What’s YOUR Plan for Making Your Stepfamily Work?

Starting a new year is a dynamic time for change. People start out with a bang trying to do things differently – better. Typically, by the end of January, their energy about the new habits dwindles. They feel bad about themselves. Some will try again, but with the same results — or, rather, a lack of results.

When it comes to stepfamily life, the reason for failure is often simple. That’s not to say it’s easy to fix, but it’s simple: You don’t know what you’re doing wrong, so you don’t know how to fix it.

Is this you? I’ve spoken with many stepmoms who fall into this category, but most aren’t aware that they’re doing something wrong until we have a conversation about it.

Unrealistic Expectations

I call those “unrealistic expectations”. You’ve defined the problem in a certain way, and you try to solve the problem accordingly. What you don’t know is that your assessment of the problem – the way you’ve defined it – is not accurate. Therefore, no matter how you try to fix it, your actual results won’t be what you desired.

Been There; Done That

Eleven years ago, I started out the same way. Actually, it wasn’t just at the beginning of the year. I re-evaluated several times throughout the year and changed course. I changed what I did and how I did it.

I do not give up easily. I was determined to work it out. I didn’t earn the middle name “Stick-in-the-mud” for nothing. But, no matter what I tried, the same chaos ensued.

Why? Exactly. I didn’t really understand the problem. So, my expectations of what it would take to fix the problem, which was based on what had worked for me in the past, was not (and could not) work for me in my stepfamily.

Well-Intentioned Advice

Friends and family were quick to give advice. I’m sure you know exactly what I mean. Your closest friends always support you. It’s rarely your fault.

Or, if you’re in the boat I was in, you didn’t have any friends with the same experiences. So, they couldn’t relate and couldn’t give you advice.

Or, you have people telling you to wear your “Big-Girl Panties” and tough it out.

All of that sounds great, but not helpful. (Yes, even no advice is great considering the alternatives to all the above, which is criticizing you).

Here’s the Scoop…

It’s not your fault, but it’s not his fault either.

Nor is it your stepchildren’s or his ex-wife’s. And, regardless of the panties you wear, you need to honor yourself by speaking up for what you see as a problem. If that propels you to have in-depth discussions, so be it. And if it ends in an argument, then it’s an opportunity to strengthen your relationship and improve your family’s home environment (harmony vs disharmony) by figuring out how to resolve it.

What do you do about it?

Tip #1: Learn what’s realistic and what’s not

As I said above, your underlying cause for not getting the results you want is that you don’t clearly understand the problem – the psychology of stepfamily dynamics.

Educate yourself on the common challenges of stepfamiles. It’s not enough to read about post-divorce. There are many elements about stepfamily life that’s missing from this segment of literature, such as how the stepparent steps into disciplining the kids.

Post-divorce literature clearly states the stepparent should not discipline. I concur with this in the beginning of every stepcouple relationship. However, there’s also a process to incorporating the stepparent into the family as an accepted authority figure – one in which the kids will voluntarily listen to and follow directions from their stepmom. These kids often start thinking of their stepmom as “mom”, including all the accolades, appreciation, and love that biological mothers receive. Yes, that means Mother’s Day cards, too – ON Mother’s Day! 🙂

Also, I don’t recommend reading much outdated material from before the year 2000. So much more research has come out since then. It’s not mis-information, so it’s not a bad thing to include it in your personal education. But, keep in mind that there’s a lot MORE ACCURATE information available to you.

My highest recommendation is the book by Patricia Papernow, Surviving and Thriving in Stepafmily Relationships, which can be found on Amazon by clicking here.

Tip #2: Forgive, Forgive, Forgive… and forgive some more

You don’t know what you don’t know. Same with your husband, kids, stepkids, and ex-wife. So don’t punish yourself for getting it wrong! Please don’t punish your husband either.

I’m referring to past mistakes that got you to where you are today. Once you know, you have a responsibility to act accordingly. As Oprah says, “Once you know better, you do better.”

That’s why forgiveness is so important. This means to FORGIVE YOURSELF, as well as everybody else: your life partner, children, stepchildren, and all co-parents in your children’s lives.

A couple reminders about forgiveness:

  1. It’s ongoing and repetitive. That includes things you’ve already forgiven. The wounds can run very deep. So often, we release our anger or resentment only to have it triggered again by a new or similar incident.
  2. It’s not contingent on acknowledgment from another person. This is a feeling that comes from you – to and about another person. Their response to you is irrelevant and shouldn’t change your intention or action.
  3. You don’t even have to speak it aloud, if you don’t want to. It’s equally powerful if genuine.

Tip #3: Loving Yourself is Always Your FIRST Priority

This speaks for itself. As I said earlier, advice to stepmoms often include “wearing big-girl panties” and to “be the adult”. This is fine as long as your needs are being met. The fact is that you’re the adult, and therefore expectations of you are much higher. Unfortunately, this is often transmuted into not having the same basic rights as the stepkids.

If your husband is expecting you to say “Hi” to the kids. Then he should expect his kids to say “Hi” to you. Kids will be kids. And sometimes adults act like kids. Under both circumstances, respect and compassion are always warranted.

In closing, remember the 3 C’s: Be Calm, Compassion, and Consistent!

I’d love to hear about your story of using the tips above, or if anything I said has resonated with you. Please hit the comment button to share with me, and I will reply. If you have a question, ask in a comment and I will reply. Or you can send a private message to me from my e-mail address on my “Contact Me” page here.


Judy Graybill

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