8 Boundaries Stepparents Shouldn't Cross

Becoming a stepparent? Read these 8 important stepparenting no-no's and how to solve sticky situations.
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A stepfamily offers a new chance at love and family life, but it is also an attempt to bring together various parents and problems, different spouses and siblings. "A stepfamily is a fundamentally different structure and it makes a different foundation for relationships than a first-time family," says psychologist Patricia Papernow, Ed.D., a member of the National Stepfamily Resource Center's expert council and author of Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn't. One of these differences is that in a stepfamily, the spouses do not have an equal relationship to the children or in the parenting process. This dynamic sets up a web of boundaries that stepparents are wise not to cross. Here we tackle eight common slip-ups to avoid and how stepparents can handle these situations.

1. Trying to take the place of the mother or father. Whether the new marriage is a result of divorce or death, you can never take the place of the other biological parent and should not attempt to. "These children are not yours," says Derek Randel, parenting expert and certified stepfamily coach through the Step-Family Foundation in New York City. "No matter what the biological ex-spouse has done, respect the child's need to love that parent." The same goes for requiring that the stepkids call you "Mom" or "Dad." Don't ever demand it or even ask for it.

Instead: Be clear with yourself and the stepchild about your role in the family. "A stepparent can become a loved, respected mentor to the child while realizing that he can't reconstitute the biological family," Randel says. Remember that a stepchild can develop feelings of love and respect for you without using the term "Mom" or "Dad." And if the kids do decide, on their own, to use that term for you, demonstrate a quiet gratitude and a responsibility to live up to the label.

2. Spanking your stepkids. Even if you believe in spanking, a stepparent should never cross the line of administering physical consequences to a child. "Always refrain from losing your cool and hitting, swearing or 'losing it' with your stepchildren," says JoAnne Pedro-Carroll, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author of Putting Children First: Proven Parenting Strategies to Help Children Thrive Through Divorce. "It's hard enough when tempers get out of control between children and their own parents. The incident and the painful memories of [physical discipline from a stepparent] can last a lifetime and take a toll on any chance of building trust and respect in the new family."

Instead: Remove yourself from the situation if you feel yourself getting overly worked up and report any misbehavior to the biological parent to determine if consequences are necessary.

3. Assuming a position of authority. Young children, under the age of 5 or 6, may be more willing accept a stepparent's authority in the new family, but school-age children and teens will often rebuff a stepparent's attempts at automatic authority.

Instead: "For new stepparents, it is best to proceed slowly--not as a disciplinarian, but as a supportive friend to the child and a supportive resource to your partner," Dr. Pedro-Carroll suggests. You may have won the heart of your new spouse, but if he or she is a package deal with kids in tow, you'll need to earn the love and respect of your new stepchildren too. Basic respect is a must, but you'll need to put time and effort into the relationship with your stepchildren if you want more.

4. Getting involved in parenting discussions between your partner and the ex. It can be tempting to weigh in on a parenting discussion between your spouse and his or her ex--but don't. "The ex didn't agree to coparent with you and will likely feel ganged up on if you give unsolicited advice," explains Jenna Korf, a certified stepfamily foundation coach at Stepmomhelp.com and co-author of Skirts At War: Beyond Divorced Mom/Stepmom Conflict. "Exes who are still holding on to anger or hurt from the divorce can cause a world of pain for you and your spouse, so try to avoid inserting yourself into their discussions."

Instead: Although stepparents can certainly provide their input into a parenting situation, this should be done privately with the spouse, not during the conversation with the ex. "Any decisions or information should then be shared with the ex by the biological parent," Korf says. Make a concerted effort to build a positive relationship with your spouse's ex so that your interactions and input can be well received.

Getting involved in parenting discussions between your partner and the ex.

