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Secrets of successful step-parenting

Sarah Caron is a Connecticut-based freelance writer and editor. She lives with her wonderful husband, two adorable kids and two funny beagles. Check out her food blog at Sarah's Cucina Bella.

The new parent

Mom. Dad. Kids. Pretty simple, right? Well, not really. In fact, not that simple at all. These days the reality is mom, stepdad, dad, stepmom, siblings, half siblings, step siblings and so on. These blended families make for some challenging times, particularly for the step-parents involved who might not know where they stand in the parenting arena. What is a step-parent to do?

Stepmother and Boy
Marrying someone who has children is more than just getting married -- it's investing in a family. That's an investment that takes time, attention and nourishment to grow and flourish.

Take it slow

You might want things to instantly be perfect in your insta-family, but chances are there is going to be an adjustment period -- even if you've been in the kids' lives for sometime. There isn't going to be some sort of cosmic shift just because you walked down the aisle with their bio-parent.

Allow the kids to have some breathing room as they get used to your new family dynamic. But also try to include them in everything possible. Basically, reach out to them, but understand that it will take time to develop that sense of history and understanding. "The role of step-parent is tough under the best of circumstances, but by gently navigating your way it is possible to define your role for a child and become a very special influence," says stepmother Rita Barry-Corke of BarryCorke Communications.

"Thankfully, I have become a strong, reliable adult in my stepson's life. He knows I love him, respect him, want the best for him and have the unique ability to give him adult guidance from the trusted place of a parental equivalent, but without the same weighted stature of his Mom or Dad. It works for us," says Barry-Corke.

Not the mama

Something that many stepparents agree on is that when you take on the role, you aren't becoming the child's mom, but instead filling a different place in children's lives.

"We never had the struggles of 'you're not my Mom!', because I never tried to be their Mom, nor did I try to be too much of a buddy. My secret is striking a balance between friendship and authority. I was fortunate that my husband and I had agreed early on that we would never override the other when it came to discipline, or giving permission. If we had a disagreement regarding the kids, we would discuss it privately. My oldest daughter says it best, 'You're like a best friend that can make me clean my room!'" says Diana Hathaway Timmons, a stepmother and author of Sell Your Home Without Losing Your Zen.

What's in a name?

What your stepchild calls you is a personal thing between the stepparent and the child. I was 24 when I became a stepmother. That was something I was ready for . . . as Sarah. But right away, my new stepson began calling me mommy. I had known him since he was about two and he'd always called me Sarah in the past, so it was a shock. I don't know who put him up to it (and at age five, my guess is that someone did), but it wasn't something I had been expecting -- or felt like he needed to do. We were doing just fine as Sarah and Chris. Furthermore, I just don't think that just because you are a step-parent that means you should be called mom or dad.

Apparently, someone disagreed. And they didn't ask me first.

In hindsight, I wish I had simply said, "Chris, you don't have to call me mommy just because your dad and I got married. You can call me Sarah or Mom, whichever you prefer." Unfortunately, my husband had me convinced that talking about it at all would result in hurt feelings. The thing is, I think him being told that he needed to call me Mommy did create some scaring that negatively impacted our relationship.

For young kids, what to call a step-parent can be a confusing question. My advice? Stick to what works for you -- a ring doesn't mean that you have to be called something else.

Communication is key

Communicating with your stepchildren -- both the biological parent and the step parent -- is essential. It keeps the kid feeling like part of the situation, not like an awkward third wheel.
"We do tend to address things ( except for the tension between the adults !) pretty head-on...getting married, expanding the family, changes the kids are going through as they grow, sibling stuff and really try and keep an open, seamless lifestyle," says Amy Williams of Peek...Aren't You Curious?

Discipline

The biggest challenge for me was figuring out when and how to discipline my step-child. Was it my place? How should I do it?

I talked to my new husband about this and he said I absolutely should participate in disciplining. I chose to do it via verbal corrections when needed and occasional timeouts when the verbal corrections failed.

It worked.

Finding balance

For stepchildren, adding more kids into the mix can be a challenge as well. It's important to be fair to both your step and biological kids.

"For a long time, there was a strong fear for him that I might leave. After his father and I married, much of that fear was lifted. Adding a new child to the family was especially difficult, because he was accustomed to being an only child in our home, and was not keen on having his world changed. I have found it is a constant balancing act, always trying to be fair to both boys," says stepmom Heather Kuhn of ConceptDesignStudio.

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