Children in blended families often experience multiple losses: from the death of a parent or death of their family through divorce, to the economic changes of living in a single parent home, to the emotional loyalty conflicts they face in a blended family. And parents know it, which is a big reason they can become overprotective.
Tim, a biological father of two and stepfather of two, had a hard time finding his place. “My wife is very protective of her kids and it has taken the better part of two years for her to feel ready for me to discipline them,” he said.
“If she is out of the room and she hears me talking to the kids she will still ask me what the problem is, so she can be aware of what I might be asking them to do. Then she goes to them and gets their side of the story; that usually backfires on me.”
It’s natural for a biological parent to seek to protect her kids from harm and create peace within the household. But problems arise when a parent continually tries to guide, guard, and direct the stepparent’s every step. These parents defend their children at all costs, go behind their spouse’s back to undo what he or she has done, and might even block efforts to create emotional bonds with the children.
Moms seem to struggle with guarding their children a little more than dads. For example, moms who are overly connected emotionally to their children often make the child’s dependence on them a priority. They will block stepdads, biological fathers, and all would-be outsiders from challenging her enmeshed relationship with the kids.
This kind of over protectiveness results in arrested child development and fosters jealousy within a stepfamily. Ironically, these mothers also train their children to manipulate them against the stepdad.
Don shared that his stepson, age nine, was compliant to his teachers at school but wouldn’t listen to any of his directions. “He whines when he doesn’t get his way because he knows his mom will give in. He plays her against me and then she blames me for provoking him. I am completely lost.”
It’s hard enough for stepparents to build a relationship with their stepchildren, especially during the fragile early years when their attempts to connect are sometimes rebuffed by children, especially adolescents. It’s even more difficult—and discouraging—when the biological parent is blocking the stepparent.
Talk about fears
If you find this dynamic at work in your home, start by humbly acknowledging it with one another. Don’t cast blame or you will end up on opposite sides.
Instead, the biological parent should talk about his or her fears regarding the children that are driving the overprotective behavior. What are you concerned will happen if you don’t intervene? What must change for you to risk letting go of control?
If this conversation highlights some actions or attitudes in the stepparent that are hostile, angry, or fear-provoking, then they must take responsibility for them. If the stepparent, for example, has a hot temper, take responsibility for it, or don’t expect your spouse to trust you with the kids.
Whatever the underlying fears, make it your goal to eliminate them so overprotectiveness will be unnecessary. And remember to articulate to one another the goal of supporting each other’s role with the children as your blended family grows over time.*
When in balance, all of these roles are needed from biological parents.
- Gatekeeper—protecting your kids from the stepparent and/or the stepparent from the unpleasant realities of parenting your children
- Defender—of either your kids or the stepparent
- Interpreter—trying to bridge the gap between your kids and the stepparent
- Tutor—helping the stepparent to understand and parent your kids
When a parent is out of balance—too heavy on one of these roles—a destructive atmosphere is created. Discuss how well the biological parent is assuming these roles, and whether any are out of balance.
Encourage stepparents to develop close bonds with stepchildren. The stepparents that do this remain persistent in their efforts to communicate with stepchildren and establish a warm, friendly relationship. They do so by engaging the child in activities that are of interest to them (not just activities that are only of interest to the stepparent) and find opportunities to communicate empathy and compassion for the child, and share their desire to get along.
Adapted with permission from The Smart Stepdad by Ron L. Deal. Published by Bethany House Pub., © 2011.