The Stepfamily Association of America estimates that one-third of Americans are part of a blended family that includes a stepparent, stepchild or stepsibling. This massive cultural shift has taken place over the course of only a few generations, leaving many stepfamilies struggling to make sense of their family dynamic. When a child’s household unit changes, first to accommodate a divorce and then with the remarriage of one or both biological parents, these are some of the things that kids are commonly known to say.
- “Dad Knows How to Do That!” – Bitterness at the change in his home, the absence of a biological father in the household, and a perceived effort by a stepfather to replace that absent parent can leave children feeling as if they’re forced to defend the father that they no longer live with full-time. These comments can be hurtful to a stepfather that’s making a genuine effort to connect with his stepchild, but should be acknowledged as a defense mechanism that often abates as a personal relationship is established.
- “She’s Mean!” – The myth of the “Evil Stepmother” is so culturally ingrained in the collective consciousness that it can be a knee-jerk reaction for children to classify their new stepmother as “mean,” even when she’s a genuinely nice and affectionate person.
- “He’s Okay.” – Kids that are reluctant to engage in a discussion about their new family dynamic often make ambiguous statements, refusing to classify a stepparent at all. This reticence may fade with time as he realizes that liking or even loving a stepparent isn’t inherently a betrayal of his biological parent.
- “She’s Scary!” – Change is frightening for everyone to an extent, but especially for children. The simple act of altering the fabric of his established routine by moving into his home and assuming a role of authority can make kids perceive a new stepparent to be scary, despite a lack of any efforts to intimidate or frighten by that stepparent. While it’s also natural for a biological parent to be suspicious of their former spouse’s new love interest, it’s best to consider every aspect of the situation and do a bit of research before making a snap judgment of the stepparent’s character without cause. Leveling accusations of abuse or harassment is potentially devastating, even if they’re later discovered to be unfounded.
- “She’s Not My Real Mom!” – In the heat of an argument, a stepchild’s first line of defense is a stinging reminder that a stepmother is not a replacement, and will never take the place of their biological mother. While it can be deeply hurtful to hear those words, stepparents should take the time to consider the feelings of the child.
- “We Do Fun Things Together!” – Not all relationships between stepchildren and stepparents are negative; in fact, many are healthy, functional parts of the family unit. It may be a bit painful to hear your biological child rave about the great adventures he has with his new stepparent, but an effort to be grateful for his happiness and apparent adjustment to the situation should be made.
- “He Makes Mom Really Happy.” – Though many children of divorce harbor a desire for their parents to reunite, the knowledge that each parent is finding the happiness with their new spouse that was missing in their marriage to one another can be enough to put some of those hopes to bed for older, more mature children.
- “I Love Her.” – The ultimate goal of most stepparents is to establish a strong, affectionate relationship with their stepchildren. Proof of success comes when a child willingly utters those three magical words. Reaching this milestone is rarely easy and can be fraught with obstacles along the way, but a bit of patience and understanding can help feelings of love, trust and security to grow.
The shift in dynamics that accompanies the inclusion of a stepparent can create strains on both the relationship between the biological parent and child, and the new marriage in some cases, according to a study released by Robert Emery, PhD. Making a concerted effort to foster resilience and a strong relationship between a child and his stepparent can alleviate some of this pressure, but it often requires more effort than originally anticipated.