Sharing a blended family between two homes is trying. I imagine being a parent with shared custody can make an already stressful job of parenting feel worse. Having your children in your ex-partner’s home without you may feel overwhelming or like you’re out of control. But no matter how you feel, it’s important to shield your children (whatever age they might be) from taking those emotions on. You will find that the better you are at co-parenting, the easier a relationship with your child will be simply because you’re not relying on them for comfort.
For stepchildren, we know the turmoil all too well. We can see when parents are upset but we can’t fix it. Stepkids are bonded to both our sides and biologically programmed to love them equally. So when you’re dealing with a stepfamily situation, there are a few rights stepchildren deserve to have.
- Step children have the right to not choose sides. This is a tough one especially if there was a contentious divorce. Whatever our age may be, children get to love both parents however they want. It’s not fair to speak ill of either parent to us. Bashing any parent, including a stepparent, makes children feel like loving them is wrong. We didn’t ask for you to procreate with your ex, so let us decide how we love them and why.
- Stepchildren have the right to contact either parent whenever they want. I remember spending time at my dad’s house and he would be hurt when I wanted to call my mom. This was unfair. Because they are asked to live in two homes at once, stepchildren have the right to call their other parent as much as they need. As a daughter, I am very close to my mother, so being allowed to contact her after a hard day of school or an embarrassing moment was an essential part of my coping process. And most importantly, we have the right to privacy while talking to each of our parents.
- Stepchildren have the right to be discluded from legal and financial battles. Want to raise an anxious child? Stress them out about child support or your argument over assets or custody. This is not our business. Not as adults and certainly not as children. I know that it’s easy to want to vent to your child especially if they are older, but it only puts us in the middle and honestly, we have no power. If you need to have a child testify in court, please do this as a last resort. And be prepared with a counselor or other trusted adult outside the situation to help handle the emotional aftermath.
- Stepchildren have the right to express or not express any feelings they want. All of us are constantly learning new coping mechanisms. Sharing two homes is hard, having stepparents is hard. We get to feel however we want about the situation we’ve been put in. It’s okay to have complicated emotions about gaining a stepparent or step-siblings. It’s okay to not share those feelings with anyone. And it’s okay to express feelings our parent’s wish we didn’t feel. Step parents might be excited about the new family additions, but that doesn’t mean we have to be.
- Stepchildren have the right to be protected from parental warfare. I know far too many friends whose parent’s and stepparent’s tried to win an imaginary parent contest with parental warfare. Parental warfare includes changing rules simply to get back at the other parent, asking children to be messengers, buying or taking away presents to win favor or make a point, or constantly telling one parent’s secrets to paint them in a bad light. This is emotional abuse and it might seem okay because a child hasn’t spoken up, but it must end. An emotionally healthy upbringing does not include space for parents in a pissing contest.
- Stepchildren have the right to be close or not to their stepparents. This is a hard one. I understand that parents want their children to love their new spouses as much as they do. And I also understand that if your ex remarries it’s hard to share your child with their new stepmother/father. But it’s up to a stepchild to decide if they like or dislike the new additions to the family. It’s our right to have the relationships we want. So parents, don’t bash the stepparents and don’t use jealousy as a weapon.
Family members are not extensions of ourselves. By entering a stepfamily situation, the best way to protect your children and harbor a healthy family culture is making sure the kids know they have a voice. Even if that voice says things we don’t want to hear or that we don’t understand.