Knowing when to engage in parenting your stepkids and when not to is one of the toughest challenges a stepparent faces. When it’s your biological child, the choice more often than not is easy. With stepkids, however, there are other factors to consider—other parents in and out of the home, loyalty binds, mistrust, and sometimes even stepparent alienation.
What no one tells you about stepping back is truly just how hard this is. Do you love your stepkids? Do you have a strong need for control? Do you have a strong opinion about what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t? If so, then watch out! Disengaging is going to be a tough shift to make. Numerous blogs and journals will tell you to step back and to disengage if you are struggling in your blended family dynamic. But for how long? When do you pursue a more active parenting role with your stepkids?
I have tried to step back. I’ll admit it hasn’t been easy and it definitely hasn’t come naturally. My stepson is with us 100% of the time and my stepdaughter 80% of the time, which makes disengaging even more complicated. Disengaging makes me feel like I’m not investing in them or our family. It’s why I’ve set my own parameters on when to step back and when to be involved in parenting my stepkids. For me, parenting my stepkids means advising and correcting.
Advising really depends on the level of trust your stepchild has for you. Trust may or may not have anything to do with your actions and everything to do with the loyalty bind that child feels for their biological parent and or any parental alienation they’ve been subjected to. Your stepkids may genuinely love and care for you, but they may not always express it verbally. For those who need this verbal affirmation, this one is going to hurt. They may not trust that you genuinely care for them. They may question if this is the same advice their bio parent might give them. This trust may come and go. My stepkids frequently come to me for advice and emotional support, but there are also times where my engagement only exacerbates the hurt they are feeling. I let them lead on this and try to pick up on my cue to lean in and engage. Knowing your “cue” comes with time as you develop your relationship with them.
Correcting is going to be difficult regardless of your family dynamic. Correcting your stepkids is different than disciplining them. Disciplining your stepkids, and if you even should, is a topic for another time. Correcting differs from disciplining in the sense that you are not handing down a punishment for bad behavior. Rather, you are calling an unwanted behavior out and requesting a different behavior.
Correcting is going to be even harder if there is parental alienation involved in the dynamic. Parental alienation isn’t always geared towards the biological parent. This alienation can be geared towards the stepparent as well. While some divorced parents can successfully co-parent, there are others where one or both parents are high conflict. Situations like these are tough to navigate because any attempts to correct the misinformation or defend yourself and your partner can be seen by the child as badmouthing the other parent. So for those of you in this situation, tread lightly. Say what you need to say to the stepchild to correct any misinformation, but do your best to keep the alienating parent out of it.
When it comes to engaging in correction, ask yourself the following;
Are one, if not both, biological parents actively engaged with this issue?
Has my partner asked for help?
Does this affect other members of the household?
Is there a safety concern?
Is the stepchild overstepping a well-defined boundary?
Does my stepchild trust me on this issue?
If the answer to any of these is yes, then engage with your stepchild. Ask your partner for support if and when you need it. Disengaging doesn’t always work and it’s not always the best stance to take. Different situations call for different responses.
I’ve learned some truths about disengaging on this stepparent journey:
The truth about disengaging is that it takes trial and error.
The truth about disengaging is that it won’t feel natural.
The truth about disengaging is that it’s not always the best answer.
The truth about disengaging is that it’s freaking hard.