Family

11 Things I Would Never Do As An Experienced Stepmom Of Older Stepchildren

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stepmom and daughter walking down a fancy street, laughing

I married for the first time at age 49. My 5 stepkids were ages 15-24 when we married.

I was lucky when I was growing up because my mom was very loving and kind. Everyone loved her. I was heartbroken when she died a week after our wedding because my stepchildren didn’t get to experience her love for them.

My kids had a complicated relationship with their parents.

Their mom left the four older ones — ages 3 to 11 — with my husband. She took her one-year-old daughter along with her. Chuck was traveling a lot and needed help when he was away. His siblings and parents gave the children love and helped raise them.

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Nine years later, he married Stepmom #1. He thought his new wife would be a loving mother, but she didn’t want the kids around. She relegated them to one wing of the house and expected them to be quiet. And she didn’t want the college kids to come “home” to do laundry; it was her home, not theirs.

When the youngest was 13, she spent the summer with her dad and siblings and Stepmom #1 after living all those years primarily with her mom. At the end of the summer, her mom said she didn’t want her back. Stepmom #1 didn’t want her living there either. So she went to live with her older sister who was recently married.

After my mom died, I vowed to channel my mom’s love to my children.

As a relationship coach, I used every tool I knew to become the stepmother I knew my kids deserved. 

As a result, I want to share some of the lessons I learned as a stepmom to kids who were teens and young adults — so parents in my position can learn from my experience.

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Eleven things I learned from my own successes and failures as a stepmom to teens and grown kids. 

1. Never expect to replace their birth mom.

You are not a replacement of their mom unless they want that. Typically, if they have a relationship with their mother, they’ll probably call their mother “Mom” and they’ll call you by your name. In some

cases, over time, they may call you “Mom” and refer to you as their mom when talking with friends and family. You are what I call a “Bonus Mom.” (I like that so much better than “stepmom.” I associate

the word “stepmom” with Cinderella’s wicked stepmom!) No matter what they call you, love them.

2. Never criticize their birth mom.

Sometimes, it’s easy to criticize their mother when you don’t think she puts the children first. You might be angry with her for hurting the kids.

Don’t criticize her. If they want to criticize her, that’s their choice, but it is not for you to do. It’s called gossip when you talk about someone and they’re not there and you are judging them in any way.

You don’t know the full story and maybe your kids and your husband don’t know the full story either. Have compassion for her. She has her reasons even if you don’t understand.

Be on the side of the children. Tell them you love them and you’re there for them if their mom isn’t in a key parent role.

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3. Never treat your stepchildren as an annoyance or interference in your marriage.

Show them you care about them. Even if you don’t like what they are doing, focus on their behavior not who they are. They are deserving of your love by being born. (So are you!)

My stepchildren were watching me to see if my kindness was fake or real. Because of their history with mom leaving and how they were ignored by Stepmom #1, I knew they were all hurt.

I was hurting for them. My youngest told me when I was dating her dad, she tried to get her dad to help her with something, he said he would help her when he got off the phone with me.

Ever since, I told him to take care of her first. She said that was the first time she felt like someone cared, and we hadn’t even met yet. I knew if I wanted this marriage to work, then I had to create a

relationship with each of them separate from my relationship with their father. By the way, some kids may never feel safe enough to let you into their heart. That’s okay.

Your being there for them will hopefully help them to learn how to pick healthy friends and a partner they can trust in the future.  They may surprise you. 3 years after I got married, one of my sons called

me to thank me for all the times I tried to support him and guide him. He said even when he didn’t follow my advice, he knew I cared about him and he learned a lot from me.

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4. Never allow your husband step back and let you take the lead in interacting with your kids. 

This is a big mistake. You may get bonus points for caring, but you are subtly sabotaging their trust in your husband. Your kids may think his lack of involvement means he doesn’t care now that you’re

here. He might appreciate it if he’s been the solo parent for years but it’s not good for his relationship with his kids. If something is not good for their relationship, then it’s not good for your relationship

with your husband and with the kids.

5. Never compete with your stepchildren for your husband’s attention. 

When you married your husband, you probably expected to be the center of his world. You need to support him in having a relationship with his children. He’s not all yours.

Be sure that he creates his own relationship with the children. Don’t be jealous when he spends time with them. You want your stepchildren to be happy, healthy, mature adults, don’t you?

Then they need healthy relationships with their parents. Dad needs to show up. Don’t be resentful of time and effort it takes for him to continue to build a loving relationship with them.

Talk out with him how you’ll both support the children. And be sure to discuss how to get what you both want to stay connected with each other.

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6. Never expect respect or obedience from them.

Treat them with respect and loving kindness (even as you set boundaries). Give them space to get to know you and love you.

Most kids will sooner or later let you in when you show them love and respect. We all want to be seen and heard, not ignored. Going from friend to parent overnight is a big switch.

