If I had a time machine, I would travel back to May 3, 2018, the day before I became a stepdad to four wonderful girls. As this time traveler, I would remember every experience – good and bad – over the past few years. I would relive and course-correct.
So, what would I do differently? What would I repeat?
For things to do differently, I would:
- Remind myself how time flies. During those three years, each stepdaughter moved through a new season in her life. Our 23-year-old moved into a place of her own, our 20-year-old and 18-year-old started their careers, and our 14-year-old entered middle school. This reminder would help me appreciate every moment with them even more.
- Go on more dates with their mom. A house with four girls – with diverse wants and needs – gets crazy. It is easy to get caught up in the busyness and lose sight of what fuels a healthy marriage. I would establish specific date nights with my wife and guard them from competing priorities. Not only would this strengthen our relationship, but also role model a healthy relationship to my stepdaughters.
- Maintain consistent contact with my biological daughters. Since my biological daughters did not live in my house, it was easy to lose track of how much time passed between visits, texts, and video chats. I would include specific reminders on my calendar to reach out and set up dates with them.
For things to repeat, I would:
- Move slowly with disciplining. It took three years to establish enough trust and positive memories to be able to discipline in ways that my stepdaughters were open to. If I would have tried to change their behavior any sooner, they would have dug their heels in and resisted. I would continue to be patient to build trust and positive memories. I would also continue to reflect on the three R’s – rules without relationship equals rebellion. This is especially true with stepchildren.
- Create unique ways to engage each stepdaughter. I would continue to be a student of my stepdaughters and engage them around their individual love languages. One stepdaughter loves to talk, so I would continue to listen more patiently to her. Another loves to share meals, so I would continue to engage in conversation during those times. Receiving gifts speaks love to one, so I would keep an eye out for opportunities to bring her something that she collected, and another loves to debate issues with me, so I would set aside time – mainly when driving with her – to discuss current events.
- Keep the atmosphere light. Pressure can build up in a house with diverse personalities. The one thing we all have in common, however, is that we love to laugh, and laughter is a great way to release that pressure. We would continue to celebrate our differences, while finding the humor in our idiosyncrasies.
In addition to my life lessons, I have found the key takeaways to share with stepparents from the Institute for Family Studies helpful. They include:
- Loving extravagantly and faithfully over time ultimately moves steprelationships in a positive direction. These behaviors require little time, skill, money, or effort, but have significant impact.
- Unexpected, surprising actions speak loudly and are hard to miss.
- Quality time is tough to orchestrate early on in blended families because the tension surrounding family integration makes it uncomfortable. Be measured in the beginning of your family journey and increase your quality time efforts as relationships prove ready for it.
- The positive impact of speaking someone’s love language is not usually felt immediately but becomes more evident over time. Even after experiencing a positive shift in their feelings toward a stepparent, a child may not reciprocate their love until sometime later.
- Stepparents should enter the parental role of disciplinarian slowly and cautiously. Focus first on building friendship, trust, and love, then move into boundary setting and setting rules.
- Negative conflict, when processed and resolved and the relationship reconciled, can become a positive turning point for stepparents and stepchildren. It builds resilience and a perceived sense of value to the other.
- Taken as a whole, everything from simple, everyday behaviors to “above and beyond” actions powerfully communicate authentic love to a child and have strength to improve the quality of the relationship.
I hope these takeaways along with my life lessons help you in your work with the stepdads that you serve.
Now to get back in my time machine and return to 2021!
What have been the most challenging issues that your stepdads face?How can you help them better address those issues?