Getting Kids Used to a Stepmother

Getting kids used to a stepmother is the kind of thing people dread—and with good reason. Whether the new stepmother comes into the picture after divorce or death, she’s seen by the children as a usurper: someone who stole the real mom’s place. Someone who sleeps with their dad. Even if a child has longed for a new mom, it’s awkward letting this new person into your everyday life with all its small intimacies. This situation requires major adjustment.

Mothers are sacrosanct, irreplaceable. And you’d be surprised at the strength of a child’s loyalty and rebellion against any attempts to offer a substitute. Even where the child maintains a good relationship with the biological mom, there’s bound to be a defensive reaction against a stepmother’s attempts to fit in.

Stepmother as Cool Aunt

When she became a stepmother, Jessica Thompson of California adopted a mantra that served her well: Don’t try to be Mom. Thompson found it was better to think of the stepmother to stepchild relationship as “different.” “The child may want to relate to you as a mother, but not necessarily. Do not force the issue, or take it personally if she never embraces you as a mother. You don’t have the same standing as a mother, so don’t try to discipline as if you are one,” says Thompson, who suggests the natural, biological parent take the lead when it comes to the difficult area of rules and discipline.

“Sometimes stepmoms get the awesome deal of being the ‘fun,’ ‘cool,’ or neutral parent. Aiming for a ‘cool aunt’ type of relationship is a good initial goal. I quickly became the confidante, and a safe place for my stepdaughter to voice frustrations when things got challenging with dad, or at school, and that was a really rewarding relationship. You can be a neutral escape valve and voice of reason, as well as be the one to take the lead in fun activities,” says Thompson.

Age Matters

Parenting Coach Dr. Richard Horowitz, feels that adapting to a stepmom depends, to a large measure, on the age of the child as well as the child’s relationship with the biological mom. “If the biological mother is not part of the child’s life and the child is fairly young (not yet preteen) the stepmother can assume the full role as a mother (nurturing, discipline, etc.). The older the child and the presence of a biological mom makes the situation more challenging. In this case the stepmom along with the biological father must discuss with the child what the stepmom’s role will be and what expectations there are for both parties. This is especially crucial in setting household rules and in determining when stepmom will have standing in regards to rule-setting and enforcement,” says Horowitz.

Have the Talk

Psychologist Wyatt Fisher says that if at all possible, there should be a discussion with the child before the stepmom assumes her new role. This helps prepare the child and lessens the shock of receiving a “new” parent. Once the stepmother comes into the picture, Fisher offers four tips to new stepmoms:

  1. Go slow. Wait until the child warms up to you rather than force the relationship.
  2. Be inviting. Greet the children with smiles and warmth.
  3. Encourage father/child time. It’s important to encourage your husband to spend lots of quality time with the children so they don’t see you as taking their father from them.
  4. Be respectful. Always speak with respect when referring to the child’s biological mom.

Rosalind Sedacca CCT, founder of the Child-Centered Divorce Network and author of How Do I Tell the Kids about the Divorce? agrees with Fisher that adapting to a stepmother is a slow process. Sedacca offers the following six tips for making the transition as smooth as possible:

  1. Introduce children to a potential stepmom very slowly so they have a chance to get acquainted and develop a caring relationship.
  2. Never insist that a stepmom is a replacement for their own mom. Children will be more resistant if a stepparent is imposed upon them or their biological mom is removed from their life.
  3. Stepmoms should never be the disciplinarian to the children. Give Dad that responsibility.
  4. Stepmoms need to earn the trust and respect of the kids which is a gradual process. Dad can be very helpful with this process.
  5. Talk to your kids, listen to what they say, validate their right to feel the way they feel. Don’t make them feel bad or wrong if they are having trouble accepting their new stepmom.
  6. Seek out the support of a family therapist or coach experienced in working with step family dynamics.

