Patience, Time and Love Helps Make it Work
Published: May 25, 2016
By: Lori Chandler Pruitt
When Joe Sumners married Lynn Cantrell in 1992, he gave a wedding band to her and a ring to Lacey, Lynn’s 9-year-old daughter.
“I understood from the start that I was not just marrying Lynn, I was also making a full commitment to Lacey,” he says. “We were a family.”
Becoming a stepfather can be a challenge under the best of circumstances. The sheer challenge of it in some cases can make some stepfathers disconnect from their stepchildren emotionally, or withdraw from daily responsibilities.
But given plenty of work and patience, stepfathers can have profound and important leadership roles with their stepchildren, says Ron L. Deal, president of Smart Stepfamilies (www.smartstepfamilies.com). “Stepfathers can offer guidance, love and encouragement to the children under their care,” Deal says. Whether it is a case where the biological father is active in the child’s life or not, entering an existing family dynamic can be done with plenty of work and patience.”
Sumners agrees that even with positive situations, it takes work. “In order to develop trust, you have to give your time, listen, forgive and love unconditionally,” he says. “Having a new parent is a big change for everyone. For the child, they have suffered the loss of a parent from their everyday lives that can leave an empty spot. It is important to spend time with your new child, listen and let them know that they are loved and valued.
“I understood that I was not Lacey’s father. Her father was still in her life and I respected that relationship. But I knew that I would be her parent in our home and that I was responsible for loving and supporting her and making sure she had a happy life.”
Sumners says adjusting to a new marriage also needs to include the children. “Make sure you focus on the needs of the child and not just get too caught up in the love you have for your new spouse,” he says.
Andrea Hendricks, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Birmingham who also teaches part-time in the UAB psychology department, says those first few months in the home can set the tone. “I think it is important to remember that the things that you say and do matter and will impact the children,” she says. “This can be a positive or a negative. Some stepfathers think of themselves as just an outsider living in the home, but having a stepfather can be a wonderful way for children to learn that unconditional love can come from a non-biological relative. They have the opportunity to leave behind a legacy of warmth and love and positivity.”
Deal says that gaining respect and leadership from stepchildren is a process; it is earning the right to lead by developing trust and connecting with stepchildren. It’s hard for many men, understandably so, to realize that the stepchildren mainly get to determine the pace at which their stepdad finds acceptance, and will open their heart when they are ready. The speed of that process is often determined by the child’s age and family situation.
To help make the adjustment smoother, Deal outlines on his website several “tools” for new stepfathers:
Get the lay of the land. All stepparents need to understand their stepchildren’s emotional climate. Be aware of the child’s emotional wounds and hurts from past losses so that you can cope with the sometimes angry attitude of children in stepfamilies.
Initially provide indirect leadership. Lead through your wife, who likely already has set boundaries, expectations and the values that govern the home. As your relationship with the children grows, your relational power grows because the children care about you personally.
Sumners and his wife had a son of their own when Lacey was about 13, and their children are grown with their own families.
“Parenting is the relationship, regardless of the DNA,” Sumners says.
Lori Chandler Pruitt is associate editor of Birmingham Parent.