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The Key To Stepparenting: Be Patient, It Takes Time

Photo: Jasjyot Singh Hans for NPR
Photo: Jasjyot Singh Hans for NPR

A relationship with a stepchild can be tricky, scary and infuriating. It can also be joyful, interesting and extremely fulfilling. I know because I'm a stepparent of two boys.

Stepfamilies are common in the U.S. According to a 2011 Pew survey, more than four in ten American adults have at least one step relative in their family. But experts say we don't talk enough about how challenging it is to become a blended family.

So here are some tips that can help you navigate being a stepparent and part of a blended family.

Reset your expectations

Understand and accept that being a stepfamily is a very different dynamic from what Patricia Papernow calls a "first-time family." Papernow is a psychologist and author of three books on stepparenting. She says stepparents face distinct challenges from biological parents. (We're using the term biological parent to mean a parent from the original family, whatever that may look like in your own experience.)

"A stepparent enters as an outsider to an already established bond between the parent and child and an already established system," Papernow says. "The other thing is that kids are hard-wired to connect to their parents. They often are not very interested...in having a stepparent come in and disrupt their lives."

She says just acknowledging that your family is different can provide a more realistic, grounded perspective.

Be intentional about how you are going to enter your new family and your role in it

Stephanie Irby Coard is an associate professor of human development and family studies at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. She says learn all you can about your stepchildren and the preexisting family dynamics.

Coard says it's important to have transparent discussions about the child's history, including their temperament, personality and any special needs. All of this helps stepparents who are working to understand their stepchildren.

Coard says it's also important to examine your own relational history and how comfortable you are with kids.

"I think it's really important to also give voice to feelings of resistance or fear or anxiety that a potential stepparent may have around parenting," Coard says.

Relationships are at the heart of creating a blended family but they can take time to build

Nine years ago, Kisha Batsuli was excited about becoming a stepparent.

"When I started off, I felt like I was in a Disneyland World fairy tale ending."

But as she settled into family life, her role began to feel hard.

"You're trying to find your way," she said. "And if some of the people in that family are not receptive or accepting of you, then there's a challenge."

Today, Batsuli has a close relationship with her 13-year-old stepson. She created the online platform Blended on the Rock, to help other families navigate stepfamily relationships. She warns against having unrealistic expectations, something she says invariably leads to "an epic fail."

"We're all transitioning here," Batsuli says. "We're all trying to figure it out."

Starting with low-key, fun activities like going for ice cream or a hike can be a good place to begin building a relationship with the child, Batsuli says. But the biological parent should take the lead.

"It's very important that [the biological parent] create that unity and that atmosphere that makes you feel safe, as well as the kids feel safe," Batsuli says. "Once the parent initiates and forms that, then you can flow as you see fit."

When everyone grows more comfortable with each other, she suggests doing some of the activities the children like to do — maybe watch their favorite movie or play a video game.

It's important for the biological parent and child to have "regular, reliable time alone," Papernow says. She urges stepparents not to feel left out, rather use that time to do things they like to do. And again, be patient. Papernow says these families can take years to build: "As someone I did a radio interview with once ... said, 'it's a slow cooker, it's not fast food.' "

Be respectful to the other parent — especially in front of the children

"In the beginning, children often experience the addition of a new stepparent as a loss," Papernow says. "It's a loss of the parent's attention. It's a loss all over again of the original two parents. It's often a lot of change."

She says kids can also feel what's called a "loyalty bind," where the child may think, "if I care about my new stepmom, I'm disloyal to my mom."

The loyalty bind seems to be normal and almost wired into kids, Papernow says, but it can mean that building a connection with a stepparent might actually be painful for the child.

Children can be loyal to a bio-parent even if they're no longer involved or even alive, so don't bad mouth that person, no matter the provocation.

"It comes easily if that person is difficult or challenging, but do it out of kids' earshot," Papernow says. "Because here's what we know: What makes for poorest wellbeing for kids is not stepfamilies. It's not single-parent families. What makes [the] poorest well-being for kids is adult conflict."

It's also a good rule not to say anything to the child that you wouldn't want them to repeat to their other parent. Let your home be a safe space where they don't feel they need to keep secrets.

Let the biological parent deal with discipline

Papernow says it's a common misconception that stepparents should be allowed to discipline the children and that the biological parent should back them up.

"It's disastrous," she says. "The research is very clear: Kids are not ready for a stepparent's discipline until or unless that stepparent has formed a caring, trusting relationship with his or her stepchild."

That means time-outs, consequences, curfews, should all come from the bio-parent, not the stepparent. Papernow says that doesn't mean you, as the stepparent, need to be silent. But it does mean being mindful that this is a new fragile relationship and how you speak — words and tone — matters.

Don't take things personally

Papernow remembers once she was talking to her teenage stepdaughter when her husband's former spouse came over. "When his ex-wife walked in, his teenage daughter turned away from me and to her mother," she says.

Papernow says she was surprised by how painful it felt: "It was just a few moments, but I could barely speak to her for a day or two."

She says those are times to lean on your partner and share how you feel.

Batsuli agrees and says stepparents also shouldn't take everything personally.

"We already kind of feel like the outsider, so we carry that insecurity," Batsuli says. "Like, 'OK, he's not talking. Does he have an issue with me? Did I do something? Did I say something?' And it may not even be about you," she says.

It can be challenging to be a stepparent, but remember the role is also filled with lots of joy. In fact, sometimes what you think are disadvantages can actually be helpful.

Papernow says stepparents are what she calls "intimate outsiders."

"You are close enough that you know your stepkids really well, but you are outside enough, so you don't have some of the automatic triggers that parents have," she says. Stepparents and stepkids can form a different kind of loving bond.

Batsuli says being a stepparent expanded her heart and her family. "My bonus son on his mom's side, they are amazing people, and they don't treat me any different," Batsuli says. "So just having more people to love, more people to be around, it's not always perfect, but it is a blessing when it's perfect."

The podcast portion of this story was produced by Clare Marie Schneider, with engineering support from Alex Drewenskus.

We'd love to hear from you. If you have a good life hack, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org. Your tip could appear in an upcoming episode.

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