MARGARET,* A STEPMOTHER IN AUSTRALIA: “My husband’s ex-wife told the children not to listen to anything I said—even something as simple as ‘Remember to brush your teeth.’” Margaret feels that her marriage suffered as a result of that divisive tactic.
Stepfamilies face unique and often challenging relationships with those outside their household.* Most stepparents must deal with the child’s other parent when it comes to such issues as visitation, discipline, and financial support. Friends and relatives too may struggle to adapt to new family members. Consider how advice from the Bible can help your stepfamily to meet those challenges.
RELATIONSHIP 1: THE CHILD’S OTHER PARENT
A stepmother in Namibia named Judith says: “My stepchildren’s mother once told them that I was just their father’s new wife and that any children we had would not be their siblings. Her words hurt me because I love my stepchildren as if they were my own.”
Experts agree that the relationship with the child’s other parent can become a tough, divisive issue for a stepfamily. Often, it is the mother and the stepmother who have the most difficulty. What can help?
A key to success: Set reasonable boundaries. If you try to shut out the other parent altogether, your child might suffer emotionally.* A child’s parents, the ones who ‘caused his birth,’ have a unique place in his life. (Proverbs 23:22, 25) On the other hand, if you give a former spouse too much influence in your household, you can frustrate or even anger your new mate. Strive for balance, setting reasonable boundaries to protect your marriage, while remaining cooperative with the other parent to the extent possible.
TIPS FOR PARENTS
When you speak with your former spouse, focus on your children and minimize discussion about other matters. For example, you might tactfully ask if it is possible to schedule a regular time for phone calls during the day. That usually works better than phone calls at random times or late at night.
If you do not have custody of your children, perhaps you can use phone calls, letters, text messages, or e-mail to maintain regular contact. (Deuteronomy 6:6, 7) Some even use videoconferencing. You may gain more insight into your children—and provide a more positive influence—than you may think is even possible.
TIPS FOR STEPMOTHERS
Show “fellow feeling” to the children’s mother by making it clear that you are not trying to replace her. (1 Peter 3:8) Provide updates when her children are with you, focusing mostly on the good. (Proverbs 16:24) Ask for her advice, and thank her when she offers it.
Limit displays of affection with the children in their mother’s presence. Beverly, a stepmother in the United States, says: “My young stepchildren wanted to call me Mom. We agreed with them that this was OK at our house but that they wouldn’t call me Mom when they were with their mother, Jane, or her family. Jane and I got along better after this. In fact, we later worked together on school plays and field trips.”
TIPS TO HELP PARENTS AND STEPPARENTS GET ALONG
Never speak badly about an absent parent or stepparent within earshot of the children. It is easy to lapse into such negative talk, but it is very distressing to a child. And you never know how or when your words may be repeated. (Ecclesiastes 10:20) If a child says that the other parent or stepparent bad-mouthed you, focus on the child’s feelings. You might say something along these lines: “I am sorry you had to hear that. Your Mom is mad at me, and sometimes when people are angry, they say things that aren’t kind.”
Try to have consistent rules and discipline in the two households. If this is not possible, explain the differences without demeaning the other parent. Consider the following scenario:
Stepmother: Tim, please hang up your wet towel.
Tim: At Mom’s house, we leave them on the floor and she hangs them up.
Stepmother (angrily): Well, she is just teaching you to be lazy.
Would this response be better?
Stepmother (calmly): Oh, OK. Here we hang them up ourselves.
Avoid scheduling activities for your children during the time that they will spend with the other parent. (Matthew 7:12) If you cannot adjust the activity, get permission from the other parent before telling the children what you have planned.
TRY THIS: Follow these steps the next time you meet your mate’s former spouse or the spouse of your former mate:
Make eye contact and smile. Avoid sighing, drooping your shoulders, or rolling your eyes.
Greet the person by name. For example, say, “Hello, Jane.”
Include the person in the conversation if you are in a group.
RELATIONSHIP 2: ADULT CHILDREN
The book Step Wars quotes one woman as complaining about the way her husband tends to side with his adult children and refuses to acknowledge that they treat her unkindly. “My fury escalates so fast,” she says. How can you keep relationships with the adult children from damaging your marriage?
A key to success: Show empathy. The Bible says: “Let each one keep seeking, not his own advantage, but that of the other person.” (1 Corinthians 10:24) Try to understand and identify with the other person’s feelings. Adult stepchildren may fear losing their parent’s affection. Or they may feel that by welcoming a stepparent, they would be disloyal to their original family. Meanwhile, parents might worry that criticizing their children will push them away.
Instead of trying to force a friendship, let your relationship with your stepchildren develop naturally. In general, it is unwise to try to coerce or pressure someone into feeling real love. (Song of Solomon 8:4) So try to set reasonable, realistic expectations when it comes to closeness with your stepchildren.
Do not say everything that you think or feel, even if you are mistreated. (Proverbs 29:11) When controlling your speech is especially hard, pray as did King David of Israel: “Do set a guard, O Jehovah, for my mouth; do set a watch over the door of my lips.”—Psalm 141:3.
If you decide to live in the house that the children were raised in, you may be surprised at the attachment they still feel toward it. Try to minimize changes, especially to their old rooms. You could also consider moving to a new residence.
TRY THIS: If your adult stepchildren are persistently rude or disrespectful to you, share your feelings with your mate and listen carefully to his or her thoughts. Do not pressure your mate to correct the children. Instead, simply try to build mutual understanding between the two of you. Once you “think in agreement” about the situation, you can work together to improve it.—2 Corinthians 13:11.
RELATIONSHIP 3: OTHER RELATIVES AND FRIENDS
Marion, a stepmother in Canada, says: “My parents often gave presents to my son but not to my husband’s kids. We would try to make up for it, but sometimes we could not afford to.”
A key to success: Put your new family first. Tell your relatives and friends about your commitment to your new family. (1 Timothy 5:8) While you cannot expect instant love for new family members from all relatives and friends, you can ask them to be polite and fair. Explain how hurt the children will be if they are passed over when it comes to attention and other kindnesses.
Try to let grandparents from your first marriage have a place in your children’s lives. A mother in England named Susan relates: “I remarried 18 months after my first husband died, and his parents struggled to accept my new husband. Things got better when we included them more, had the kids call them, and thanked them for their support.”
TRY THIS: Identify the friend or relative with whom you have the most difficult relationship, and then discuss with your mate how you can improve that relationship.
Relationships with those outside your household can challenge your stepfamily. Apply Scriptural counsel, though, and your family can receive the blessing the Bible promises: “By wisdom a household will be built up, and by discernment it will prove firmly established.”—Proverbs 24:3.
Some names have been changed.
For information on dealing with other challenges, see the cover series “Secrets of Successful Stepfamilies,” in the April 2012 issue of Awake! published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Of course, if a former spouse is threatening or abusive, you may need to set stricter limits for your family’s safety.
ASK YOURSELF . . .
How can I get along better with my mate’s former spouse?
How can we help relatives and friends to avoid even inadvertently harming our family?