Because when you enter a new family dynamic, it’s easy to overstep your bounds.
You’re not naïve or stupid. You’ve been divorced. Your partner has been as well. You want this new marriage to work, but not everyone, i.e., the kids, shares that feeling. It’s natural. Such is the challenge of being a stepdad. You know the blending will take work, but it’s impossible to foresee the entire landscape. “This is filled with landmines,” says Dr. Jeff Bostic, psychiatrist at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. You can’t avoid mistakes. Some decisions will stem from ego and are doomed to failure; with some actions, your motives are pure, but the result will be the same. It’s no less frustrating, but there are alternatives that lead to better outcomes. Here are seven common mistakes step fathers make and how to avoid them.
The Mistake: Telling them “You should show your mom more respect.”
It makes sense to believe that you’re helping by having your partner’s back. Not even close. The kids will think, “Who is this guy?” Your spouse now has to worry about you and the children, forcing her to pick sides, a game with no winner. Per Dr. Carl Hindy, clinical psychologist and author of If This Is Love, Why Do I Feel So Insecure? There’s also an underlying critique of her parenting skills – it could be misconstrued as you saying You don’t know how to handle them – a sensitive topic, even if a person hasn’t gone through a divorce.
The Better Move: Say and do nothing. While the situation may seem chaotic, it’s nothing unusual for your partner. Later, ask, “Are you all right? Anything you need from me?” Empathy is rarely unappreciated, Hindy says. This is a chance for connection and understanding, since, keep in mind, you’re still taking baby steps with the merger.
The Mistake: Imposing limits that you perceive are needed
You may be correct that the biological father is too lenient, but you don’t have the standing to counteract that. You’re also not offering a possibility, merely the other disciplinary extreme. This puts you in a precarious situation and the competing messages will negate each other, says Dr. Dana Dorfman, psychotherapist in New York City.
The Better Move: Coordinate the message, with your partner always taking the lead. She’s already going back and forth with her ex. What she needs to hear is, “I’m with you in what you want to do.” If kids are new for you, say, “My instinct says this, but I don’t know what it’s like. You know your kids best.” Always assuming her benevolent intent is a solid mindset, she says.