Dear Mr. Dad: I’m divorced and have three children from that marriage. I’m engaged to a great guy and we’re very happy. The one trouble area is that he never seems quite comfortable around my kids (he doesn’t have any of his own) and often tells me that he doesn’t feel like he truly belongs How can I help him feel like a real member of a blended family?
A: I hate to put any more pressure on you than you’re already under, but the biggest predictor of how well your husband-to-be will integrate with the rest of your family is you. You’re the one who’s going to have to help him adjust to his new role as step-dad. At the same time, you also have to help your children understand his role in their life and how having him around will affect them. To say that everyone is feeling a little insecure would be an understatement. That said, here are a few steps you can take that should make this huge transition a little easier on everyone in your blended family.
- Let him know he doesn’t have to (and shouldn’t) be your children’s dad. Since you said you’re divorced, I assume your children already have a dad. What your new husband can—and should—do, though, is treat your kids with respect and love. Hopefully, he’ll get the same from them in the not-too-distant future.
- Allow him to gradually develop his own relationships with the children. Step back and let things unfold slowly. Trying to force him to take on too much too soon will backfire.
- Give progress reports. Your new husband probably won’t tell you, but he’ll soon be obsessed with knowing whether the kids like him and whether they (and you) think he’s doing a good job. So, if the kids tell you something nice, pass it on right away. Don’t be shy about giving him high-fives (physical or verbal) when you catch him doing something great, and offer gentle encouragement and advice when necessary. Resist the urge to be a helicopter spouse—always hovering. That’ll create all sorts of tension. Just step back and give him plenty of space to learn the ropes the same way you did—by making tons of mistakes.
- Be clear. Explain to your kids what their step-dad’s authority is and be sure they’re clear on how you expect them to behave towards him.
- Minimize potential dad vs. step-dad conflicts. Your new husband and your ex probably won’t send much time together, but they could bump into each other at school-, family-, or sporting events. Minimize potential conflicts by managing the way you talk about your ex. If you spout nothing but negativity, your husband will naturally feel a little hostile. If all you do is talk about how great your ex is, the new guy will be jealous.
- Establish rules. Before things go any further, it’s essential that you and your new husband get clear on the following issues that may affect your blended family:
- Who will discipline your kids and how? For now, it’s best that he leaves as much of that to you as possible. That said, he needs to have some authority over the kids (for example, do you expect him to help with homework, drive the carpool, or show up at school conferences?), and he needs to know that you’ll back him up when he uses it.
- How will you handle household finances? Do you expect him to contribute to private school tuition, karate lessons, or anything else? And if he’s contributing to the mortgage, are you going to put his name on the deed?
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