Step-Parents: Not Side-Stepping the Worries

The Experience of a Step-Parent: Not Side-Stepping the Worries

17 March 2022 • Words by Karla Pretorius 5 mins

Articles usually focus on the nuclear family, which is, let’s be honest, far and few apart. In today’s society, families are vastly diversified. We have mixed cultures and races coming together with children from different parents ending up in the same household. I am a step-parent of a mixed-race family, and honestly, I have experienced some personal turmoil in this situation. We are part of the family unit, yet we don’t feel that we can always intervene or “parent” the way we would if it was our child or children. How do we manage these worries, fears and anxieties? 

As an 80s child, it was customary to think of nuclear families of 2.5 kids, a white picket fence, and a labrador. I am relieved that this cookie-cut picture has evolved to include various individuals, families, and beliefs a bit more lately. Not just because I find myself in the “other” category, but also because we are all so very different. These differences should be considered when providing support for families, especially caretakers of children. 

As a step-parent, I believe that there is a lack of support for this challenging position of caregiving to children that is not your own, yet lives with you, for some of the time at least, and require comfort, care, love, and support – as a child will need from a parent. There are two parts here – your own beliefs, very valid feelings and worries, and the child’s experience.

Your Own Beliefs and Values of Being a Step-Parent: 

Again, we are all different, but if I try and add my own experiences here, I am still unsure if I want to parent my own child. I love children, but I have focused on my career first, which brought me into my deep-30’s childless. I met my partner, and when he told me he had two children, my first reaction was “run.” Firstly, please don’t feel guilty if this was your reaction or initial reaction, too; we chose our lives for a reason, and being in love with another doesn’t change this. Also, guilt and shame are emotions that I try not to give “air time.” Are they helpful in making me feel better or change for the better? Most of the time, “no,” so I often try and reevaluate the usefulness of guilt and shame in my life. 

I weighed the positives and negatives and chose to be with my partner and his children. It was and still is a daily choice – he is worth it, we are worth it, and his children, albeit excellent, are an addition I didn’t ask for. I understand this seems like a genuine and rough way to explain my situation, but it’s authentic. I love his children, I appreciate their ability to accept me in their lives, and I honestly only want what is best for them. However, having a happy and calm home or homes, in their case, is most definitely better than an unhappy nuclear family. As a psychologist, I often speak to individuals who would instead engage in infidelity than initiate a divorce or separation. Most of the time, my client would say they are sticking with their partner, who they are heavily unhappy with, “for the children’s sake.”

Let’s be honest here and admit that our children are intelligent. They know when their parents are unhappy. They are also young and not mature enough to understand that an unhappy marriage is not their fault. We might be tricking ourselves here and confusing comfort with excuses. According to Jensen et al., (2018) children that are exposed to an interparental conflict are more likely to internalize this as threatening and harmful. Our children need a happy home, yes, but that can be two comfortable homes, with stepmoms and stepdads and some extra siblings sprinkled on top. I have seen in my experience that when families are happy, children flourish, and they are way more adaptable than adults. They want to be where they can express their interests, their passion, and this can only be where they feel safe, accepted, and loved – whether this is with one or two households.

How To Relieve the Worries of Being a Step-Parent

Remember, you are NOT to blame – for any of it! 

Like the children, you were not why the couple didn’t work. You can’t take their worries and fears, focusing on what is good for you. You want what is best for the children, but you are not responsible for their happiness. If you are in a good space, it will positively impact the children and your relationship with your partner. 

Take time for YOU! 

We often feel that once we become step-parents, we need to take this role as a biological parent – the truth is, we don’t. You are still the same person who chose not to have children, and you should continue being that person. You can still be you and the best step or co-parent when your partner’s child(ren) is in your home. Make sure you take time for yourself and continue engaging in your hobbies and interests. You don’t just “deserve” this time; it is yours. Try not to feel guilty to ask your partner to take over child duties when you go for a yoga session or a walk alone – you need this, and the added responsibilities of having children in the home are not yours, for the most part. 

Do NOT get involved in the drama.

Remember that you are still the person that only chose love. The love for your partner and that there might be external feelings playing into your relationship, but ultimately the past of any of us, although it does play a factor in how we react, should not be placed as a responsibility of how our current relationship works. More often than not, there will be resentment from either or both ex-partners, especially when children are involved. Your role as a step-parent is to only focus on your relationship with your partner. Your relationship with your partner’s child or children is a byproduct of this relationship, yet not your dual responsibility.

How To Help Your Step-Children Relieve Their Worries

Include a “special interests time.”

Children are awesome – they want to feel accepted, loved, and appreciated. They don’t often have resentment from a young age and will like a situation or person when they feel safe and listened to. If you include a “special interests time” when they are in your home, they will be part of the family and accepted. Ask them to tell you what they want to do, which activity or topic they are interested in, and then create a daily schedule for their time with you. An idea would be to choose a topic of interest and then make an arts and crafts activity, which you can quickly turn into a TikTok video or private video for them. Children love to receive recognition of a completed activity, which will surely provide them with this opportunity.

Meditate it out!

Moshi is an excellent app to provide a sleep routine for all children but an enjoyable way to connect with a stepchild. I use the Moshi app when my step-children are with us, and they seem to engage without any extra motivation. Due to the “fun factor” of Moshi, all children are keen to try out different meditations, which ultimately encourages mindfulness and the presence of the current moment. This, in turn, leads to a decrease of outside distractions or expectations, which is always positive in complex situations or experiences.

It’s their journey.

Although you probably feel responsible for a child’s happiness, it is their journey, and they will find their way. If you take care of yourself, you will ultimately set them up for success. Children model what they observe, and if you show them that you can manage external stressors and expectations productively and positively, they will react to this accordingly.

Most importantly, the mere fact that you are reading this means that you have everyone’s best interests at heart. You are doing a fantastic job, and my only hope is that you take care of yourself!

Jensen, T. M., Lippold, M. A., Mills-Koonce, R., & Fosco, G. M. (2018). Stepfamily Relationship Quality and Children’s Internalizing and Externalizing Problems. Family Process, 57(2), 477–495.

Karla Pretorius

A registered counselor with a MA in Psychology. Co-founder: AIMS Global & Leadership at: Augmental