That’s often a big part of what it feels like to be a stepmother, says Rachelle Katz, author of The Happy Stepmother. “It can be one of the most challenging roles in society,” she explains, “and it often receives little support and understanding from others.” Katz is a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City, and runs monthly stepmother support groups. She also is the mother to a stepdaughter. Knowing how many of you out there have your own stepchildren and blended families, I asked Katz:. If she had to name five things stepmoms shouldn‘t do, what would they be? Her answers drive home just how complex this role and relationship is, and how much effort it can take for everyone in the family to feel comfortable. This is her list.

1. Don’t overdo it

It’s easier to develop caring, loving, and friendly relationships with stepchildren when you’re not taking on parental responsibilities. As much as you can, let your husband take on the bulk of the true parenting stuff, and concentrate on spending quality time with the kids and interacting with them in meaningful, pleasurable ways.

2. Don’t discipline your stepchildren

Mental health experts generally agree that, at least in the first few years of remarriage, disciplining stepchildren should be left to the biological parents. Stepchildren need time to bond with stepparents, to learn to trust and accept them, before they can view them as authority figures. Stepmothers should operate more as a babysitters or aunts than as parents. You might say, “This is the rule of the house: Homework is done before television.” If your stepchild counters, “You’re not my parent!” you can respond with, “Yes, you’re right. You have a mom and a dad, and I’m not going to replace either one of them. Meanwhile, I’m the adult in charge here tonight, and the rule is no television until homework is done.”

3. Don’t yell at your stepchildren

Remember that it is inappropriate to criticize, put down, raise your voice, or be cruel in any way to your stepchildren – no matter how much they may seem to misbehave or aggravate you. (While it’s equally inappropriate to yell at your biological children, there’s usually a stronger foundation of love that may enable them to tolerate and overlook an occasional angry outburst on your part.) If you find yourself lashing out at your stepchildren, apologize immediately. This doesn’t mean you’re condoning their misbehavior; you’re simply taking responsibility for your own behavior. An apology is a sign of respect and an indication that you care about your stepchildren and your relationship with them.

4. Don’t ever say anything critical about your stepchildren’s mother

Even if your criticism of her is accurate and justified, it will only hurt your stepchildren to know how you feel. The resentment this might produce could last for years, regardless of all the wonderful things you do for them.

5. Don’t encourage your stepchildren to call you Mommy

Some stepmothers, particularly those with full-time custody of their stepchildren, perceive themselves as their stepchildren’s “true” mothers. But even then it’s inappropriate for her to ask her stepchildren to call her Mommy. Stepchildren who have limited relationships with their mother still maintain a strong sense of loyalty, and probably harbor the hope of developing a better relationship with her in the future. Young stepchildren, as a sign of affection and respect, may be most likely to call you Mommy. If yours does this, gently correct him by saying that you love him very much, but he has a mommy who also loves him very much. You know he loves you, and it’s okay if he calls you by your first name. (If this is too casual for your taste, have your stepchild add Miss in front of your name.)

All you stepmothers out there: What do you find to be the biggest challenge?

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  1. by Megan

    On September 28, 2010 at 8:13 am

    While I agree with most of what you say in this article, I don’t agree with #5. My sister’s children are in a rather unfortunate situation with their biological father (whom they call Daddy); he’s in and out of their lives and we never know when he’ll be around or how long he’ll go between contact. Their stepfather is an excellent man, and has been constant in their lives from a very young age. They sometimes – not all the time – call him Dad and associate him with that role. My sister and he do not encourage, nor discourage this. Its just another of his “hats”.

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