In the case of divorce, the main issue with getting used to a stepmother is the fact that “every child wants, wishes, and longs for their mothers and fathers to stay together,” says Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author, The Self-Aware Parent, and regular expert child psychologist on The Doctors and CBS TV. “The breakup of the family unit is traumatic—even in the most amicable divorce.

“Kids have a range of feelings that can change at any given moment. Emotionally, children feel sad (about the loss of the exiting parent); angry (‘Why my family?’); worried (about logistics including where will ‘I’ sleep?;  who will take me/pick up from school?; will I still see both sets of grandparents?; and on and on). Behaviorally, you may see your child’s academic grades drop. You may observe her sad (not smiling) or angry, resisting, opposing, or defying you and your rules and expectations,” says Walfish.

Permission to Feel

“As her stepmom, you need to give her permission to have powerful emotions about the huge disruption in her life. Encourage the open direct expression of these feelings,” adds Walfish, cautioning, “Stepmoms, don’t be afraid of her anger. The more comfortable you become with her verbalizing her anger the more validated and accepted she will feel—flaws and all.”

Walfish treats many kids from separated and divorced families and like Sedacca, suggests that counseling can make a difference. “Sometimes, it helps your child to talk to someone outside of Mom, Stepmom, and Dad, like a teacher, counselor, or therapist. Kids may feel worried and guilty about hurting their parents’ feelings. Talk with your child about whom he can go to for comfort and support. Ask him to name people for instance, Grandma, Aunt Susie, Uncle Bob, teacher, or best friend.”

Children are going to have strong feelings as the stepmother enters the scene. “Offer karate, dance, singing, art, or gymnastics classes as a physical outlet for expelling strong feelings,” says Walfish, who says the most important thing is to grant kids permission to love and respect both biological parents. “She is half her real mom and half her real dad.

“If she hears you or her biological mom put her father down it is putting down a part of her. If her biological father makes derogatory remarks about her biological mother tell your stepchild that divorce is a grown-up matter and sometimes moms and dads are mad at each other, but it is not the kids’ fault or responsibility to fix things.”

Blending the Family “Soup”

Parenting Expert Donna Bozzo suggests that finding ways to include children in the process of blending the family is the way toward acceptance of a new stepmom. “Include the kids in the wedding ceremony. Instead of a bride and groom cake topper, how about a full-family cake topper, with kids in tow?” says Bozzo, who suggests that families find fun ways to make things work going forward.

“Think of your new blended family as a kind of soup where different members of the family add their own favorite ingredients to the pot. Like peanut butter and jelly sometimes the sum of two (or more) parts, is greater than the whole,” says Bozzo.

Single Parent Pros and Cons

Single parent households are now so common that more than a quarter of all U.S. children under the age of 21 are being raised by a single parent. Only one in six of these single parents are dads. But the very vast majority of single parents, be they moms or dads, work to put a roof over the heads of their children (and food in their mouths).

It’s a hard road to haul and it’s not always by choice. Some single parents are widowed. Others may have never found that special someone, but were lucky enough to have children. In short, every single parent has a story to tell and it’s bound to be an interesting story at that.

If you’re a single parent, or a parent contemplating the end of a marriage gone wrong, you likely worry about the effects of the single parent home on a child. By having only one parent, are you cheating your child of the stability of a two-parent home? Will your child suffer from having a mom with no dad or a dad with no mom? Or perhaps only part time influence from the other parent?

On bad days, the guilt can be crushing.

Single Parent Freedom

But on good days, perhaps you think how awesome it is to be free to make all the parenting decisions, to have no one undermining your authority, no one confusing your child with conflicting demands. By the same token, of course, when you’re absolutely exhausted from being up with a sick child all night and you still have to go to work in the morning, you may be green with envy of two-parent homes, where someone is available to pinch hit when the going gets rough. You may dream of someone who shares the burdens of cooking and housework and running errands. Someone who picks up the dry-cleaning or goes to that PTA meeting when you just can’t make it.

