As a kid the concept of divorce is pretty unfair.
As a kid the concept of divorce is pretty unfair. None of us asked to be born, none of us asked to have our biological families, and none of us asked for parents that couldn’t make it work. As a young child, I remember watching my friends’ parents and wondering why mine couldn’t love each other like that.  But the truth is that married or not, parent or not, it’s hard to make life work with another person let alone with ourselves.

When a parent remarries it’s as massive of an adjustment as the divorce that preceded it. There is no set handbook to explain to children or young adults on how to accept a 3rd or even 4th parent. This is something that has to be learned through experience but there are a few things I wish someone had told me at 12 years old when I welcomed my stepfather into my life.

1. It’s okay if you don’t love each other.

I felt immense pressure to feel like my step-dad was my father from the get-go. Some pressure was from a lack of my own father’s presence. Some was from seeing the way my step-dad interacted with his kids. And some was from my parents. The truth is love grows when it grows. It’s okay for you to respect, cohabitate, and share a family with your stepparent and still not love them. Love for your parents comes with time and is deeply rooted in trust. Trust requires dozens, if not hundreds, of times where the other person successfully comes through in a meaningful way. If you don’t love your step-parent, that’s okay. If you want to learn to love them, start giving them opportunities to build your trust.

2. It’s okay if you prefer a step-parent over your biological one.

Guilt and shame have no place in a blended family unit. For me, my step-father has filled a giant hole in my heart. When someone asks about my dad, I always think of him first. I remember spending some time with my biological father some years ago and feeling guilty that despite a biological connection, my step-dad simply had more of my heart. Just this last Christmas, both my husband and I were so bummed we couldn’t spend the holidays with my mom and step-father. They are pretty awesome people and I love them the most. And that’s perfectly fine.

3. Craving family time with your original nuclear unit is normal.

My step family is my family. But sometimes, all I wanted as a teen was time with just my mother and my sisters. No stepfamily allowed. This does not diminish the bond between the families as a whole. This is not a threat to the step side. It’s as simple as finding comfort in consistency.

4. You can choose your own boundaries.

This might be harder for younger step-kids who aren’t independent enough to establish what they want out of a relationship yet. But parents can listen to their younger children and respect their wishes. I heavily encourage stepfamilies with young children to ask them what they would like to do and with who. For the older step kids like me, it took me awhile to understand what parts of my life I was comfortable sharing with my step-dad and what was off limits. This can apply to who comforts you and how, who you turn to in moments of crisis, and simply how much time you want to spend nurturing that relationship.

5. Lashing out because change is painful is not okay.

Did this give me the all clear to shout profanities in the stairwell and slam doors repeatedly?
Let me paint this picture: I was 13 and rimmed with black eyeliner. My stepdad had “taken” my mother from me in some deep ways. I could no longer waltz into her room on a whim, my sisters and I could not monopolize her free time, and we could not run around the house naked. Times were changing and dang did it hurt. Did this give me the all clear to shout profanities in the stairwell and slam doors repeatedly? Absolutely not. But I did it anyway. The problem with lashing out at any age is that it creates a palpable division between you and the rest of your family. Losing your temper time and time again due to stress of any kind kills relationships and not just with the person being attacked. It kills relationships with all the other family members present. As an adult, those behaviors are solely my responsibility. For any stepparents reading, if your teen or even a younger child is lashing out, there is pain that needs to be resolved. While it’s the individual’s responsibility to control how they act, it is a parent’s responsibility to teach children how to deal with complicated and unsettling emotions.

Whether you’re a stepchild or a stepparent, it’s time to cut everyone some slack. Trust and respect are at the root of any meaningful relationship. Take the time to let your step-child role work itself out. And in the meantime, you can learn tactful ways to handle the complicated emotions.

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