Just because you’re the female parent figure, doesn’t mean they fully trust you. Listen to them. Ask what they want or how they feel. Slowly, work on establishing a friendship relationship before seeking

to parent them. For example, when it comes to chores, start with minor things like "Can you help me do dishes? I wash, you dry," so you are doing it together first before you ask them to do on their own.

If you are doing it with love, they can enjoy – and even cherish - the time they spend with you when you do chores together.

7. Never treat them the same.

I truly believe every person on the planet is unique. No one else has had your parents, your exact experiences, your talents, your needs, and desires.

We all want to be special. So do they. See them as talented and unique and love them each in their own way. Don't be Cinderella’s stepmother and treat Cinderella like dirt and her children like

princesses. If you have more than one stepchild, or you have children you birthed, make time to give each of the children a unique experience. Create a relationship with each of them that is tailored to

what they are interested in. Find common ground with each of them. Spend time with each of them. You don’t have do some big exotic thing with them; see each one as special and show them they

matter. Learn what each of them need individually to feel seen, heard, and love and meet them where they are.  If one is artistic, take them to the museum or buy them a drawing class online and

encourage them. If they want to learn an instrument, support them in playing in the band. If they love to watch martial arts, sign them up for a Tae Kwon Do or other martial art class.

Observe some classes and ask questions.  Attend their events – art shows, concerts, sports, dance, plays.

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8. When they’re making choices that you don’t agree with, never tell them they’re wrong and what they should do.

Don’t do it, unless they truly are in danger. And don’t try to soften it by telling them you care about them and that’s why you are telling them they are wrong!

Teens and young adults don’t have the knowledge we have about what could happen but even if we want to protect them, we can’t. Until they trust us in a parent or guide role, we need to respect them.

Encourage their father to provide guidance. Most of us made mistakes and learned from them. Teens want us to be encouraging, accepting, and loving and they want to be able to make their own 

choices. Hopefully you can ask them questions so they can work through their decision-making process. My kids made many choices that I was sure wouldn’t work out, but telling them they were wrong just pushed them away.

Sometimes I’d say, “I really hope that works out for you.” 

Part of being a teen or young adult is experimenting, finding the limits, and sometimes (or often) making stupid choices — and that’s part of learning and living. Stand by them and gradually they’ll turn to

you. We don’t like to get to get unsolicited advice; neither do they!  As a stepparent, your kids may be afraid you will reject them, so they may reject you first. If you pull away for any reason — including

that they didn’t follow your advice — that tells them that you are not 100% committed to them and not safe to trust. That could end the chance of you being able to help guide them.

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9. Never make them wrong for having emotional baggage.

Everyone has baggage and you have no idea what they’ve been through. Your Bonus Kids will have baggage and it might be around their mom or dad or both parents.

They may be unsure if they can trust you to be there for them when they need you. When you show you care no matter what they do, that can really support them to know they’re ok and they aren’t

alone. My youngest daughter told me that she could tell me things she would never have told her mom. As an adult, she told me how important it was that I was always there.

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10. Never act out in anger and punish them when they defy your boundaries. Have a conversation.

Teens will often push on boundaries (or ignore them) to test you and their dad. Why? They want to fit in with their friends, or they resent you parenting them when you haven’t made an effort to connect

with them. They may resent both of you for limiting their freedom when they are “almost adults.” They may also remind you their birth mother is more lenient to guilt you into letting them do what they

want. Listen and ask questions to understand what doesn’t work for them when setting boundaries. Maybe you can make some adjustments.

Kids who always push the limit can be reminded that if they want to be trusted they must prove they can be trusted. Kids who follow the rules may be able to have more flexibility because they

understand why the rules are important and can be trusted to be in communication. Make sure they understand why the boundaries are so important. It’s important to have these conversations from the

context of love and respect. Help them understand how they gain more privileges when they understand and follow the rules.

11. Never let each child spend all their time in their room or online.

I know I’ve been saying to spend time individually with the children. You also want to have opportunities for family time so they feel connected to each other and to you and your husband.

Plan to have one or more family dinners. At the beginning of dinner, give each child a chance to share at least one thing they are grateful for and something they want to celebrate.

Share in their accomplishments. You can also invite them to name something that was difficult for them during their day and get support from everyone. Create special family time on the weekends.

You can all watch a movie at home on “Movie Night.” Each time, someone else picks a movie appropriate to all the kids.

Plan physical activities such as hiking, biking, crochet, volleyball, or skating.

Take walks in a nearby park. Learn about birds and hang a hummingbird feeder. Have family card games everyone enjoys. Go to a farmer’s market – and teach kids about fresh fruits and vegetables.

Do a family cook-off or take online cooking lessons. Learn line-dancing or copy TikTok dance moves. Listen to calming music or meditations. Have everyone take turns cooking or helping the cook

depending on their age – Sunday breakfast pancakes, make pizza from scratch, or a healthy salad. Make a list of ideas and each weekend pick at least one thing everyone can do.

Have fun no matter what happens — you’re all together.

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Marilyn Sutherland is a Relationship & Communication Coach. She teaches women the skills they need to create deeper relationships with the people they care about the most. 

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