Blended families are becoming the norm—nearly half of all Americans have at least one step relative in their family, according to a Pew Research Center survey. While this may present some additional complications at first, welcoming new family members also presents new opportunities for love and care, says Monique Honaman, counselor and co-author of BONUS Dad! BONUS Mom! The success or failure of the new family depends a lot on the relationships the kids have with all the adults involved.
“Children should never feel as if they have to choose one parent over the other,” Honaman says. “Whenever possible, kids need both parents and stepparents engaged and active in their lives. Parents should do all they can to assure their children that they still have access to both parents, without any guilt, and that no sides need to be taken.”
But that’s from an expert. What about the kids themselves? We asked stepchildren, some former and some current, to share what they wish their stepparents understood.
Sometimes you are exactly what we need
Forget the stereotype of the wicked stepparent—some stepmoms and stepdads are godsends to children who’ve already been through a lot. “My stepdad, who I simply call ‘Dad’, filled the role of father the way my biological dad, who was an alcoholic, never did. My dad showed me nothing but pure and real love and affection from the time he met me,” says Lacey C., of Denver. “Never once have I ever felt anything less than 100 percent his daughter.” Here’s how you can form that kind of relationship with your parents, step or otherwise.
You can be an incredible ally
Some of the most beautiful step-relationships happen when the new stepparent doesn’t try to assume the role of mother or father but instead carves out a special niche with the children. “My stepmother taught me that there was room in my life for non-parent adults, that she could fill a different role than my mom, essentially as another adult ally,” says Amanda S., of Memphis, Tennessee. “Because of her, I had a richer, fuller life.”
Things go better when you don’t divide along marriage lines
It can feel normal and even safer to stay within the new marriage lines, particularly if the divorce was acrimonious. But when it comes to the children’s well-being, it works so much better if you can cross the marriage divide, Amanda says. “I learned that sometimes a parent and step-parent could work together for my best interest,” she explains. “I wish I could tell my parents that sometimes your most important ally could be the other co-parent—and not your spouse.”
I was traumatized by the divorce
Divorce is one of the most traumatic experiences a child can go through and it’s important to recognize that the new marriage doesn’t take that away. “I wish my stepparents understood that the divorce of my parents was a trauma,” says Karen A., of Waterford, Connecticut. “When my parents divorced years ago no one understood emotional trauma and how to deal with it so we suffered a lot.“ If these feelings hit home for you, try these 12 steps to heal from a trauma of any type.
There’s no such thing as an instant family
The Brady Bunch may have been a fun show but it wasn’t exactly realistic in showing how tough it can be to blend two families together. “I wish my parents and stepparents understood that you can’t just mash people together into the same house, call it a family, and hope it all works out,” Karen says. “It takes a great deal of work and messiness and compassion and time.” Functional families take work, that’s just one of 16 things parents of young children wish you understood.
Try to include the other parent, even if you don’t like them
“My biological father disappointed me time and time again but my (step)dad was always there to pick up the pieces,” Lacey says. But even better, he made an effort to help her maintain a safe relationship with her biological dad. “My (step)dad never said a bad word about my father and always made a point to invite him to dinner if he was in town and would always include him in everything. As a kid, I really appreciated it but as an adult, I’m filled with gratitude for the sacrifices he made for me.”
Calling yourself my dad doesn’t make you my dad
A title like “mom” or “dad” has to be earned and the child will let you know, says Quish T., of Minneapolis. “The one thing I wish my stepdad could have understood is that just because he married my mom didn’t make him my dad and therefore he didn’t automatically get dad privileges, like my love,” she says. This isn’t the only mistake stepparents make, check out these 52 of the worst parenting tips parents ever got.
Stepchildren are more likely to be victims of abuse
One heart-breaking statistic many people don’t realize is that stepchildren are far more likely to be victimized. Stepkids are five times more likely to be a victim of sexual or physical abuse, according to a study published in Violence and Victims. Additionally, men are twice as likely to abuse stepchildren as they are their biological children, according to a separate study published in Psychology of Violence. “I wish I could have told my stepfather that he didn’t have the right to put his hands on me but I was a child and didn’t have the words then,” Quish says. Sometimes abuse isn’t obvious, like these 11 ways you’re being a toxic parent.
You’re setting an example for how to handle not just marriage but also divorce
No child wants to think of repeating the mistakes of their parents but divorce is very common, including people whose own parents split up. “My stepmom taught me valuable lessons about how to handle a divorce through her actions, both good and bad,” says Michelle K., of Columbus, Ohio. “Years later, when I was going through my own divorce I was able to look at her example and decide what to do and what not to do.”
The worst thing you can do is talk badly about the other parents
You likely have some hard feelings towards your ex but while it’s fine to vent them to your best friend, your pastor, or your therapist, the one person who should never hear them is your child, Michelle says. “I heard so many hurtful things said about my mom from my stepmom,” she says. “Each hateful word she said hurt me deeply.”
You can’t demand respect
Respect—who gets it and how its shown—is a big deal in most families but can become a key issue in blended families. Unfortunately, simply telling the kids to respect their new stepparent didn’t work for Monica C., of Phoenix, Arizona. “I’m not going to just grant you my respect,” she explains. “We need to build a relationship and you need to earn my respect, not just demand it.” Feeling nervous about having your own children someday? Check out these 11 signs you’ll make a great parent.
We don’t want to feel like the “other” kid
While some kids want to keep their distance from their stepparent, sometimes it works the opposite way—much to the detriment of the kids. “I wish my stepdad understood that I just wanted to be part of the family. He married my mom when I was only two and yet he introduced me as ‘Julie’s daughter’ for my whole life,” says Michelle S., of Omaha, Nebraska. “I never, ever felt like I belonged.”
Sometimes I just really miss my real dad and that’s not your fault
For many children, a new stepparent isn’t just an addition of a new person, it can also feel like a loss of the relationship with their biological parents. When Lizzie E.’s, of Seattle, dad passed away from cancer, her mom remarried a man that, though she liked him, his presence alone often reminded her of how her real dad was gone. “I hope my stepfather understands that it’s not his fault that I’m mad that he gets to hold my children and not my dad,” she says. “I hope he understands that, even though I want to, I can never be as close to him as if he were my real dad because it’s just a reminder that I can’t have my own dad back.”
I’m not competition in your relationship
“Right off the bat my stepmom saw me not as a child but as competition for my dad’s attention and affection,” says Callie M., of Baltimore. “I wish I could have made my stepmom understand that I was not a threat to their relationship. It really poisoned things from the beginning.” Heads up to parents who may be part of this type of relationship dynamic: It’s one of the 9 subtle signs you’re in a toxic relationship.
We see all the little things you do for us…eventually
Children, especially when they are young, will miss a lot of the dynamics happening between the adults. But someday those kids will be adults, and perhaps parents, themselves and will see you in a whole new light, Lacey says. “I found out later that my bio dad had never sent a child-support check but my stepdad knew I would be heartbroken so he mailed one to our home every month and put my dad’s name on it,” she says.