A common precept in medicine, some would say, an overriding principle, is to “first, do no harm”. Obviuosly meaning, at the very least, that any form of medical care should not make the patient’s situation worse, rather than better. If there is a risk of unnecessary harm, the prevailing medical wisdom is to “stop”.
Some would say that this principle would be a great guide for stepparents, as well. According to the fairy tale of stepparenting, the VERY LEAST a stepparent should do is not harm the child in any way.
Of course, because we are dealing with stepparents, the actions that a stepparent may do that could possibly be perceived as potentially harmful to a stepchild are unlimited-
A stepparent settting boundaries in his or her home can appear “unreasonable and mean” to the stepchildren; a stepparent raising a voice in anger at a stepchild’s blatant (and may I add, overtly challenging) behavior is perceived as “threatening” or “scary”; a stepparent taking a break from the stepchildren is perceived as purporting the idea that these children are “unwanted” or “unloved” by the stepparent; a request by a stepparent for equal consideration can be seen as “needy and demanding”; a firm “No” by a stepparent can be taken as a full-on frontal assault on the value of the stepchild by that child and the child’s parent.
Give me a break. You know, I tried to live by the principle “First, do no harm” when I initially became a stepparent. I would talk to myself and say such things as, “Kim, these children have been through so much. Do not add any more stress to their lives.”
And, you know what snapped me out of it? The realization that unless I am some type of moronic, sadistic, abusive person (of which I am not) that there IS NOT ONE THING I CAN DO AS A STEPPARENT THAT IS NEARLY AS HARMFUL AND DAMAGING AS THE INITIAL ACT BY THE PARENTS TO GET A DIVORCE. That is right. I said it. Want to know who really has a hand in harming and damaging the children? The parents who divorce.
Again, I will note that I understand there are many valid reasons for a divorce when children are involved. These reasons, however, DO NOT ABSOLVE the parents from “damage control” that all children experience post-divorce (and according to many studies, will continue to suffer the fall-out of their parents’ divorce the rest of their lives).
Judith S. Wallerstein and her co-authors in The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25 Year Landmark Study showed that children of divorce are more likely to suffer from the following: attachment issues, delayed adolescence, nervousness and anxiety, a prevailing sense of loneliness, alteration in roles (child as caregiver), a distorted sense of self, increased fear of the future, a sense of life-long grief, etc., etc.
Now, if we would like to point fingers and say what is really damaging to a child, I would say the above list-the list associated with children from divorced families NOT children who have had a stepparent in their lives- is a great place to begin.
But, do I think finger pointing is necessary or effective? Of course not. What I do want, though is some understanding about how easily parents who divorce are let off the hook (often times, happily moving on in their “new” lives), while a stepparent is viewed as the one responsible for any problems arsising from relating to the children.
I want stepparents to understand what a tough, difficult situation we are in. Children from divorced families present their own special challenges- challenges in which we often, as stepparents, have NO hand in creating.
So, if you are like me, and tend to feel a sense of guilt and sadness for not being “perfect” around the stepchildren, and wondering if you have somehow negatively affected them, take it easy on yourself. I truly believe there is nothing you can do as a stepparent that is nearly as damaging as what the parents (perhaps with good reason) have already put the children through.
It is up to the parents to do “Damage Control” and repair the harm done, not us.