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How Can Stepparents Forge Happier and Stronger Relationships With Their Stepchildren?

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Moms need to let their children know that they can communicate openly and honestly about issues in the stepfamily, said Kevin Shafer, assistant professor of Social Work at Brigham Young University and one of the study's authors. Too often, kids figure mom will side with her new husband and there's no point in discussing things, he said. The mom and stepfather also need to let the kids know that the couple's relationship is a good one; it's important to keep arguments in front of the kids to a minimum, Shafer noted. And finally, the stepfather and mom need to agree on how they're going to parent.

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Depending on the situation and age, children may take a long time to accept a stepparent. Teens may take even longer than children under eight. Adolescents may already be struggling with all the adult relationships in their lives. They may also be experiencing things that have nothing to do with the new stepparent. Being too eager to force a relationship may backfire. Giving kids time to get used to you may prove beneficial over time. “The greatest chance to be a positive influence can only be achieved through patient bonding,” advises John Patrick Jacobson, a stepfather of two teenaged children and founder of website, Stepfathers.com. Your spouse plays a vital role in helping kids and stepparents build a positive relationship. Tad Benson, a stepdad of a six-year-old boy and founder of Stepdads.com warns that sometimes “Moms tend to try and force it and make everything all right, but it won’t pay off in the long run.” Benson maintains, rather than rush the relationship, “it will take time and it needs to be built on mutual trust and acceptance.” He states, “your goal initially is to survive.” Based on his experience, Benson adds, “as long as everyone is mutually respected and there’s love abounding, you should strive to create your own relationship and family dynamics.” Benson warns that, “stepdads need to see themselves as stepdads, not biological dads.” Though this may be difficult to accept when you are eager to forge new relationships with stepkids, but Benson feels this belief will help to build a better foundation. A new, special bond will most likely develop naturally over time. According to a recent poll completed by stepdads, conversation is the best way to connect with stepchildren. This is followed by activities of mutual interest such as computer games and sports. Stepparents may make progress building relationships with stepchildren by trying to be a loving relative, instead of a parent. Understand that the child may feel threatened and concerned about their place in the family. Children may worry about their relationship with your spouse, their parent Benson comments, “the thing that worked best for me and our family was that I had an outlook that framed all of my interactions.” In his experience with his stepson, Benson says, “I look at him as an individual, a family member, a loved one that I am helping raise, to mentor, to love, and a friend and a parent when appropriate.” He suggests providing a stepchild with a “sanctuary of love” at home.

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The parenting style adopted by both biological parents and stepparents appears to be influential upon child and adolescent wellbeing. Authoritative, or ‘warm but firm’ parenting, is generally considered to be the most desirable form of parenting (Daniel, Wassell & Gilligan, 1999). Nicholson, Phillips, Peterson and Battistutta (1998) found that parenting practices, particularly the combination of parenting styles used by the parent and stepparent, were associated with adjustment in young adulthood in their study. Those who had experienced a disengaged or neglectful parenting style by both biological parent and stepparent had the poorest outcomes, such as engagement in violent crime or heavy drug use, whereas one or both parents using authoritative parenting styles was protective against adverse outcomes. It seems, however, that authoritative parenting is often hard to adopt, particularly for stepparents. Pryor and Rodgers (2001) indicate that, particularly in the early phases of a stepfamily, authoritative parenting is difficult for stepfathers to adopt and, in fact, authoritative parenting is less likely to occur in stepfamilies overall, even by biological parents. In adolescence, however, there is some suggestion that permissive step parenting is not only desired by children, but may be optimal for them (Pryor & Rodgers, 2001).

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For the most part, while stepmothers in particular face challenges related to role expectations, stepparenting in general is riddled with uncertainty. Stepparents often struggle to determine what the stepparent role and responsibilities are and define their role within the family. This uncertainty affects their ability to create and maintain a satisfying relationship with their stepchild. This challenge is greater for stepmothers, who are more likely than stepfathers to struggle with not wanting to compete with the biological parent. Stepmothers are more likely than stepfathers to consider themselves parenting but not a real parent.

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Pryor, J., & Rodgers, B. (2001). Children in changing families: Life after parental separation. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers.

Daniel, B., Wassell, S., & Gilligan, R. (1999). Child development for child care and protection workers. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Cartwright, C. (2005). Stepfamily living and parent-child relationships: An exploratory investigation. Journal of Family Studies, 11, 267–283.

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How Can Stepparents Forge Happier and Stronger Relationships With Their Stepchildren?
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