Dear Step-Parent: 8 Ways to Feel Less Like an Outsider With Your Stepfamily
By Virginia Walton
~ 5 Minute Read
One of the most common things I hear from step-parents is the profound sense of loneliness they experience when spending time with their stepfamily. Their partners are typically surprised to hear this. They wonder, “How can you feel lonely when you are spending time with my children and me?”
What their partners don’t get is that many step-parents feel as if they’re standing on the outside looking in at an exclusive club to which they can never gain membership. The “club” has an already established intimacy resulting from thousands of shared experiences over time. Observing this intimacy, without being part of it, is painful.
So, what can be done to ease this loneliness?
1. While feeling like the outsider can really hurt, please remember it's usually not personal. (I know, it's small consolation.)
Your stepkids are in the habit of engaging with their parent, not with you, especially in the beginning of stepfamily life. If you tell yourself the reason your stepkids don't say hello to you is because they don't like you, you're in for a lot of pain and suffering. The truth is in many cases, and this should be what you remind yourself of, is your stepkids simply aren't used to including you in conversation. And for some kids, even if they wanted to engage with you, they may not have developed the social skills to do so. This can leave them feeling awkward and self-conscious about interacting with someone other than their parent. And depending on their age, they probably have no clue this is hurtful to you. Which brings us to #2…
2. Your partner needs to enact rules of civility.
You can't (and shouldn’t) force kids to interact with you. But, their parent can certainly put into place "house rules" around being civil. This includes greetings, please and thank yous, and good byes.
3. Create a kid free zone in your house where you can recharge after time spent with your partner and your stepkids.
Make this a place that fills your bucket - books, knitting, Netflix - whatever you enjoy, do it here. When you feel more fulfilled personally, you can think more flexibly during your time with your stepfamily. This means you have the emotional bandwidth to give your stepkids and partner the benefit of the doubt versus assuming the worst.
4. Spend time with people that make you feel like an insider.
First and foremost, spending time with just your partner, sans kids, is critical to the health of your relationship. After that, spend time with friends, family, similar interest groups - anywhere you feel a sense of belonging.
5. If you're up for it and your stepkids are receptive, try to identify something you can do with them that their parent can't or won't.
Monopoly? Shooting hoops? Watching a particular show? Video games? Making cookies? Usually there is something you can find that can be "your thing" together.
6. Notice when feeling like an outsider gives way to you behaving like an outsider.
Please, please, please, resist the urge to distance yourself, even when that's all you feel like doing. (This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take breaks from your stepfamily. This refers more to when a step-parent begins to avoid spending time with their stepfamily more frequently.) Instead, if your partner is receptive, share your feelings. Just knowing that you're not alone can help. If you think sharing might cause conflict or your partner to become defensive, couples therapy is a great option.
7. Consider yourself a partner first and focus more on improving this relationship versus being a parental figure to your step-kids.
You belong to your partner, and nurturing this relationship will help increase your sense of belonging in your stepfamily in general. This means making a conscious effort to spend time together, just the two of you.
8. See a therapist that has experience with stepfamily dynamics.
A therapist can provide support, insight into stepfamily dynamics, and tools to cope. Most importantly, know that with time, the outsider feeling usually eases. Your stepfamily will find it's own rhythm and culture where everyone has some sense of belonging.