Melanie Oates can tell you all about both sides of the equation. A single mother to a set of special needs 6-year-old twins—one has autism, the other a rare genetic disorder called Chromosome 7 Terminal Deletion—Oates blogs about her experiences as TwinMomMel. The pros and cons of single parenthood are something Melanie has often contemplated.

Single parent Melanie Oates with her special needs twins Julius and Genell
Single parent Melanie Oates with her special needs twins Julius and Genell

On the pro side, Melanie says, “You don’t have to worry about daily input from the other parent nagging about how you changed a diaper or what you cooked the kids for dinner. You don’t need to worry about your child favoring one parent over the other. That doesn’t exist because you are the main (or only) parent! Also: you get to create all the rules.”

Single parent Melanie Oates with Genell and Julius

But being able to see the positive doesn’t mean that Melanie doesn’t see the downside of single parenthood. Her cons outweigh her pros. “You get burned out quicker because there is no time for you to take off your ‘parent hat’ while the other parent takes over. If you have more than one child, it can be difficult to give each child their own independence because you don’t have another parent to help take one child to soccer practice, while you take the other to dance practice.

The Single Parent: Dating? What’s That?

“Also, as a single parent, if your child is sick, there goes another sick day taken from work since there is no other parent to fall back on. Not to mention: dating (what’s that?), especially if you have special needs children like myself. Good luck with finding a childcare provider that can help while you try to explore the dating world. Even worse, try meeting a ‘Mr. Right’ who actually understands the circumstances at home!” says Oates.

Single parent Melanie Oates with Julius and Genell

For Becky Lockridge, the issue for her two sons was the absence in their lives of a positive male figure. A single mother to two sons, ages 11 and 23, Becky has always been on her own. The lack of a strong male in her sons’ lives is something Lockridge feels keenly. “I tried to fill the void with coaches, godfathers, and big brother types. In the end I do wish my sons had had their fathers actively involved.”

Kate Campion, who blogs at My Sweet Home Life, has experienced it all: shared custody, full custody, and with remarriage, step-parenthood, as well. Like Melanie, Kate loved that there was no one to compete with her parenting style and no one to undermine her parental authority. But Campion suggests some other perks we might not have suspected. “You get the ‘firsts.’ When your child gets home from school, they often tell their news to the first parent they see. By the time their second parent gets home, that report is condensed to ‘I had a good day,’” says Campion. “You are the one with whom they share all the details of their life as it unfolds. It makes your relationships closer.”

Campion also suggests that single parenthood can bring extended family members closer, since a single parent may be forced to rely on extended family for help. On the other hand, says Campion, “You will never be a family unit the way you once were. If you remarry, you will need to navigate the murky waters of step-parenting. When you have a child, you build up a bank of love over the years that you can withdraw from in challenging times. You don’t have that luxury with a stepchild and your new partner will not have that with your children.

The Single Parent: No One to Share the Delight

“Also, as a single parent, there is no one who will share with you the delight of their achievements. When your child performs in a school play, or has a killer time on the sports field, you won’t be able to share in those moments with their dad at the end of the day,” says Kate.

“Finally, you have half the time, half the money, half the energy. Even small things, like when your child is sick, or you have a late meeting at work, are so much harder to manage when you are on your own.”

A single mother of one child, Monique Battiste adds that as a single parent, “There’s not much time to yourself, no dating life (unless you have or can find a sitter), and you feel stretched thin both financially and mentally.  But the hardest part for me, perhaps, is having to answer the question of why the other parent isn’t in my child’s life, why that parent is simply unavailable.”

Single Parent Monique Battiste with her daughter Jianna
Single parent Monique Battiste with her daughter Jianna

Single Parent Blind Spots

Dr. Edward V. Haas, M.D., psychiatrist and author of Transformative Parenting: The Empathic, Empowering Approach to Optimal Parenting and Personal Growth, points out that for the single parent, there’s, “No one to catch you when you are becoming irrational/unreasonable: Sometimes we are irrational. We may have an unrealistic expectation of our child which is leading to frustration and anger. Having another adult with a second opinion can help us see these ‘blind spots’ which interfere with our understanding, communication and bonding with our child.”

