How to Stay Clear and Focused as a Step-Parent
Let's face it. Being a step-parent is tough…sometimes it even feels impossible!
Too often as a step-dad I've felt unimpactful and under-appreciated. Then I get frustrated and start blaming Kim or Annika (my step-daughter) for everything that's going wrong.
And when that happens, my self-talk sounds something like this:
"If only Annika would do…"
"I wish Kim could figure out…
"Why won't they behave the way I want them to?!"
This is the kind of thinking that keeps me focused on what I think everyone else needs to do in order to make me feel better…
…the problem here is that I can only change me!
So, I've got to hijack my own thinking so that I can focus on what I can do to be the best step-parent I can be.
That can be a huge, complex and seemingly impossible subject. But I've learned that when I (and any step-parent) can stay focused on 3 simple guidelines — the three C's for step-parents — we're the ones who actually change and our whole family benefits!
Let's check 'em out:
In her book Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships, step family expert Patricia Papernow says that a step-parent's job is "Connection, not Correction".
As a step-parent, your primary focus should be on building a relationship — connection — with your step-children.
I've found that connecting starts with curiosity. Early in our step family journey, I thought my primary job was to teach, direct and discipline Annika. But the truth is I needed to connect with her so that I could positively influence her life. And that started with finding ways to discover who this little 5-year old was.
So, I had to learn to ask questions.
I know, I know…this seems almost too simple, but we can often assume our job is to teach rather than to learn. Learning about our step-kids helps us connect with them. Asking them about their likes, dislikes, history, dreams or feelings can help them to feel valuable and communicates that you care.
Inviting them to share even just simple things about themselves often opens them up to considering that you're not so bad after all.
And if you want to take your curiosity to the next level, consider learning their "Love Language" or figuring out their Personality Type. Not only will you gain special insight that can help grow connections with your step-kids, but you can learn these together with your partner which will grow your relationship at the same time!
You'll probably think of many more connection ideas on your own. And as you do, remember to stay curious and keep your primary focus consistent connection.
Just as important as consistent connection, step-parents must be cautious about correction.
One of the most common mistakes step-parents make is inserting themselves into a discipline role too soon.
When you first formed your step family, your partner was probably both excited and relieved to finally have someone help them parent their kids. And we have to realize that parenting is a very broad subject, but most often discipline is exhausting for single parents and they want some help.
But, there's one big problem with step-parents entering into a discipline role (especially early on) — it doesn't facilitate connection which is the first guideline we just talked about.
Bio-parents have a longer history and deeper bond with the children. They are the primary and final authority in their children's lives. And this should not change when a step family is formed.
Just like Papernow stated above, step-parents should be focused on "Connection, NOT Correction" (emphasis mine)
Bio-parents must stay in the primary disciplinarian role and allow the step-parent to stay focused on connection and be very cautious of correction.
So…does that mean bio-parents don't get any relief and support?! Absolutely not. That leads us to the final C:
Step-Parenting is tough, but that doesn't mean the Parent has it easy!
Step-parents, as you shift your energy away from disciplining — use that energy to support your partner.
Here's three ways to do this:
Strategize with your partner to discover your household values. This can help you both be clear on which behaviors require discipline and which can be let go of. Then — behind closed doors — collaborate to decide on things like consequences and rewards. Your partner needs to be the one administering the discipline, but they shouldn't have to make all the discipline decisions alone.
Affirm and Encourage your partner when they do a great job with their kids. Saying something like, "I know it was tough for you last night to hold that boundary with Johnny. I want you to know I agree with what you did and how you did it…good job!" These kinds of affirmations can give them the energy they need to keep leading the way for effective discipline in your home.
Give 'em a break! When you focus on the first C — Connecting Consistently — you can find ways to spend some fun time with your step-kid(s) that will create connection while your partner does something else that they enjoy! And don't overcomplicate this. It can be as simple as playing a game with the kids while your wife takes a bubble bath or your husband works on a project in his shop. Just find simple ways to give them a much needed break!
A bio-parent who feels supported by their partner will be able to stay more consistent as primary disciplinarian for their kids. And that will help you really live out Patricia Papernow's rule of thumb — "Connection, not Correction".
What's the End Game?
When we get caught up in discipline today, it's easy to lose sight of the long-term. When it comes to parenting in a step family, you and your partner need to be clear about the end game.
Patricia Papernow's full statement gives a great picture of what the end game is. She says, "Children thrive when step-parents concentrate on connection, not correction, and parents practice caring, responsive and firm parenting."
We all want our children (and step-children) to thrive and this is the prescription to get them there. So, step-parents do your part by Connecting Consistently, Correcting Cautiously, and Collaborating Constantly.
When you look back on your journey, what do you want your legacy as a step-parent to be?
We're now 17 years into our journey and I'm grateful for the bond that exists between Annika and me. That hasn't happened because Kim and I did all this perfectly — believe me, we didn't — but we did regularly remind ourselves of what we wanted our end game to be and did our best to stay centered on these three C's.
Put these three principles into action in your step family and someday you'll be telling a similar story.
QUESTION: What are some creative ways you have found to connect with your step-kid(s)? Leave a comment below…