Felicia Sanderson* is a busy mother of three children. She and her husband have one biological child and she is also a step mother to his two teenage daughters from a previous marriage.
In many ways, Sanderson’s role in her step daughters’ lives is no different than if she were their biological mother. She goes to their school events, makes dinner and helps with homework, but at times, the dynamic can be extra challenging. Sanderson knew her husband had two children when they began dating, but being a step mother has turned out to be different than what she expected. “The first two and a half years were very difficult,” Sanderson explains. “While my younger stepdaughter adapted quickly, the older one had a much harder time. She never fully gave up on the idea of her parents getting back together, and she saw me as the reason they wouldn’t, even though I had nothing to do with the end of her parents' marriage.”
The Role Of The Step Parent
For step parents, understanding what a child wants and their place in their stepchild’s life can be a challenge. But for most kids, it’s simple. “Step children want unconditional love,” says Maurice Elias, PhD, a psychology professor at Rutgers University. “They want to feel as if they are as valued as biological children. They also need permission to be unsure, to question and to talk about and think about their previous circumstances.”
New step parents may have unrealistic expectations of how easy it will be to bond with their stepchildren. The iconic ‘70s television show The Brady Bunch made the idea of blending families seem simple and fun. But in reality, many children do not want to be absorbed into a new family. “Rather than being blended, many [kids] prefer to be attached, but still distinctive,” says Elias. “Step children may want to be included in a new family, but they also don’t want to lose parts of their prior identity and connection.”
Jenifer Fox, author of Your Child’s Strengths and step mother of two teenagers, was a stepchild herself. “I always felt left out of my father’s new family,” says Fox. “We didn’t have rooms in their house, and we didn’t stay overnight on a regular basis or have a regular visiting schedule. As a step parent, I really want to be involved in the kids’ lives to ensure they never feel left out like I did.”
Give It Time
Most children have mixed emotions about their step parent, especially at the beginning. “At first, my husband tried to push the relationship and that backfired," Sanderson says. “My stepdaughters, especially the older one, felt they would be betraying their mother by liking me.”
Any new status takes time to adjust to and accept. A child coming into a family will naturally wonder if they will be treated in the same way as a biological child, so they will test that out—and some kids need more time to be reassured.
“You cannot have an expectation of peaceful, loving acceptance,” Fox says. “Instead, as a step parent, you need to fade into the background for a bit and give everyone time to adjust.”
Step Parenting Teens
Being a step parent can be even more complicated when the children are teenagers, explains Fox. “I came into their lives when they were ready to become their own person, which means rejecting their parents and their family unit to some extent in order to forge their own adult identities. Introducing a new parent into the mix at that time was a complexity that was confusing to them.”
“Step parents almost always underestimate how difficult the transition will be,” says Eileen Kennedy–Moore, co-author of the book Smart Parenting for Smart Kids. “Throw in a teenager or a child who feels displaced by the new spouse or a kid who thinks making the new family work is a betrayal of the other parent, and things get even more complicated.”
Whatever You Do, Don’t Give Up
Although it takes time, the relationship between a child and a step parent can be very rewarding and as rich and complex as one with a biological parent. Know that “when they’re acting their worst, at some level, they may really be asking you, ‘Can I chase you away or will you accept me no matter what?’” explains Kennedy-Moore. Her best advice? Be consistent, be available and, most of all, be patient.