Haas also speaks of the dilemma of the single parent in balancing work and home. “Even many couples have difficulty meeting their financial obligations and caring for their children at the same time. Being a single parent can create a severe conflict between being present to care for the emotional needs and wants of their children and working to provide for their needs for food and housing.”

While most single parents see it as a plus that their parenting styles hold sway with no one to undermine their authority, Haas sees this a different way. “A single parent can only teach their way of doing things. People have different strengths and perspectives, children who have two parents can learn different ways of resolving issues and seeing things.”

On the other hand, says Haas, “Single parents can teach their children their way of seeing the world and doing things without the stress of conflict with another parent who may want to teach their child differently. Parents who are inclined to provide more freedom of action to their child do not have to feel conflicted with the other parent who may be more comfortable restricting their child in certain ways, and vice-versa.”

Single Parent Attitude

There is no doubt that the life of the single parent has its hardships and much like any other parenting experience, its triumphs, too. Can single parenthood be better in some cases than the traditional two-parent home? It seems that in many cases, it may be, especially when there’s strife in the marital relationship. But what seems to matter most of all, is attitude. A single parent who makes the effort to see all that is good, while not turning a blind eye to the issues, is a strong single parent: one who is bound to raise a strong, independent and healthy child, no matter the obstacles that develop along the way.

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Ban Best Friends in Schools??

At Prince George’s school, best friends are banned

Should schools ban best friends to encourage inclusivity? British parenting expert Liz Fraser thinks so, but the public wildly disagrees (and so does this author). Fraser cites four-year-old Prince George’s school, Thomas’s Battersea, as setting a positive example for its ban on best friends.  According to the Daily Mail, Fraser, a mother of four, told Good Morning Britain that having a best friend is too “territorial.” “It immediately [separates] this friend out as being different from all other friends, which immediately sets you into a mini group,” explains Fraser.

“Some children don’t have a best friend. I didn’t have a best friend. If I did have a best friend, I think it’s because no one wanted to be friends with us.”

The British expert also asserts that men don’t have best friends (which would appear to contradict the concept of “bros before hoes”).

“Boys don’t have best friends,” said Fraser. “They have mates, whereas girls have a best friend. It’s very territorial, it’s quite possessive, and for me there’s an element of it’s actually not to do with this friendship, it’s more about telling everybody else this is my best friend.

“I think it’s a good idea to try and keep things a bit more broad.”

Two good buddy-roos.
Boys can so too be best friends!

Fraser urges elementary school teachers to encourage children to be friends with groups of children, rather than with just one best friend. But psychologist Dr. Mark Rackley, appearing on the same segment, disagrees, stating that having a best friend teaches children how to form relationships. Moreover, said Rackley, best friends can be crucial for only children, who don’t have the benefit of long-term, supportive sibling relationships.

Viewers agreed with Rackley, with the backlash against Fraser, severe. Some called the idea of banning best friends “ridiculous,” while others called the concept “rubbish” (and worse). The controversy was so huge, it made its way over to the United States, where Dr. Barbara Greenberg weighed in in a column for U.S.News:

“The phrase best friend is inherently exclusionary. Among children and even teens, best friends shift rapidly. These shifts lead to emotional distress and would be significantly less likely if our kids spoke of close or even good friends rather than best friends. And, if kids have best friends, does that also imply that they have ‘worst friends?’ A focus on having best friends certainly indicates there’s an unspoken ranking system; and where there is a ranking system, there are problems. I see kids who are never labeled best friends, and sadly, they sit alone at lunch tables and often in their homes while others are with their best friends.”Two young girls lying on the grass in opposite directions, smiling best friends

Nonsense, says Bryan G. Stephens, in a reader op-ed he contributed to the conservative website Ricochet called, Ban Best Friends?

