit.” So, although I did not like it, I watched teenagers talk back to their parents or dress inappropriately or smoke cigarettes, but I stayed silent in front of them.

When the Step-Parent isn’t Handling the Situation Properly: This is a marriage issue. In the most perfect setting, the rules of engagement should be worked out before you marry. But, it usually doesn’t happen. The biological parent-spouse needs to set the rules of engagement while being extremely understanding to the stepparent.

I will tell you that step-parenting is the most frustrating job in the world! So, you must show empathy while explaining that you are there to keep the stepparent save and out of the line of fire. These discussions always happen in private!

Barbara Goldberg

See Past the Resistance

I look at step-parenting from a unique perspective. I’ve done it twice, once with my late husband’s son, A.J. He is now 28 and was almost five when I came into his life. I am now a step-mom to my new husband’s teenaged daughter, Haylee. I’ve been in her life since she was 15. She just turned 19.

The first response most parents have to a teen who is acting out is to get in that child’s face. This happens with both step-parents and biological parents. The belief is that when a child acts out, they are being bad. However, I try to look at a child’s misbehavior in two ways.

1. See past the resistance to the pain. Look beyond the action to see what is hurting within the child. People only act out because they are hurting or are afraid. For instance, when I came into Haylee’s life, she at first was loving and kind, but as soon as she realized that her dad and I were getting serious, she turned on me. She wouldn’t speak to me, nor would she look at me. At first I found myself getting angry and questioning myself. But when I looked within to find my answers, I realized that her actions weren’t about me. Haylee was simply scared. She was afraid of losing her daddy and how her life would change. Her mother had also committed suicide, so she had issues with women, fearing that she couldn’t receive their love. As soon as I got neutral to her actions and loved her and her pain, she shifted towards me. We now have a very loving relationship.

2. See the child’s actions as a gift. Look at the mirror the child is presenting to you. This is a great tool when a step-parent isn’t dealing well with a situation. If a step-parent is REACTING to anything that a child does and isn’t staying neutral, the child is reflecting something that needs to be healed within the step-parent. This parent is living by a subconscious belief that is causing the knee-jerk reaction. The key is to go within and clean up the belief so the step-parent can get neutral. Here is another example of life with my step-daughter Haylee. She is quite different from my girls. My girls tend to be a little more conservative.

Haylee has quite a few piercings in her ears and one in her nose. I hadn’t thought about these things much until I saw my oldest daughter Mackenzie decide to get a piercing one evening with Haylee. I found myself lashing out and trying to control the situation. I saw Haylee as the culprit in luring my daughter into her “different” ways.

Quite frankly, I was shocked with my behavior. I am normally open to all people and ways of being so this really took me by surprise. When the girls left, I knew that my reaction was telling me something was hurting inside of me. So I went within and meditated to see what the mirror was. I talked to “little Terri,” the little girl inside of me, and asked her what she was afraid of.

I discovered that my fear was based in a belief that said if you get piercings, they will draw negative attention to you and, thus, people will harm you. I thought this was interesting and as I cried and allowed my feelings to guide me to the original picture where I took this belief on, I found myself back at the age of 15 when I was molested by a modeling agent. All of the sudden, I realized that my fear about piercings had nothing to do with them, but instead triggered a subconscious belief taken on when I was 15! And with that realization, all my judgment went away and I opened my heart back up to Haylee.

These two tools are how I changed my life from judgment and pain to acceptance and love. And by living this way, I’ve created a warm and loving blended home.

Terri Amos-Britt


email [email protected]


Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2011, all rights reserved.

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