Be it unnecessary drama from the ex, or expectations around your partner’s parenting, sometimes the best thing a stepparent can do for their mental health is to take a step back
By Eve Newman
If you’ve come across this article, you’re probably currently sitting in a dark room trying not to tear your hair out because your partner has let their kids stay up all night when you’re desperately trying to get an early night, or their ex has requested a change to the custody schedule at the very last minute, throwing next weekend’s plans into disarray. Welcome. I see you.
While all families have their moments, there’s no denying a blended family is perhaps the most challenging of all. Family dynamics have been thrown out the window, and children are often shipped between two households with completely different rules and parenting styles. And there you are, trying to nurture a relationship with your partner and the kids, establishing your place within the family without unsettling it, and all while trying to keep your head above the water. No wonder they call stepmotherhood ‘the perfect storm for depression’. “All family dynamics can be difficult at times, but being in a stepfamily can come with its own set of unique challenges,” says Christine Kritzas, director and psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia. “These can be anything from children struggling with a shift in their role to loyalty conflicts and, of course, trying to figure out how the stepparent should interact with the stepchildren.”
Dr Christine Kritzas
My partner and I have a recurring disagreement. I often feel he is too lenient with his children. I put this down to my relatively strict upbringing, while he’s more of a “what will be will be” kind of guy. Neither is wrong, just both very different – although try telling me that when your stepchild has been suspended from school for the fourth time that year or is trying to joyride your car directly from your driveway. Luckily said stepchild has come a long way in the last couple of years, now able to hold down both a regular job and intelligent conversation. You know who else has come a long way? Me. And do you want to know how? A little term called disengagement.
“Disengaging requires the stepparent to step back and relinquish their role as the primary parent,” explains Christine. “This doesn’t mean that they stop having a relationship with their stepchildren, become distant or stop speaking to them, but sees them removing themselves from conflicting situations with the children and rather focusing on building a bond with them instead.”
In other words, there’s no point creating your own misery by trying to parent kids who already have two parents to do that for them. Of course you want your stepchildren to grow into the best possible version of themselves, but if your contributions are going unappreciated and unrecognised, leaving you to feel isolated, confused and stressed out – and your partner upset for what they see as a criticism on their parenting skills, for that matter – taking a step back from the situation and letting their actual parents take control can sometimes yield the best results for everyone.
Signs it’s time to disengage
· When you begin to feel physically and emotionally exhausted, which results in burnout.
· When you start feeling anger, hurt or resentment towards the children.
· When the children begin to experience emotional difficulties as a result of you parenting them.
· When the children lash out at you and become hyper-critical towards you.
· When your self-worth is tied into the quality of your relationship with the child
· When your partner expresses their wish that you step back from disciplining their children.
· When you’re investing more time in being a stepparent than a partner.
The benefits of disengaging
Disengaging often gets a bad rap. You no longer care about your stepchildren or their wellbeing, right? Of course not. In fact, removing yourself from a conflict situation has been shown to lead to improved relationships in the long run, relinquishing your role as a primary parent so you can build a better rapport with your stepchildren, all while protecting your mental health at the same time. “It can also help your partner to realise how little they have been parenting and take on more responsibility than before, give you an opportunity to zoom out and gain a better perspective on the situation, and can also give the children space to see all the great things you have been doing for them,” adds Christine.
Christine’s top tips on how to disengage with minimal damage
1. Communicate with your partner: explain to them why you will be relinquishing your role as the primary parent and how it will be beneficial for all. Express your desire to first focus on building healthy bonds with the children.
2. Consistency is key: refrain from ignoring the children or being conditional with them during this time. Ensure that you are being warm, caring, and consistent in your communication with them.
3. Make an effort to build a bond with the children: pay attention to their interests and lean into their world.
4. Create a platform for the children to speak: make time to connect with them 1-on-1 and give them space to express their feelings about having you disengage, and about you being a part of their family in the first place.
5. Ask for feedback from your partner: it’s important to discuss how they are experiencing this disengagement process.
It’s not easy – I’m certainly not saying it is – but if you can learn to change your mindset regarding your role in the family to one where you simply support your spouse in parenting, you can invest in only those matters that directly concern you. The kid didn’t brush his teeth before bed? Not your problem. Your partner didn’t wash their sports kit so now they have to sit out of PE? Too bad. The one I struggled with the most was the bedrooms resembling a bombsite in my otherwise beautiful home. No number of arguments would make my partner force them to use their drawers as a wardrobe instead of the floor, so now I simply keep the doors permanently closed. Out of sight, out of mind, and all that jazz. Letting go of the notion that your stepchildren’s behavior is a reflection on you or your responsibility will bring about a feeling of peace and a sense of calm. You can trust me on that.