“I know I have a daddy, but can I call you daddy?”
Being a step-parent is a fantastic experience, one of the best in the world and one of the worst all at the same time, you feel like you are intruding and stepping on someone else’s toes at the same time as trying to love a child unconditionally.
Yes that’s right, any parent, whether a biological parent or a step-parent should love a child unconditionally, it’s important and at the end of the day, they are children. There are lots of unwritten rules associated with being a step-parent and lots of invisible lines, but if you are a step-parent then you need to know a few things:
1 – Step up to the line
This is important because if you are in a committed relationship that you both want to last for a very long time then you have to be involved in parenting. It’s unfair on your partner and their children if there is only one adult involved in the parenting when you are living together. It also sends a very clear message to the child that you are not there for them.
2 – Love unconditionally
Children know when they are not loved or liked. They haven’t chosen you, their parent has, so you will need to go the extra mile to show that you can love them unconditionally, just as much as your own children. I have no doubt that deep inside you will feel differently about your own children, that’s perfectly understandable, but to make being a step-parent really work then be prepared to give love, a lot, again and again.
3 – Don’t let your step-children reject you
We don’t label children as ‘naughty’ anymore, it’s wrong. No child chooses to be naughty, they try to solve a situation in the best way they can. Sometimes it’s the ‘naughty’ things they do in order to get attention from someone, which might include your partner’s ex, their ‘real parent’. Whether this is a real or imaginary need, at some point your step-children will feel it. It’s not naughtiness, it’s part of getting used to their new lives, so be prepared to love them through thick and thin. Have your answer ready to show you forgive them no matter what “I’m not your mother/father, but I love you as though you were my own.”
4 – Be prepared to hear “you’re not my mum (or dad)”
As a child’s brain develops they go through periods of plasticity, when effectively the layout of the roads in their brains are changing. During these periods you will see and hear all sorts of things from your children, things you never thought they would say, such as “I hate you”, “you don’t love me”, “you’re not the boss of me” and the finale for step-parents around the world “you’re not my mum (or dad)”. It will happen, it’s symptoms of a child adjusting to a new set of rules, either in the family home or in their head. It may be the symptom of a child ‘fighting’ on behalf of their missing parent or trying to cope with the change to having 3 parents not two, at some point it will happen, it will hurt, but expect it. Have your answer ready “no, I’m not, but I love you as though you were my own.”
You will be surprised by what children understand about what’s going on. Even if you have tried to keep the disagreement with ‘the ex’ out of their earshot (or even worse it happened in front of the children), they’ll have quite a good idea about how your partner’s ex feels about you. And that is confusing for a child, no matter what age. There is a new ‘friend’ here that my mother/father says is alright and I want to get to know, but I feel I’m being a traitor by being their friend. Even if your partner’s ex is great with things, the children will think this at some point, so help them through it, show you understand and that you are alright with it.
5 – Enjoy it!
Being a parent of a child should be the best job in the world, whether that child is yours or not. Honestly, have fun, enjoy, develop shared interests, learn new skills together, spend time together, learn about each other. You have entered into a relationship with not just your partner, so, just as you got to know your partner, get to know their children too.
If you and your partner are deciding on your future together or contemplating joining two families together, then you need to be prepared to go through the highs and lows, there will be lots of hurdles and things that could easily split you up if you are not prepared for them.
Want step-parenting support and advice?
We have a special step-parents section of the community in Help My Child Grow, my growing network of parents around the globe.