According to the Internet, January 17 is “Ditch Your New Year’s Resolutions Day.” I have no idea who created the day or why. But it’s on the Internet, so it must be true. Because I like the one resolution I made this year (to be more boring), I decided to celebrate the day by creating a list of worries that stepparents and foster parents can ditch this year, or at least worry about less.
Don’t Worry About Our Kids’ Opinion of Us
It is human nature to want people to like us, especially when those people are an important part of our lives. If we worry too much trying to get our children to like us, however, we will end up sabotaging any relationship that we could have.
We are not the people who are supposed to be in their lives. No matter how wonderful we are as foster parents or stepparents, having us in their lives will feel slightly off to our kids. Depending on their age and trauma history, they may feel that way for a long time. The more we try to push them, the more stress we put on whatever relationship we have. The only way for a relationship to grow is to give it room and to accept the possibility that it may never thrive the way we want it to.
Our children also may feel other pressures that neither we nor they can control. They may feel that accepting us is somehow disloyal to their biological parents. Or maybe they just don’t know how to respond to the situation, and they are trying on various attitudes to see what fits. Whatever their response, we need to stay balanced and comfortable with who we are.
Of course, we also should be open to signals about areas where we can improve. Even the most unhinged criticism can have a germ of truth. For example, no one has ever claimed that I am too patient or too likely to give in to someone. There always is room for me to be more kind, more long-suffering, and more tactful. But we need to work on virtues because we want to be better people, not because we want to win popularity contests.
Let your children work through their conflicts about losing their biological family. However they do it and wherever they end up, find a way to not take it personally.
Don’t Try to Replace The Biological Parent
More than one foster child has told me in the middle of a discussion, “You are not my parent.” They were right. I was not their parent, and I never could be. Biological parents cannot simply be replaced. We are not “the new parent,” and we should not try to get our children to accept us as substitutes.
On the other hand, we should never apologize for being the adult who is there. We are the adult on the premises, with all of the responsibility and disadvantages that the job entails. So when a child says we are not their parents, our answer is that of course we are not. We are merely the adult who is there at the moment, who cares about them, and whose job is to take care of them, point out the house rules, or do whatever adult job needs to be done.
Don’t Worry About Their Relationship with the Biological Parent
One fixed rule of parenting stepchildren or foster children is to avoid getting in the middle of their relationship with their biological parent. Their relationship is their business, and we should not ask questions, offer advice, or express an opinion. Like every rule, there are exceptions, but we should start from the premise that the relationship is simply none of our business.
One exception is that we should help them build that relationship when we can. Maybe we provide transportation for a visit or remind our child to write a birthday note. When I was single, I spent many occasions sitting by myself in a restaurant or church or family gathering while my foster child visited with family. When we have such an opportunity to help, we should take it.
We also should respond to our children’s questions. From time to time, I have had children use me as a sounding board to work through conflicts with their biological parents. I tried to help them come to their own conclusions without offering advice — never an easy task for me, and one that I often failed at. When I followed their lead, however, our relationship always was stronger.
Finally, we need to help our children keep straight what is their responsibility and what is their parents’. Children often take on way too much responsibility for their parents’ wellbeing. Children of divorce can blame themselves for their parents’ discord, and children of dysfunctional parents can end up handling too many adult tasks. Part of our job is helping children understand where their responsibilities end. Again, we have to follow the child’s lead and not say more than they are willing to hear. Most important, we have to find a way to help them understand these complicated matters without criticizing their parents.
Parenting other people’s children can be a difficult balancing act. Avoiding these three temptations, however, can reduce our stress and take some big pressures off our relationships.