Keys to successful step mothering

February 5, 2008 5:25:50 PM PST
Build strong family relationships in your journey to becoming a successful stepmother.

How you can build a strong relationship with the whole family. Doctor Joshua Coleman, the author of When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You And Your Grown Child Don't Get Along, joined us with some advice.

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Being a stepmother is hard and sometimes thankless work. While some are able to establish close and comfortable relationships, many struggle with the role. In addition, children and typically more tolerant and accepting of stepfathers than stepmothers. Here are some important reasons:

    1. Loyalty Factor: Children often have intense feelings of loyalty to their mothers after divorce. A 15 year study of daughters in college found that most college-educated daughters discriminate against Dad when it comes to giving him the same chance they give their Moms to get to know one another, to talk about personal matters, to have meaningful conversations or to allow him to express sadness or grief. Dad is still more likely than Mom to be treated as a critical judge and a banking machine. These feelings of loyalty to Mom can directly interfere with a stepchild's desire or ability to bond with the stepmother.

    2. High Expectations of Self: For better or worse, women come into marriage with the expectation that they should be loving, nurturing, and supportive. Unfortunately, parenting, like marriage, takes 2 to tango. A stepmother who tries to be close to a stepchild who is uninterested or unwilling may walk away feeling resentful, and rejected. One of the largest, best-controlled studies of divorce found that one fourth of grown stepdaughters carried intense feelings of negativity about their stepmothers and only one fourth described their relationship as close as adults.

    3. High Expectations from Husband: Men are likely to hold their wives to the same standard that women hold themselves to. That is, they often believe that their new wives or girlfriends should be able and eager to step into the mothering role. This is both unrealistic and unreasonable.

What to do?

    A) Be a friend not a mom to your stepkids unless it's completely clear that mothering is what they really want from you.

    B ) Let your husband do the disciplining, not you.

    C) Be assertive when you need to be. Your stepchildren may test your limits. While you can't assume that they're going to want to be close to you, you can hold them to the same standard of respect that you'd expect from anyone else. Therefore, they can't call you names, they can't take your stuff without asking, and they can't boss you around.

    D) Take the long-term perspective: Your partner chose you, not his children, so it may take them quite a while to adjust to being divorced and accept that dad's primary love interest is no longer their mother, and for some children-them. Rome wasn't built in a day and neither is a good (or tolerable) relationship with stepchildren. Typically, it takes years, so try not to get too discouraged by the inevitable ups and downs.

    E) Get help. 60% of second marriages end in divorce and a majority of those are with stepchildren. Stepchildren can put demands that are sometimes too big for a couple to figure out by themselves. Don't wait too long to see a counselor.

About Dr. Joshua Coleman:
Joshua Coleman, Ph.D., is an internationally known expert in parenting, couples, families, and relationships. He serves on the board of The Council on Contemporary Families (a distinguished national organization of academics, researchers, and clinicians), and the training faculty of the San Francisco Psychotherapy Research Group. He is the author of two critically acclaimed books: The Marriage Makeover and The Lazy Husband. His advice has been featured in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, Family Circle, Men's Health, Psychology Today, Cosmopolitan, and many other venues, and has been a frequent contributor to The San Francisco Chronicle. He has appeared on 20/20, Good Morning America, The Today Show, and numerous news programs for FOX, ABC, and NBC, and CNN. He lives with his family in Orinda, CA.