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Stepmothers in Distress

Stepmothering is often harder than stepfathering.

Psychology Today
18 March 2009

Stepmothers in Distress

Stepmothering is often harder than stepfathering.

By Dr Joshua Coleman

Studies show that stepmothers are much more likely to be demonized by the children than stepfathers. Why would this be the case? This is because husbands often expect their new wives to establish order in the household and this can be resented by the children. As researcher Mavis Hetherington writes in For Better or Worse; Divorce Reconsidered, "Stepmothers are expected to be nurturers to already difficult and suspicious children… In our most contentious stepfamilies, a real demonizing of the stepmother often occurred. Stepfathers rarely encountered this kind of vitriol… Stepmothers had been able to build up the least closeness and goodwill with their stepchildren with less than 20% of young adults saying they felt close to their stepmothers."

In addition, stepmothers are more likely than stepfathers to feel depressed by the stepparenting experience. This is likely for the same reason that mothers feel more stressed in any marriage; they're typically more worried, guilty, and involved in the lives of those around them. For example, a stepmother will be more stressed if she believes her new husband is neglecting his children, especially if she doesn't have the permission from the child or the father to parent. She may be caught in a no-win with all of the guilt and none of the gratification. In many cases, it may mean that she'll do all of the work, but receive none of the gratitude. In addition, the stepchildren may feel guilty towards their biological mothers for accepting the parenting and so resist the efforts o the stepmother toward their care

Strategies for living together in a stepfamily:

- Assume that it will take time to adjust to the new roles and expectations of being a stepmother.

- If you're the stepparent, try to build a relationship with your stepchildren slowly over time. Don't move into the role of disciplinarian too quickly. Your best role may be to support the biological parent's parenting and to be a friend or advisor to the kids (to the extent that they let you). Try not to personalize their need or desire not to be close to you. They didn't chose you, their parent did. Even in the best cases, children of divorce can feel a conflict of loyalties.

- If you're the biological parent, try to empathize with your partner about the difficulty of his or her role. Parenting kids you're related to can be hard enough, it's sometimes impossible with kids to whom you're not related.

- Problems with stepkids may not immediately be due to the behavior of the stepparent or the parent. It may be a result of temperamental issues in the child or the child's response to the effects of divorce.

- Don't criticize the parent who isn't in the home to the children or in front of the children. This makes children depressed, anxious, and more likely to have psychological problems.

- If these issues don't appear to get better over time, seek counseling with a professional who is experienced in stepfamily issues.

Concepts borrowed from my book: The Marriage Makeover: Finding Happiness in Imperfect Harmony (St Martin's Press).

Related Articles:

- Lessons from Stepfamilies

- New Rules for Stepfamilies

- Shuttle diplomacy

Dr Joshua Coleman is a psychologist with offices in San Francisco and Oakland and is a senior fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families. His newest book is When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don't Get Along.
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