Boundaries are never easy, but in a stepfamily, they can become extra fragile. How do you encourage your stepkids to follow rules when you might be new to disciplining them? How do you make it clear that it’s not okay for them to treat you with disrespect or take out all their family stress onto you?
One big thing to remember is that a person who pushes at your boundaries is not necessarily trying to hurt you. (Well, sometimes they are and are just jerks, but that’s a whole other conversation.) Lots of people simply don’t realize they’re pushing you past your limits unless you tell them—and that can include stepkids, ex-partners, and spouses.
Upholding a boundary doesn’t make you “mean” or selfish. If anything, you’re doing an act of good for the whole family. When you uphold your boundaries, you’re preventing yourself from being depleted by exhaustion and hurt. This means you’ll have enough energy and compassion available to show up fully as a family member while also caring for yourself. You’re also providing a healthy example for the kids, both when it comes to how to treat others and how to communicate limits.
Kids, in particular, often need boundaries to thrive, even if they act like they hate them in the moment—so why is it so dang hard to enforce them? I think the biggest culprits for boundary issues in blended families are nebulous feelings of guilt and inadequacy. Those feelings are almost always unfounded (seriously, you’re a good person and you’re doing your best), but creating a new family unit feels so vulnerable. You might even be feeling guilt for putting the kids through so much change. (Again, it bears repeating: you’re a good person and you’re doing your best! Let go of the guilt!)
In many blended families, especially in the early days, you’re frequently comparing (and being compared) to the way things used to be before the blended family came together. Kids are looking at the way their new stepsiblings are parented and wondering if their own routines measure up. Parents are looking at how their new spouse and both partners’ exes handle things and wondering if their methods match up.
All of this together is tough on even the most emotionally healthy person. If you’ve struggled with boundaries in the past, or were raised to be a people pleaser and put others’ needs before your own—and, spoiler alert, a heck of a lot of women were—it can be extremely tough. Here are a few tricks to keep in your back pocket for a little extra help in the boundaries department.
Remember that you are NOT a wicked stepmom.
In some families, stepparents have as much say in a kid’s upbringing as a bio parent. In other families, stepparents are treated more like something of an aunt, and defer major parenting decisions to the bio parent and their ex. Regardless, whatever role you play in your stepkids’ lives, you are an important and trusted adult in their family who wants what is best for them. You have every right to enforce household rules, and to expect respect as a grown-up in their lives. None of that makes you a “mean stepmom.”
Decide together on your family’s values, and make the rules very clear.
This is especially important if you and your spouse both have kids from previous marriages and enforced different rules in your previous households. Talk together with your family (at a level that fits with their age) about what your biggest values are. Make this part fun, and work on creating a feeling of being a team embarking on a new adventure together. At some point in this conversation, make sure the rules of the family and house are discussed. Make sure they’re very straightforward so there’s no confusion and so that consequences for breaking them don’t seem “unfair.”
Keep things consistent with exes.
If you or your partner’s exes are still active in your kids’ lives, do your best to have an amicable relationship with them. You don’t have to all be best friends (I mean hey, if you can manage that, tell us your secrets), but do your best to be a united front for the kids. Discuss rules and parenting decisions ahead of time, so they’re never confused about what is and isn’t allowed. Of course, all this depends on having an ex that is cooperative and willing to put their kids’ needs before disagreements—but since you all (hopefully) want what’s best for your kids, you might be able to use that shared goal to find some common ground.
Boundaries aren’t easy for anyone, blending family or not, so don’t be hard on yourself. Take things one step at a time, and give yourself from credit for doing the very best that you can.