Becoming a parent is one of life's big challenges. Becoming a step-parent can be just as hard, if not harder. Most of us have given some thought to what kind of parent we want to be, but we may not think about how to step-parent until the situation is thrust upon us. If you feel overwhelmed by the situation, imagine how your stepchild feels. He's a kid. He's confused. He's unsure about a lot of stuff. Here's what he needs to know.
That you don't hate his biological parent
If there is one thing you need to communicate to your stepchild, it's that you don't hate his biological parent. If you still do, learn to forgive, for your own sake as well as for his. Resentments are normal in blended families, as are arguments and differences of opinion. Hatred is different. No one expects you to adore your spouse's ex, but if there are children involved, learn to be respectful, and to hold your tongue when you have nothing positive to say.
What your job is
No, not your actual job. Your job in this family. Like it or not, your job as a step-parent is to support your stepchild's biological parent, and if the situation allows, both his biological parents.
That's why it's important to try and get along with your spouse's ex, even if at a very superficial level. It's not about you. It's about providing consistency for your step-children. If they see that your role is to support your spouse and his ex in the way they bring up their children, it gives them consistent boundaries. Yes, of course you will have different ideas from his biological parent sometimes, which is why the next point is vital.
What he can expect from you
Your stepchild needs to know what to expect when he's with you, in terms of discipline, understanding, emotional support and practical help.
If you and your spouse have different rules (or a whole different parenting style) from the ex, there's very little you can do about it. Just make it clear to your step-kids that the rules are different at your house, just like the rules may be different at a friend's house, at school or at another activity they attend.
Consistency is the ideal, but having one set of rules in one half of the blended family and another set in the other half is common. Following different rules in different places doesn't have to be a big problem. It's what happens in life anyway. You don't act the same way in church as you do at the beach. Using appropriate behavior in different situations is a basic social skill.
Why you care about him
You may or may not eventually come to love your step-kids as your own. Many people do. Some don't. Brenda Ockun, publisher of StepMom Magazine quoted in The Huffington Post insists: "Of all the advice stepparents receive, 'love them like they're your own' is the worst!'"
She goes on to point out that just because you fall in love with someone doesn't mean you automatically love that person's kid. It's a great bonus if you do, but it shouldn't be assumed and it won't happen overnight.
Guess what? Kids know this. Even if they have no resentments and fully accept you, they don't love you like they love their biological parent, and they don't expect you to love them like your own, either.
That's why it's important that they know you do care, and it can help if they know why. If you get a lot of "Why do you care? You're not my mom." Tell your stepchild why you care, and make it about him as a person, not your relationship to each other. Show your stepchild you care about his well-being and feel for him when he's having a hard time, because he's a valuable human being who doesn't deserve to be struggling, not because you married his dad.
Try meeting every "Why do you care?" statement with a simple, "I care about you because you're worth caring about."
That's hard to argue with, even if you're a sassy stepchild.