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Becoming a Positive Presence in the Lives of Young Adult Stepchildren
As a stepparent, it is helpful to have a set of principles to guide your decisions and actions. From my research with stepfamilies and my work as a stepfamily coach, I've collected four key principles of successful stepparents:

1) Get clear about your own interests and responsibilities first

2) Put your marriage next and above all else

3) Develop one-to-one relationships with each of your young adult stepchildren

4) Respect the Primary Triangle


The first step on the path to becoming a positive presence in the lives of your young adult stepchildren may sound selfish, but it's not. Ask yourself, "What are my interests and responsibilities in this situation?" Stepparents are often in the position of witnessing family behaviors and interactions that aren't serving the best interests of the family. But our job is not to act as stepfamily cops--our job is to bring our best selves to our new family. Which is why stepparents must get clear about what they believe is right and what they will and won't do for their mate and their stepchildren.

For example, your interest may be to take a romantic vacation with your new husband this summer. But your stepson is leaving for college in the fall, and you know that Dad's presence is important before the young man leaves home for the first time. Your responsibility in this case is to put your husband's time with his son higher on the family priority list, knowing that your stepson will need access to his dad's wisdom and life experience as he prepares for these first formative years on his own. So perhaps you plan two or three romantic get-away weekends this summer, and save the trip to Paris for another year.

Knowing your interests doesn't mean putting them above all else. It only means being aware of the fact that you have wants and needs that you must figure out how to fulfill in order to bring your best self to your marriage, your stepfamily, and your life.  

Next, ask yourself, "What do I need to do to make my marriage strong, vital, and flexible?" In order to be a successful stepparent over the long haul, your marriage must be a top priority. Why? Because no matter how hurt or angry a child is about a parental death or divorce and subsequent remarriage, they want their parent(s) to be well and happy. By making your marriage a discipline, a garden to be cultivated, your stepchildren will come to see and appreciate your love for one of the two most important people in their lives--their mother and father.

New research indicates that the greater a parent's marital satisfaction, the better the stepparent/young adult stepchild relationship will be. So, when you work to strengthen your marriage, you are indirectly strengthening your connection with his young adult children.

Third, ask yourself, "How can I be in light, regular contact with each of my young adult stepchildren?" Big kids are different from little kids in that they probably don't live with you, they don't have to follow their parents' rules, and they have a thriving life of their own outside of the family. This means they can be hard to find and protective of their personal business even when you do get the chance to talk with them.

Successful stepparents of young adults don't take this personally. They figure out how to connect with a note, a card, a meal, or a text message. One couple got in the habit of taking dinner to stepson's apartment every Monday night for the young man and all of his housemates. The guys all loved it, and Dad and stepmom had an opportunity to hear how everyone's jobs and lives were going. 

Finally, recognize and accept that Mom and Dad are the most important people in your young adult stepchildren's lives. The Primary Triangle is made up of mother, father, and child. It is a special system through which strong emotional currents flow. The Primary Triangle is established when a child is conceived, and continues to run automatically, even after the death of any of its members.

Understanding this, ask yourself, "How can I support and encourage healthy relationships between these three people?" You don't have to love, or even like, your mate's former spouse to support your stepchild's healthy relationship with both of her parents. You do need to accept that a child, even an adult child, will always have strong feelings about her parents that no one else can change. When a stepparent can accept the importance of Mom and Dad in their stepchild's life, without regard for the fact that Dad is in jail or Mom makes bad choices, then the stepparent is free to encourage the young adult toward both parents.

When my stepbrother, Rob, graduated from high school, my dad and his wife threw him a big party. I remember meeting my stepbrother's dad that day, and how proud Rob was to introduce his father to all of his friends. Most of all though, I recall thinking what a big man dad was to make sure that his stepson had his mom and his dad with him at such an important celebration.
 
Few things promote a persons' emotional maturity like stepparenting does. But the role can only help us grow and develop if we take it seriously, and if we are guided by our principles. Young adults need all the mature, thoughtful, composed people they can get in their lives. If you intend to be one of them, this list of principles is a good place to begin.
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