by Ron Huxley, LMFT
If I was asked what I felt the most difficult challenge
of being a nontraditional parent was, I would undoubtedly say,
"Loving someone else's child." This comes from my experience of
being in the trenches, with my own step children, and from the
mouths of other nontraditional families, be they friends or clients, in
Every task of parenting becomes more complex when the child is not
one's "natural-born." This appears to be true of step, adoptive, and
foster parents. Of course, each type of nontraditional parent is
different and unique. The common denominator is that loving a child
with whom you have not had an "early biological" relationship with is
tough. The only exception might be the adoptive parent who adopts at
birth or in early infancy where the power of attachment can do it's
Attachment is the emotional bond that occurs between a parent and
child from the moment of birth or even conception. From a discipline
perspective, attachment allows parents to cope with the challenges
and difficulties of parenting. It is much easier to forgive the
behavior of a child with whom you feel biologically attached than
with someone else's biological child. It is also easier to discipline
a child when attached. For one, children are more likely to follow
some biological parent's directives than a nonbiological parent.
This is one of the biggest errors step parents can make, namely,
disciplining their step children before adequately building a
relationship with him or her. When you get "you're not my dad so you
can't tell me what to do" lines from your step child, you know you
have not adequately build that relationship yet. Of course, my step
children still do not do everything I tell them to do, but they never
throw my nonbiological parent status in my face. They just don't do
what I tell them. Kind of like my own biological children. Kind of
like children period!
In my book "Love & Limits: Achieving a Balance in Parenting" I point
out that discipline is made up of two sides: love and limits.
Discipline without love tends to be authoritarian and cold. Take out
limits and you have a permissive, weak parenting style. The solution
is to use both love and limits. All families, traditional and
nontraditional, struggle with this balance. Usually, one parent will
predominately use love over limits in their parenting style and the
other parent will counter with limits over love. This is their way of
balancing the parenting in the family system. Unfortunately, it is
unhealthy and always leads to feelings of frustration and anger. It
also leads to children using the old "divide and conquers" approach.
Just get mom and dad fighting over how the other parent is handling
things ("you are too strict" or "you coddle him too much") and the
child walks away free and clear.
The division of love and limits in nontraditional families is even
greater. It typically goes like this: The nonbiological parent
usually takes the limits position while the biological parent takes
the more nurturing, love position. This is why I suggest that
nonbiological parents take a backseat approach to discipline for at
least the first six months. That doesn't mean that parents shouldn't
discipline their children. Just view your role as a disciplinarian to
be similar to a babysitter or aunt or uncle to the child. Look for
opportunities to build relationship, from small (sitting and watching
television together) to large (working on a school project), with the
child before doing major discipline. Let the biological parent stay in the
drivers seat and do most of the discipline of the children, even if
he or she doesn't want to or feel that they do a good job of it. Some
frustrated mom's look for a step father that can set limits with
their "unruly" children. It might work in the short-term but it will
back fire in the long-term.
Adoptive and foster parents have a different reason for loving
someone else's child than a step parent. Step parents end up loving
someone else's child because they choose to love a parent. Adoptive
and foster parents' end up loving someone else's child because the
other parent could not or would not love a child. So the difference
is one of motivation. Step parents are motivated to be primarily with
the other parent, and so, by default, with the other parent's
children. Adoptive and foster parents are motivated to be primarily
with the other parent's child, and so, by default, with the other
parent. Think about it.
Of course, this doesn't make adoptive or foster parenting any easier.
Adoptive parents must contend with the fact that their adoptive child
may go looking for his or her "real" mom and dad. Try spending your
life loving someone else's child, like he or she was your own
biological child, only to have him or her reject you later in life
and go off in search of the other parents. Even if you are not
rejected by your adoptive child, you still must deal with societies'
view of you as different. Take, for example, parents who adopt
children of a different ethnic background. People will continually
point out the obvious nonbiological relationship to you. As if you
Foster parents have it tough. Try welcoming a new child into your
heart and home, put time, money and effort into that child, learn to
love him or her as your own, and then have the child taken away and
returned to the biological parent (who messed up the child in the
first place) or long-term foster care. How do you keep on loving
other parents children without pain and frustrations? Maybe this is
why so many of the foster parents I know end up adopting children
rather than letting them return to the system.
The moral of this dismal story is that loving someone else's child is
one of the MOST LOVING ACTS a nontraditional/nonbiological parent can
possibly do. Step, adoptive and foster parents may not feel they are
so loving, at times, but the very fact that they doing something that
goes against the normal parenting grain of attachment prove they are.
Therefore, if someone asked me what the most important thing a
nontraditional parent can do, I would say, without hesitation: "Love
someone else's child."
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