4. Getting involved in parenting discussions between your partner and the ex. It can be tempting to weigh in on a parenting discussion between your spouse and his or her ex--but don't. "The ex didn't agree to coparent with you and will likely feel ganged up on if you give unsolicited advice," explains Jenna Korf, a certified stepfamily foundation coach at Stepmomhelp.com and co-author of Skirts At War: Beyond Divorced Mom/Stepmom Conflict. "Exes who are still holding on to anger or hurt from the divorce can cause a world of pain for you and your spouse, so try to avoid inserting yourself into their discussions."

Instead: Although stepparents can certainly provide their input into a parenting situation, this should be done privately with the spouse, not during the conversation with the ex. "Any decisions or information should then be shared with the ex by the biological parent," Korf says. Make a concerted effort to build a positive relationship with your spouse's ex so that your interactions and input can be well received.

5. Getting involved in arguments between your stepchild and your spouse. "If you want to preserve your relationship with your stepchildren and partner, it's best to let them work conflict out on their own," Korf says. "Unless the stepparent and child are well bonded, the child will likely feel that the stepparent is butting into their business, and this can cause the child to feel resentful of their stepparent." Even if you have the best intentions, Korf says, your interference can prevent your spouse and your stepchild from learning how to resolve problems on their own and can have a negative impact on your marriage. "For stepmoms, if you swoop in and try to fix everything for your husband, he may feel emasculated and view your action as a belief that you don't think he can handle his own child. This will surely cause some tension in your marriage."

Instead: Be your partner's support system, Korf suggests, giving him feedback only if and when he asks for it. If he doesn't come to you for help, then assume he's got it covered.

6. Ignoring or countering the wishes of the ex. If your stepchild's mom has forbidden dyeing her hair, midriff-baring shirts, or dating before she's 16, it's not your place to override her wishes. "Realize that there are no ex-parents, just ex-spouses," Randel says. Your new spouse may no longer be married to the ex, but the ex still gets a say in parenting their children.

Instead: "Your spouse needs to coparent with the ex. The more helpful and understanding you are, the easier it will be for the entire family," Randel says. If you have serious concerns about the stepchild's health, wellness, or safety because of the ex-spouse's rules, talk with your spouse about it. If you just don't like the rules the ex-spouse has made for the child, step back and realize you don't get to control everything.

7. Bad-mouthing the ex. As tempting as this may be, talking poorly about the ex-spouse is always no-no--even if the stepkids are doing it. "It is important for a stepparent to listen with empathy and kindness but not put down the parent to the child or allow the child to hear negative comments about their parent," Dr. Pedro-Carroll says. "After all, the child is 50 percent of that person, and they may experience negative comments as an attack on their very own DNA. Children can be damaged by exposure to ongoing conflict and repeated negative messages that put them in the middle of conflict."

Instead: Be a sounding board if your spouse or stepchild needs to vent, but don't contribute to the bad-mouthing. When possible, contribute to the quality of family life by helping to contain any conflict between your partner and their ex. "You can be a tremendous support to your partner and your stepchildren when you maintain some objectivity and do not enter into every conflict," Dr. Pedro-Carroll says.

8. Pressuring your new partner to always put you first or seeing your stepchild's need for one-on-one time with his parent as a threat to your marriage. Children often worry that a parent's love for a new spouse will mean less love for the child. "This fear may cause children to behave with anger and resentment that seems unjustified," Dr. Pedro-Carroll explains. If a stepparent does not understand the need for a child to have a deeply connected bond to his biological parent, problems in the family and the marriage can arise.

Instead: First, understand the importance of a strong parent-child relationship and have confidence that their relationship does not undermine your relationship with your spouse. A jealous attitude towards your stepchild will negatively affect your marriage. "Because parents have strong bonds with their own children, they instinctively protect them against harm," Dr. Pedro-Carroll says. "Thus, hurt feelings or problems between a stepparent and stepchild can easily undermine a remarriage. Stepparents and stepchildren developing positive relationships is critical to the new family's success."

Copyright © 2013 Meredith Corporation.

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