Despite what shows like TheBrady Bunch and Modern Family would have us believe, stepparenting is hard. "Blending a family is like a dish that takes a long time to cook," says Molly Barrow, PhD, author of How To Survive Step Parenting. "You can't force it before it's ready."
But if you're patient and take the following tips to heart, the rewards are well worth the effort. These nine tips can help.
1. DON'T come on too strong.
"Many stepparents try too hard to create an instant bond," says Christina Steinorth, MFT, author of Cue Cards for Life: Gentle Reminders for Better Relationships. "Though they have good intentions, many stepparents try to buy their stepchild's love through lots of gifts or by being the really cool parent. Kids can see right through that." Be realistic -- and be yourself. You'll have a better chance of developing that close relationship you long for.
2. DO get on the same parenting page with your new spouse -- and his or her ex.
"All the parents need to discuss their methods -- rewards, punishments, chores, allowances, bedtimes, homework -- and come to an agreement about the rules," says Tina B. Tessina, PhD, author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage. "The transition is much easier if the parents are in accord. If something happens you haven't discussed, just defer to one parent, and work it out later."
3. DO encourage your stepchild to have one-on-one time with both of his or her biological parents.
"Some stepparents are threatened by their stepchildren spending time alone with their biological parent -- especially their spouse's ex -- but they shouldn't be," Steinorth says. "When you're supportive of it, you're sending the message that this isn't a competition for affection and that you truly want to see your stepchildren happy."
4. DO have family meetings weekly.
Give everyone, including the kids, a chance to share how they feel, what they like and don't like, and ask them to share both positive and negative opinions," Tessina says. "Ask for suggestions about how to make things better."
5. DON'T set your expectations too high.
"This is especially important for stepparents that already have children of their own," Steinorth says. "You may feel that you'll be able to step into a new family and have the same interactions, feelings, and bonds you share with your biological children. What new stepparents seem to forget is that they have a shared history with their biological children that they don't have with their stepchildren. Give your ‘new family' time to develop its own unique dynamic, without any pressure of how you think it should be."
6. DON'T overstep your bounds.
"A big mistake many stepparents make is over-disciplining a child in an attempt to gain respect," Barrow says. "This often backfires and causes the kid to despise them. I recommend stepping back and allowing the primary parent to discipline their own children for at least the first year. After you've spent time earning their affection and respect, then you have a much better chance of being listened to."
7. Be ready to hear, "You're not my real mom/dad."
"This is a stepchild's way of trying to take power away from your role," Steinorth says.
Be ready with an appropriate response.
"When it happens, the key is to not deny what your stepchild is telling you. Keep it factual and avoid the power struggle." Your best bet? "You're right, I'm not your biological parent, I'm your stepparent. But that doesn't mean I love or care about you less."
8. DO plan activities with your stepchild.
Bike together, go bowling, take an art class together, or even go grocery shopping and cook dinner together once or twice a week. "Shared experiences are a great way to bond with stepchildren," Steinorth says. "Try to carve out one-on-one time together at least once a month."
9. DON'T take it personally.
"Just remember that your stepchildren are dealing with their own feelings about the end of their biological parents' marriage," Steinorth says.
"When parents divorce, many children still hold out hope that their parents will work things out and get back together. But when a stepparent comes into the picture, the new stepparent is, in essence, putting an end to that dream. Kids mourn the loss of what they had hoped could be, and those feelings take time to work through."