"She likes 'our' kids more than she likes my older kids."
I'll never forget the day Bill and Sue's appointment started with that phrase. I could see the disconnect
in this couple's body language and hear the frustration in Bill's voice. Since that day I learned this is a common theme in many stepcouple relationships.
What lies beneath
Bill seemed resentful that his wife interacted differently with his older kids from his previous marriage.
Sue admitted that she got more frustrated with the older boys. There were multiple reasons (which we would cover later), my initial push was for this couple to hear each other's perspective.
Keeping in mind that anger comes from a deeper feeling of hurt or fear, we began to explore Bill's feelings. We discovered he took every one of Sue's critiques of the boys' behavior as a judgment of his parenting. "I feel like I failed every time you tell me what my guys did wrong."
After processing that thought more, Sue told him she's just sharing how the day went and that it's not necessarily about his parenting. His boys, being teens, were definitely pushing more boundaries than their shared kids (ages 6 and 4), so of course he would hear more about what they were doing.
When asked if Sue thought he was a good dad, she immediately responded,"Yes, he's a great dad! It is one of the things I loved about him from the start. It's just that I think he lets his boys get away with things I won't let 'our' kids get away with."
The A-HA moment
Here's where things get interesting for stepcouples. When you have "yours, mine and ours" kids, there will be some differences. (Warning: Some of these points may sound harsh, but if I'm going to help you overcome your challenges I need to be really honest.)
1.Stepparents will not love your kids from a previous marriage the same as their own birth kids.
When a woman carries a child for 9 months, gives birth and then nurtures that baby, there is a special bond that forms. The same goes for dads and bonding! Birth parents are connected to their child from day one. They nurture them, watch them grow and celebrate milestones along the way.
Stepparents come in later in the child's life. While they may like or even love your child, they don't necessarily feel the same way about your child. They can't! They haven't been there from day one to build that bond.
Does that mean stepparents can't bond with their stepchild? Of course not! They will have a different kind of bond than they do with their own birth children. It's neither bad nor good, it just is.
2. Your approach to parenting will be different
Just as with any couple who begins to parent together, you'll find things that are "deal breakers" for you that may not be for your spouse. Different childhoods, life experiences, and parenting styles can lead to arguments if not sorted through.
3. Personalities make a difference
Some children are more laid back and easy going, others can be drama seekers. If your stepchild is very different from your own, it may cause some friction as you get used to this new child's personality traits and they get used to you.
Whether you have just formed your stepfamily or you have been together for a while, you will find times when things get hard. It's important to look beyond the "noise" of the situation and get to the heart of the matter. In this case, we unpeeled the layers to discover Sue was not actually judging Bill's parenting and that Bill had not thought about Sue's "coming in late to the game" of raising the boys.
When Sue said she thinks Bill is a wonderful father, I could see his body language relax and he was more willing to listen to the actual behavior issues that were frustrating her. We revisited the Family Action Plan we developed for discipline and we also built in specific times when Bill and Sue would sit down and check in each night. This allowed them to shared concerns, talk about their days (without judgment or criticism) and plan next steps as partners in parenting.
1. It is not uncommon for stepcouples to bicker over discipline and consequences. In fact, it is one of the leading causes of arguments in blended families.
2. It takes 5-7 years for blended families to settle into their new family situation. That seems like a very long time, but think about all the dynamics going on!
This is why I love helping stepcouples build their shared vision, values and goals! The sooner the couple is clear on this family foundation work, the easier it will be to overcome the challenges that pop up during the adjustment time.
3. It is critical for stepcouples to discuss roles and expectations! Each blended family will have it's own unique way of handling a stepparent's role, depending on the ages of the kids, the custody arrangement and many other factors.
While things may not be what you pictured, it doesn't mean it's hopeless. Every couple has to work their way into parenting as a team!
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Note: While "Bill" and "Sue" are fictional names, their situations are based on real conversations I have with clients. If you are interested in reading additional co-parenting articles, simply look for my "partners in parenting," "co-parenting" and "stepfamily" categories in the blog section.
Photo by Kevin Delvecchio on Unsplash