“Adults deciding who kids get to be friends with? That will not only breed resentment, it will reduce engagement in school. I have seen children without a best friend at school (in 6th grade I was one), and it hurt my performance in school. In 12th grade, when my then best friends and I broke up, I made it a point to find a new best friend, one whom I am still best friends with, so take that, social do-gooders.

“Think of all the friends I ‘excluded’ by having this one.

“To look at it another way, having someone force the kids in 6th grade who did not like me to be my ‘friend’ would have made things 100 times worse. I was already being bullied. Having teachers force apart cliques to include me would have [bred] resentment on their part, and guess who would have [borne] the brunt of their ire?” wrote Stephens.

Little boys, best friends, hugging, facing camera

 

Stephens’ brief defense of best friends had a positive response from readers. So positive that not a single reader disagreed with him. Readers at Ricochet, it seems, saw a nefarious political motive behind the drive to ban best friends in schools. One commenter described such bans as coming from “Big Brother,” with others suggesting the ban on best friends as a construct of the radical left, or in reality, a desire to ban the “free market.”

Like Stephens, this author has been on both sides of the equation. Bullied and excluded in the early years of primary education, then quite popular for a time, with best friends coming and going from 6th grade through high school graduation and beyond into adulthood. To ban best friends would have meant grudging acceptance, which would have caused immense hurt. It would have hindered, not helped my self-esteem to be tolerated.

Best friends, on the other hand, are invested in keeping a relationship going, much as a married couple wants to keep a marriage healthy and strong. It takes work to build and maintain any long-term relationship. Through the months and years, best friends learn to listen to one another and grow. Best friends acquire experience in what makes things worse, and perhaps more important, they learn what makes things better.

Little girl best friends take a selfie

Is there a down side to best friends? Not if you’re teaching children to be kind and nice to everyone. Having a best friend doesn’t mean you have to be mean to, or exclude anyone who is not your best friend.

Children should be taught to include other children at play and in activities so their feelings won’t be hurt. They should either invite all their classmates to their birthday parties or give out invitations outside of school (so the one or two children not invited won’t find out they’ve been excluded). Children should be taught not to mention party invitations within hearing of children who might not have been invited. Empathy for less popular children should be stressed and inclusion encouraged. Children should be asked, “How would you feel if no one wanted to play with you?”

But that doesn’t mean that schools should ban best friends or that children should not form best friend relationships. Being nice to all and having a best friend are not mutually exclusive concepts. Think about it this way: you can be friendly to people and still be committed/married to a single partner/spouse. You can be inclusive and still be exclusive and this is not at all a contradictory idea.

Two teenage girls show joy in each others' company.

Yes. Teach these concepts to children: Be nice to all. Don’t bully or tease less popular kids. Try to include them in your parties, play, and other activities.

But say yes, as well, to BFFs. In allowing your child to have a best friend, you’re giving your child an opportunity. You’re allowing your child to learn how to have a close relationship. This is a crucial life skill.

By having a best friend, your child learns about commitment and trust; how to listen and get past disagreements; and yes, even how to be married and parent children. Long-term relationships—whether with a parent, a sibling, a spouse, or best friend—all involve the same critical skill sets.

Two young girlfriends eating treats on the beach, smiling at each other.

So schools, please don’t ban best friends. A ban on best friends would only keep children from acquiring the experience they need to cultivate and maintain life-partner relationships. A school ban on best friends would eliminate the possibility of experiencing what it means to be extra special to just one person. It would mean not having the chance of gifting that feeling of being extra special to someone else.

And finally, you’d be robbing students of the joy and pleasure of having someone who understands them better than anyone else in the world, in a world that is darned confusing.

Know this: a best friend is an anchor and a rock and a pleasure.

Now why would anyone want to take that away from our children?