For the stepparent of the college-bound student
Spring College Life
I want to allow for a little disclaimer and say that I am not a stepparent and don’t know what it’s like to walk in your shoes. I am divorced, however, and may one day be in the role of stepmom and my kids could one day have a stepmother. So, as I write this I try to imagine what it must feel like for stepparents who have worked hard toward a successful blended family or are currently adjusting.
I have gleaned a few things in my career as a therapist when learning about and working with kids of blended families. One of the biggest things kids have conveyed is their need and desire for support, love and boundaries without judgment or conditions. They generally want their biological parents to be together, even if it wasn’t a good relationship. And, as much as kids might like their parents’ girlfriend or boyfriend, they rarely want a new “mom” or “dad” added to the mix.
That said, there are no hard and fast rules, as each situation, and each child-stepparent bond, is unique. Some stepparents must completely assume the role of mother or father, while others join a family with two involved biological parents. Whatever the case, establishing a united and strong family plan with your spouse regarding discipline, boundaries, guidance and overall expectations is essential. These plans are generally fluid at first as blended families work toward what is best for everyone involved. Your role in your stepchild’s life during his or her high school and college years will largely depend on how you’ve established your relationship in the beginning.
Though ambitious at times, a relationship with your high school or college-aged stepchild can be rich, nurturing and exceptional. You may choose the role of supporter, cheerleader and mentor as he or she tackles the tough teenage years and beyond. You may also end up being the one adult who shows up, provides emotional and physical safety, and leads by example. Most importantly, you can impart love, care and consistency — all attributes that every growing child needs to be healthy and feel safe.
Chances are, by the time your stepchild has gone through the application process, decided on a college and is moving away, you will have already established a way of communicating that works best for the two of you. And if it’s a strained pattern of communication, sometimes distance, time and perspective can help to heal. I am an optimist when it comes to relationships and believe it’s never too late to make lasting and loving connections, even if you’re a new stepparent to a high-school or college student. Below are a few ways to help navigate your role as stepparent.
- Do listen with an open heart
- Do take time to do things one-on-one with your stepchild
- Do speak only positively of your spouse and your stepchild’s other biological parent
- Do ask questions and be curious about who your growing stepchild is becoming
- Do take interest in her activities
- Do offer to help when you see him struggle
- Do practice being consistent even when it’s challenging
- Do keep trying — relationships take work, patience, energy and practice
- Do not take anything personally (challenging for anyone!)
- Do send care packages and cards
- Do communicate your love
- Do stay on the same page with your spouse
- Do communicate often with your spouse about your stepchild or your biological children in the blended family
- Do seek counseling with your spouse if problems arise within your blended family
- Do treat all of the children in the blended family equally
- Do share your talents, skills and hobbies with your stepchild
- Do offer guidance, support and practice compassion
- Do take care of yourself! Please refer to “Self-Care for Parents” for ideas on nurturing your mind, body and spirit.
I am reminded of a quote by Maya Angelou that sums up most human interactions, and perhaps especially those of the parent or stepparent-child relationship. She writes, “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
We can’t be perfect in our love or actions toward our children or stepchildren and will stumble often, but beauty, healing and growth lie in the continual striving toward a loving relationship even in the face of failure and disappointment. With repair, love is deepened, making an indelible mark on our very beings.
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