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.
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:
- Go slow. Wait until the child warms up to you rather than force the relationship.
- Be inviting. Greet the children with smiles and warmth.
- 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.
- 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:
- Introduce children to a potential stepmom very slowly so they have a chance to get acquainted and develop a caring relationship.
- 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.
- Stepmoms should never be the disciplinarian to the children. Give Dad that responsibility.
- Stepmoms need to earn the trust and respect of the kids which is a gradual process. Dad can be very helpful with this process.
- 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.
- 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.