Parents and stepparents feel differently about kids.
Stepparents, even if they care about their stepkids, do not begin with a deeply established heart connection with them. Furthermore, habits, values, and everyday routines are shared between kids and their parents, not between stepparents and stepkids, or in the stepcouple. If stepkids are struggling, one or more of them may be barely speaking to their stepparent.
Parents, even when their kids are driving them crazy, usually carry a bedrock feeling of loving and being loved by them. Moreover, parents and kids agree about what’s a “loud” noise and how much mess is “messy.”
All of this pulls parents and stepparents to opposite poles of parenting: Stepparents find children’s behavior more irritating and they often want more control and more limits. Parents are used to their children, and feel cared about by them, and they often feel protective of their kids. Family scholars tell us that parents may also have become more permissive and lax as single parents.
The Polarization Polka
Jane, a stepmom says: “I can’t believe you let your kids get away with… (leaving their stuff all over, talking back, not doing the dishes, etc.)” Joe, the parent, replies, a bit defensively, “They’re just being kids.” Jane, feeling frustrated, ups the ante. “Can’t you see? Your kids are slobs and you don’t do a thing about it!” Joe retorts: “You’re over-reacting!” Jane loses her temper and Joe withdraws.
The sharper Jane gets, the more protective Joe gets, the more desperate Jane gets, etc. Does this sound familiar to you? In my book (Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn’t) I call this the “polarization polka.” It is an easy, and painful, dance for stepcouples to fall into.
What the research says about parenting and stepparenting
- Several decades of research establish that the best parenting for children, on every measure imaginable, is “authoritative.” Authoritative parents are warm and caring. AND they set moderately firm, developmentally appropriate expectations for their kids.
“Authoritarian “parenting is firm, but not warm or loving. It is often harsh. (Authoritarian parenting by a stepparent is almost always toxic to stepparent-stepchild relationships.) “Permissive” parents are very caring, but they do not make enough demands for mature behavior.
- The research is also very clear that, until or unless a stepparent has made a caring, trusting relationship with his or her stepchildren, the parent must remain the disciplinarian. The guideline I give stepparents is, “Connection before correction.”
- Stepparents who have formed a trusting relationship with a stepchild can begin moving slowly into authoritative parenting. This generally takes at least two years! It comes easiest with kids under eight. It is easier for boys than girls, and hardest with early adolescent girls. In many healthy stepfamilies, especially those that began with older children, stepparents never move into a disciplinary role.