Nothing in life prepares an adult or a child for the stepparent relationship. Approaches to the role of a stepparent vary greatly. Some take the view that a stepparent should be as involved as the parent, and others take the position that a stepparent should operate at arm’s length. Negotiating the relationship between a stepparent and stepchild can be one of the hardest parts of adjusting to life after a divorce.
Stepparents are an integral part of their stepchildren’s lives, yet stepparents have no legal rights with regard to their stepchildren. An exception would occur if an adoption terminates the rights of a natural parent, however, this a highly unlikely occurrence. In other words, a stepparent has no legal say in a child’s education, healthcare, or custody. Furthermore, stepparents are not legally obligated to provide financial support to their stepchildren.
Nevertheless, stepparents are partially responsible for the well-being of their stepchildren. Depending on how active a stepparent wants to be in the life of his or her stepchild, day-to-day responsibilities can be negotiated with the child’s natural parent.
It is imperative to establish good communication between the stepparent and the natural parent, in order to ensure the quality of the relationship between the stepparent and stepchild. Having a stepparent thrust upon a child will lead to resentment and a difficult situation. A relationship that is allowed to grow naturally will be stronger and happier.
Here are a few points to consider when deciding how to navigate becoming a stepparent after a divorce:
- Discipline. What is the stepparent permitted to do? Will discipline be reserved only for the natural parent? What behaviors should be disciplined, and in what way? Whatever the parameters, they must be clear and consistent. Issues should be discussed with the parent and stepparent, and communicated to the child. Enforce agreed-upon rules in your household and be sure to back your spouse with the children. The definition of discipline needs to be determined as well.
- Communication. Frequently, the stepparent steps into the shoes of his or her spouse to communicate with the former spouse about the child. That step is usually a bad one. The child has two parents and only two parents. Having a stepparent communicate parenting issues with an ex-spouse causes resentment and hurt to the other parent, and those feelings are communicated to the child. Children must be clear that you are not taking their parent’s place. Do not compete with the natural parent and be supportive of the parents working together. This is a highly charged issue, and there are many nuances. The great communication required to make these relationships work is often lacking. If that is the case in your situation, then you may want to seek the assistance of a counselor.
- Responsibilities. The key to developing positive relationships after divorce is communication and mutual respect between parents. The better the relationship between natural parents, the better the derivative relationship. It is also important to recognize that the relationship between the child and the stepparent is significant. Clarifying roles and responsibilities will help to foster healthy relationships. Will you be available to help with the child’s homework, provide transportation, or attend the child’s events? Who will look after the child if the parent is traveling? Will you stay with the child, or will other forms of childcare need to be sought out?
- Respect. Respect the relationship of the parent to the child. For example, do not insert yourself into the relationship between the natural parents, and do not put your spouse in the position of choosing You or Them. It is important to be respectful in what you do and say. For example, do not bad mouth the parent, and do not pump the child for information about the other parent. Finally, respect the formalities and familiarities reserved for the natural parent. For example, do not force a child to call you “mom”. Pay attention to what’s happening. What may be alright today isn’t alright tomorrow.
The relationship that every stepparent has with his or her stepchildren is unique, and the quality of the relationship depends on good communication between the stepparent and the child’s natural parent. Thoughtful communication will clarify both the stepparent and parent’s expectations and responsibilities. Clear expectations will help ensure that a stepparent won’t overstep his or her boundaries, and that a parent won’t have expectations that are uncomfortable for the stepparent.
Please contact Linda Sorg Ostovitz, at (301) 575-0381 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more information on dealing with divorce.
ABOUT LINDA SORG OSTOVITZ
Linda Sorg Ostovitz is a family law attorney. Her legal experience spans more than 34 years. In this time, she has served as a leader, educator and advocate. Mrs. Ostovitz holds a prestigious fellowship in the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. Currently, she serves as President for the Business Women’s Network of Howard County, by which she was chosen Woman of Distinction for 2014. Mrs. Ostovitz represents clients in Howard, Anne Arundel, Carroll and Baltimore Counties. Her practice focuses exclusively on divorce litigation and mediation, child custody and access, child support, alimony, business valuation, as well as property and asset distribution. In addition to providing legal representation in court, Mrs. Ostovitz provides mediation services to help families come to a fair and legally-sound conclusion outside of the traditional court proceedings.
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