I have been a bonus-mom for five years, a mom for 13 years total. There’s been a lot of ups and downs and many challenges along the way. Every parent knows how difficult raising kids can be and blended families, in particular, face very unique challenges. How can I make all my children feel equally loved? How do I make sure my bonus kids (I really don’t like the step parent/step kid terminology) know I am dedicated to them regardless of our DNA? How do we get all parents and co-parents on the same page when it comes to love, discipline, health and wellness?
None of these challenges have simple solutions and none of them can be solved in one blog post, I’m a writer and parent, not a miracle maker! However, there are things we can do everyday to improve our relationship with our bonus kids. According to the National Step-family Resource center “One-third of Americans are – step-parents, step-children, step-siblings, or some other member of a step-family.” So the first thing you should realize is – you are not alone – there are many other families that can relate to your dynamic. Keep an open mind as you navigate the pitfalls and joys of your blended family. Remember there is no one specific way to be a parent…which is a great segue to my first tip:
- Just be yourself. When it comes to our bonus kids the expectation is not to replace a biological parent. The reason I prefer “bonus-kid/bonus parent” over “step-kid/step-parent” is because by definition the word bonus has a very positive connotation – something welcome and often unexpected that accompanies and enhances something that is itself good. Parenting is a privilege, no matter how challenging, when you embrace it wholeheartedly you can get through any obstacles. Don’t try to impress and don’t try to be something you aren’t. Just be your genuine, loving self and everything else will be much easier to manage.
- Don’t force it. Wednesday Martin, Ph.D. says “Studies show that children resent parenting attempts by their parent’s new spouse, even when one of their parents is deceased.” it’s really difficult to adjust to a new family dynamic. This is true for adults and especially true for children. Melding into a family is going to take time and a lot of patience. If you try to rush this process you risk isolating all of your kids. Take your time, follow rule #1 and time will be your best advocate. When my partner and I began dating, his children did not take to me immediately nor mine to him. We allowed them to come around in their own time and when they did the bond was authentic and beautiful.
- Make one-on-one time a priority. Once our kids got used to the idea that we were going to be a family – for better or worse – they adjusted in a positive way. From there it was really important for me to establish a genuine bond. While we took plenty of opportunities to do things as a family we also wanted to make time to be with our bonus kids one-on-one. Whether it was a trip to the grocery store or a walk in the park, doing things with just my bonus kids gave us the opportunity to really get to know one another. It helped me get to know them as individuals, their likes and dislikes, pet peeves, and special interests. All these things helped me understand who they were and it gave me the opportunity to share with them the things that I enjoy as well.
- All things with love. It is a corny cliché but it’s true, when you come from a place of sincere love, you can’t go wrong. We are not perfect, none of us, and we are going to make mistakes. That’s life and while it feels like every little mistake you make will “ruin” your kids – trust that they are pretty resilient. The best gift you can give your kids, is unconditional love. Let them know that you love them unconditionally every chance you get. When you do that it will be easier for them to accept, forgive, and move forward from parenting missteps. At the end of the day, what kids need most is love and acceptance, if you do all things with love, you can’t go wrong.
- Talk so they will listen and listen so they will talk. Never berate or insult your children as a means of discipline. Never hit them or degrade them or shame them and don’t lie to them either. Kids are so much smarter than we give them credit for. Your children learn not from what you say but by watching what you do. Be a great example to them by speaking to them always with respect and honesty. Acknowledge their emotions and respond to their concerns by really listening to them. Never dismiss them outright, when you do this you will see them opening up to you more and more. They will respond by talking to you in earnest about their challenges, hopes and dreams. These kinds of exchanges are truly priceless to the self-esteem and psyche of a child.
The most important thing in blending a happy and healthy family is love and tenderness. Putting yourself in your children’s shoes during the entire process will help you get on their level and carry them through. As the adult you have been where your children are but your children have yet to be the adult you are. You can’t expect them to understand you all the time but you have the capacity to understand them and you should let them know that, as often as possible.