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In the parenthood

Helping stepparents avoid the big mistakes

By Lylah M. Alphonse
Globe Staff / September 16, 2010

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As anyone who’s been a stepparent can attest, it can be challenging, frustrating, confusing, and rewarding. And all that work deserves a little recognition. So, in honor of National Stepfamily Day (bet you didn’t know it’s today!), we reached out to three stepparenting experts and asked them the not-so-simple questions: What is the biggest mistake stepparents make, and how can they fix (or avoid) the problem?

Really the most common mistake I see is not at the level of the stepmom or stepdad as an individual. It’s a mistake at the level of the couple: They try to “blend.’’ And believe me, contrary to what the media would have us believe, in the vast majority of remarriages or repartnerships with children, “blending’’ is a highly unrealistic expectation.

That’s why the National Stepfamily Resource Center has asked therapists, stepfamily experts, and the media to stop using the term “blended family.’’ Sure, when couples expect to ‘blend’’ they have the best intentions. But let’s think about what the metaphor of blending implies. It implies that the stepfamily is supposed to look, feel, and act like a first family, as if that’s the only standard of success.

The key to satisfaction, the research suggests, is to relax those expectations of “blending’’ and accept that stepfamilies and stepparents are all different. Depending on the age and temperament of the stepchildren, whether the ex-wife or ex-husband is supportive of the kids having a relationship with the stepparent, and how supportive the marriage is, relationships between stepparent and stepkids can fall anywhere on a wide spectrum: from very close and loving to polite and civil to prickly but workable. If the married couple (or life partners) let go of the idea that it has to be all love, all the time, right away, they can figure out a stepfamily dynamic that works for them.

The other biggest mistake is forgetting to put the marriage or partnership first. A divorced and remarried mom or dad has tons of history with his or her kids and less with his or her partner/spouse. Because remarriage with kids is so challenging (rejecting stepkids and unsupportive exes put a lot of stress on a marriage!) couples have to really tend to that relationship without feeling guilty.

WEDNESDAY MARTIN, PhD, author of “Stepmonster’’

As a stepparent, it is especially important to respect the child’s relationship with their other parent. One of the biggest mistakes is to be critical or hostile toward the child’s other parent. Such behaviors can develop into a negative pattern that escalates over time, taking a toll on everyone. Likewise, moving into the role of the child’s parent too quickly, or pressuring them to refer to you as “Mom’’ or “Dad’’ when they already have a parent creates problems.

If these mistakes have already happened, it is important to start today to behave more respectfully toward a partner’s ex, especially when children are involved. If children have heard hostile comments made about their parent, apologize for the mistake and work toward building a relationship in which children learn that they can trust you will do what you say. Stepparents can be powerful positive role models for stepchildren. An opportunity not to be missed.

JOANNE PEDRO-CARROLL, PhD, author of “Putting Children First’’

Perhaps the biggest mistake made by stepparents is having unrealistic expectations for the new stepfamily, the first and most crucial being that the stepfamily will “blend’’ over time. Another unrealistic expectation is that stepparents will automatically love their stepchildren and that the stepchildren will reciprocate that love in return. Love is an emotion that can’t be forced. If a stepparent doesn’t love their stepchild, it’s acceptable as long as they provide them kindness, compassion, and respect. No more and no less should be expected of stepparents or of their stepchildren. When an expectation of love is removed, it is easier for the whole stepfamily to just be nice to each other in a genuine way. In turn, this eventually can lead to love.

My advice to these stepparents would be to revise any unrealistic expectations. This could be the key to a happy and adjusted stepfamily. Stepparents can improve their mindset by substituting positive thoughts for negative ones, visualizing positive outcomes which will help achieve goals for their families, using positive affirmation to break negative patterns, and practicing small acts of kindness which will make their family members feel more connected.

RACHELLE KATZ, EdD, author of “The Happy Stepmother’’

Lylah M. Alphonse, a mom and stepmom of five, writes the In the Parenthood blog for Boston.com/Moms. E-mail her at LAlphonse@globe.com; follow her on Twitter: @WriteEditRepeat.