Janice, 55-year old ex-stepmom to 2 children (grade school, teens) from a previous marriage and current stepmom to 3 children (middle school, college). In both cases, the children had/have a regular visitation schedule with their dads.
Q: You have established and maintained close relationships with all your stepchildren, including the ones whose father is no longer in your life. What is your most important piece of advice for a good relationship with your stepchildren?
A: Relationships don’t happen overnight just because you have a ring on your finger. (Nor do they disappear just because you don’t!). It’s really a process of building trust and respect over time. One thing I have always avoided is giving out unsolicited advice. I try to elicit information by asking neutral questions. When they do open up, I try to be non-judgmental and show empathy and compassion. Quite often, my stepkids tell me it’s easier to talk to me than their parents because I don’t judge what they’re doing and don’t volunteer my opinions unless they ask. I have also found that it’s not necessary to repeat everything to your husband. It’s okay to have a pact, keep a few secrets, and have some private jokes.
Q: What kinds of things did you do to help your husband build his relationship with his kids?
A: It’s very important to create a home where your husband has a comfortable place to be a family. At first, the “family” may be centered around your husband and his kids. That’s okay, step aside and let them be. I keep ice cream in the fridge and their favorite fruit/snacks on the kitchen counter. I cook their favorite foods. We have family nights sometimes when we just stay home, watch a movie and eat popcorn. We create small rituals that are ours as a family.
Q: What kind of relationship have you had with your stepchildren’s mom?
A: It varies. But I try to find ways to compliment their mother. I even take their mom’s side sometimes. I never criticize their mom in front of them.
Q: What else do you do to make the child feel welcome in your home?
A: Sometimes I put fresh flowers in their room so they know their visit is welcome and special. They have well appointed private space with good bedding and a designated place to keep their clothes. They love cozy comforters (instead of “bed in a bag” variety) that can be dragged to the couch or used to camp out at the foot of your bed.
Q: How do you handle chores and discipline?
A: Some may disagree, but I don’t press their having any chores. Just basic stuff. Leave your room the way you found it. Put your dishes in the sink. They aren’t around long enough to fight that battle. I don’t find it to be worth it to make them take out the garbage.
Let your husband be the disciplinarian. Talk to him about that. He should be prepared to back you up given any disrespect or dishonor. Try not to take sides in any disagreements they might have. Agree with your husband that you will not disagree in front of them. You and your husband should stand united.
Q: Any other advice?
A: Another think I do is I try to resist the inclination to refer to their main residence as “home” and reinforce that they have two “homes” – their mother’s house and here.