You don’t want to overstep appropriate boundaries that involve loving and disciplining any children involved. Often it can feel like a seemingly unwinnable situation.
These hurdles aren’t impossible to jump, but they do take a good bit of wisdom and discernment.
I recently spoke with one of the most renowned experts on this topic, Ron Deal. Ron Deal is a licensed marriage and family therapist, the president of Smart Stepfamilies™ and director of FamilyLife Blended®, a division of FamilyLife®. He is the author of numerous best-selling books including Building Love Together in Blended Families: The 5 Love Languages® and Becoming Stepfamily Smart, which he wrote with Dr. Gary Chapman.
I highly encourage listening to this very important two-part episode on my podcast here. This is a topic we don’t talk about enough, but as second marriages and blended families become more and more common, it is inevitable that parents and stepparents will have questions that can’t be answered in a traditional way.
Below are just a few suggestions Ron gives for how new families can thrive in the midst of such a tough transition.
Know your stepchild’s love language.
Dr. Gary Chapman first developed the idea of love languages in his book The 5 Love Languages over 25 years ago. He theorized that most people express and receive love in five different ways: physical touch, giving and receiving gifts, acts of service, quality time, and words of affirmation. We are all inclined to one of these love languages more than the others.
Knowing your stepchild’s love language can be incredibly helpful in forming a bond with him or her, but Ron warns not to try and do this too quickly. For example, if you know your stepson’s love language is physical touch, don’t attack him with bear hugs right away. Start with a fist pump or high five, then as your relationship grows, move on to hugs.
Remember, stepchildren are grieving. They are either grieving their parents’ divorce or the loss of a parent. They are in stress due to a big transition in their lives. You have to be patient and earn their trust little by little. Knowing how they give and receive love can be incredibly helpful in this process.
Discipline with wisdom.
I often get questions from stepparents about how and when to discipline their stepchildren. Ron suggests being incredibly careful in this area. Children recognize different types of authorities in their lives: teachers, coaches, their parents, etc. And they know that each of these has authority in a certain area of their lives. For example, their soccer coach tells them what to do on the field, but she doesn’t act as the child’s authority off the field.
It’s the same with stepparenting. You are coming into this child’s life, but you don’t have the same authority in his life that his biological parent does. Especially at first, the biological parent should do most of the discipline of her biological child.
As your relationship with your stepchild grows and deepens, you will notice you have more authority and can step into the disciplinarian role more often. But tread lightly in this area and stay in communication with your spouse to make sure your stepchild feels his boundaries are being respected.
Clarify the relationship.
Ron points out that blended families come with a lot of ambiguity. What will this new family look like? Will we get along? Will I love my new stepdad? Will my new stepchildren love me?
Don’t add to the ambiguity by failing to have clarity in your relationships post-divorce or post losing a spouse. Too often I see couples move in together who aren’t married but have kids from previous marriages. This can cause all sorts of problems, especially if the relationship doesn’t work out and the children have to grieve all over again.
Ron defines clarity as either being married or not married. If you’re married, then you are committed at a level where you are ready to blend your families. If you’re not married, blending your families prematurely will only lead to more confusion and potentially more heartache.
Again, if you are a stepparent please listen to my conversations with Ron Deal. We cover so much ground, and I know you will find hope and encouragement as you work to build a new family that will love and support one another.