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Stepping up to Step Parenting

As if parenting isn't challenging enough, the entire concept of being a step-parent is fraught with risk. And, if you approach it right, unique rewards for both the adult and the child. Blood is not only thicker than water, it fuels the parenting equation with a kind of love that no step-parent, no matter how strongly they feel, can equal. But with an understanding of the differences, and a commitment to not allowing the traps to compromise the child-step-parent dynamic, nothing says it can't stand as one of life's most valuable and rewarding of efforts.

Step-parents fall into three categories: those who have replaced a deceased or completely absent parent, those who enter the picture with the biological parent still active in the child's life, and those whose adult step-children have left the nest. All three step-parenting models involve roles and limits, the blending of which can become the seeds of lifelong discontent.

The first category - when the step-parent is stepping into the empty shoes of a completely missing biological parent, usually because of death or abandonment - is in some ways the easiest, though because the child may be traumatized by the absence of their real parent it may actually be the toughest of all. If the child is young enough, or if their bond with the missing parent wasn't strong, then the mission of the step-parent is clear: in all things, behave as if the child was your own. Assume you have all the rights and obligations of a biological parent, then claim those rights through your behavior. There is no compromise on the table here, you're either all the way in or, in the eyes of the child, you're just the person living in their house with their real mom or dad. Children have emotional radar that vastly exceeds the powers of adult comprehension - not to mention a capacity for adaptation and forgiveness that does the same - and if you are at all hesitant, distant, or harboring some discriminatory devaluing of the step-child in favor of your own children - or, if you resent something in the divorce agreement, such as outgoing child support, to an extent that you take it out on the child - there's no hiding. And from that place of compromise, no matter how hard you try, will come increased odds of relationship problems down the road.

If the biological parent is in the picture, and even if that parent treats you with all the respect of an IRS auditor, that doesn't mean your relationship with your step-child can be anything short of astoundingly rewarding. The key here - and the most common mistake - is to not even try to take the real parent's place, or even to assume the parenting role. Certainly, when the child is living or staying in your house, you assume the role of caregiver, with all of its hierarchy of rules and respect. But the key to success here is to become the "buddy" of the child, someone with whom they share special joys and pastimes, and the safe harbor to whom the child can come for support and advice whenever their real parents challenge them, which they certainly will.

And finally there is the step-parent of adult children. The best approach here is the same as the previous one, but with less expectation and agenda. Just be in their lives, love them and like them as you would close friends, and be there for them when and if they need you. Unlike smaller children, that capacity for tolerance and forgiveness aren't nearly as large, and if you cross any perceived lines of demarcation you'll pay a price for it. Don't forget that your partner, the biological parent, has decades of equity into these relationships that you don't, so adjust your expectations and your sensitivities accordingly.

As with most child-adult relationships, it's almost without fail the fault of the adult when something becomes dysfunctional or even just rocky. You may have to prove yourself to your step-child and earn their affection, which will never be as unconditional as that of a biological parent. But with an awareness of these different approaches, you can become a light in their young lives, and in ways that bring joy and fulfillment into yours, as well.

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