The most important thing I ever learned in psychology came from my intro psych professor at the University of Michigan in 1985.
“Whatever else you learn in this class,” she said, pausing to gaze at each one of us, “remember that anything that has the potential to help, also has the potential to harm.”
I think about that caution almost daily, and as far as I can see, it’s still universally true.
The question of help versus harm is always with us. It comes up frequently in parenting advice in general, and stepfamily advice in particular – a double-edged advice of sorts – offered with the intention to help, but carrying a potential for harm.
For instance, the most common stepfamily advice helps families to reduce conflict and increase acceptance during the initial transition. But when these “peace keeping” strategies are used in an ongoing way, they interfere with the family’s ability to develop authentic relationships and strong family bonds.
I’ve seen this problem in many of the families I’ve worked with – and I’ve also experienced it first hand.
To show you how this works, I’ve provided some recommendations that are typically given to stepfamilies, along with my thoughts on how each one could strengthen your family or interfere with its growth, depending on your situation and your goals. Although the examples are specific to stepfamilies, the concerns apply to other kinds of families as well.
1. Always put the children first
Almost everyone has heard this common adage of modern parenting, which may have originated in reaction to “children should be seen and not heard.” It’s said to urge parents to prioritize their children’s need for love and support and to make parenting choices that foster healthy development. When it’s said to stepfamilies, it’s also a caution not to forget about the kids, at a time when the newly married couple might prefer to focus on their relationship instead. Seems helpful enough. How could this cause harm?
Unfortunately, it’s not always obvious how to put kids first, so this idea gets used in ways that are bad for the adults, bad for the couple, and bad for the kids. It’s said to shame parents for taking care of themselves and to make the couple feel guilty for building their relationship, even though we know that kids thrive when the adults are refreshed and the couple is strong. Parents who feel guilty after divorce, sometimes use this advice to justify making inconsistent parenting choices or giving in to their kids, rather than allowing them to experience disappointment, and teaching them how to recover and grow.
2. Don’t try to be a parent to your stepchildren
This one is usually said to stepparents soon after the marriage and there’s no question that it’s helpful to some. It works fine for many stepparents who don’t see their stepkids very often, or are rarely with them alone. It’s also a useful caution for stepparents who may be tempted to try to do too much too fast. When stepparents get to know their stepkids gradually, they increase the chances that they’ll develop healthy relationships over time.
But, like the first example, this advice can be interpreted in many ways. It’s sometimes said to prevent stepparents from trying to discipline their stepkids or to keep them in a peripheral role. But how do stepparents avoid disciplining their stepkids if there are times when they’re the only adult in charge? Telling kids to “wait ‘til your father (or mother) gets home” is unlikely to be effective. Misconduct must be paired with consequences, if we want the kids to learn.
Another problem with this advice is that it may keep some stepparents from telling their stepkids how they feel about their behavior, since they have no authority to help them to change. Honest communication is an essential part of authentic relationships, so families who prioritize keeping the peace often feel distant. And they miss out on the chance to practice healthy conflict resolution skills.
And finally, this advice suggests there’s only one “right way” to do things, so it invalidates the countless stepparents who do try to parent their stepkids, as well as the many kids who say they prefer it that way.
3. Your stepfamily will never feel like a biological family
I always take a deep breath when I read this one. To me, it’s the mother – ahem, stepmother – of all stepfamily advice. A lot of people are relieved when they read this. It takes the pressure off having to make everything work quickly, when most stepfamilies take a long time to gel.
But it’s also full of assumptions about who stepfamilies are and who they have the potential to be. Why are biological families the gold standard? They make it sound like stepfamilies are less valuable in some way. And which biological family do they mean anyway? Are we talking about the Norman Rockwell ideal, or the full range of human experience, including the warm ones and the hostile, intrusive, distant, and chaotic ones too? Folks who’ve grown up in dysfunctional biological families may be reassured that their stepfamily will never feel like that.
But the biggest problem with this advice is that it ignores the huge interplay between society’s attitudes towards non-traditional families and the level of adjustment these families achieve. Just think about how society is shifting its attitude towards children of gay parents and children of divorce. We used to think that kids who were raised in these circumstances didn’t have much of a chance. But as social acceptance has improved, our predictions for their futures have too.
Who knows what changes we might see in stepfamily outcomes if society viewed them as a different, equally valid family form?
I’m not saying that all of the challenges of stepfamily life would magically disappear if society stopped judging stepfamilies and finding them wanting. My point is that we don’t know how stepfamilies would fare in a more compassionate society – and we shouldn’t pretend like we do.
So what can we do to help stepfamilies to get the support, validation and nuanced advice that they need and deserve?
We can’t prevent double-edged advice completely. We’re all human and fallible, so harm is inevitable at times.
But we can take steps to reduce it. Those who offer advice to stepfamilies can start by acknowledging what they know and what they don’t know. They can stop telling stepfamilies who they can’t be – and start asking them who they are.
And those who are in stepfamilies can start by identifying their values, approaching advice more mindfully, and trusting in their own wisdom when things aren’t going according to plan.
A few final tips for working with stepfamily advice:
- You’re the best expert on your family.
- Advice should increase your ability to trust your own wisdom over time.
- Make sure the information fits your values and supports your goals.
- Make sure the suggestions make sense for your custody arrangement, kids’ ages, or other circumstances and needs.
- Reflect on the potential for help or harm.
- If you follow the advice, will it still be workable in two years? Five years? If not, when and how will you need to change?
- Stay mindful of unintended consequences.
- Ask questions if something doesn’t sound right to you.
- Consider seeking professional support, especially if your situation is very complicated.
- Offer feedback to the authors of stepfamily advice. Be willing to teach and to learn.
Please help me to make this blog a useful resource. Let me know if you’d like more information about any of the points above – or share your experiences and questions about parenting advice and/or stepfamily advice below.