Dear Dr. Brian,
Why do you seem so sour on step-parenting on your show?
Dear Second-Time Step,
Thank you for your question, and please allow me to preface my answer by saying that I can’t give an opinion about any viewer’s or reader’s specific step-family in a forum like this (such an opinion would require a thorough evaluation of all parties involved) — I can only give a summation of my general personal and professional beliefs about step-parenting. That said, I’m not sour on all step-parenting, just the majority of step-parenting of minors, and here’s why:
Rarely do I see single parents’ remarriages as net benefits to their minor children. In my opinion, the role of a stepparent is probably the most difficult interpersonal role that a human being can play, and the vast majority of people who play it play it badly — even highly-intelligent, highly-emotionally-intelligent (intelligence and emotional intelligence aren’t the same thing and don’t necessarily correlate positively) people tend to have a lot of difficulty with it. That’s a big part of why the divorce rate for marriages in which one or both parties has/have existing minor children is estimated to be upward of 70%. Keep in mind, virtually all minor children of single parents are children who’ve already been through something traumatic — sometimes the death of a parent, but more often, abandonment or divorce. In my opinion, in the vast majority of cases, single parents’ attention thereafter ought to be focused on “damage-control” — minimizing the damage done to their children by whatever traumatic events split up their families, which I believe is a “full-time job” — as long as those children are minors.
When single parents of minor children focus attention on their own love lives and on meeting their own romantic/sexual needs, it diverts attention from those minor children’s many needs, and when single parents try to enmesh their love lives with their minor children’s lives, it can be extremely selfish and damaging to those minor children in my opinion. Given the incredibly low success rate of such romances (the vast majority of which don’t result in marriage) and marriages (the vast majority of which end in divorce), exposing minor children to them exposes those children, at the very least, to high chances of enduring additional emotional trauma(s) (and less often — but still far too often — single parents who get overly focused on their own love lives rush into romances, cohabitation, and remarriage, don’t do nearly enough “due diligence” in evaluating their new spouses’ suitability to be stepparents, and end up negligently exposing their children not only to emotional abuse and trauma but also to physical/sexual abuse and trauma at the stepparents’ hands).
On a day-to-day practical level, just imagine, for instance, how a 12-year-old girl feels when she has to get fully dressed in the morning before leaving her bedroom for some cereal because there might be an unrelated male (a stepfather and/or stepbrother) in the family kitchen. Uncomfortable adjustments like that are enough to breed plenty of justifiable resentment, both toward the step-parent and toward the parent, but that often pales in comparison to the resentment bred by discipline/behavior issues in the household. Stepparents tend to have huge problems figuring out where the lines are between their rights as co-owners/lessees of the homes in which their stepchildren reside and the realities that they (the stepparents) are not those children’s parents. When children say to stepparents, “You’re not my mom/dad; you can’t tell me what to do!” they’re substantially correct, and while that doesn’t mean that those children can’t or shouldn’t be expected to behave reasonably respectfully, conflict between children and stepparents tops the list of issues that sink marriages involving preexisting minor children. And perhaps the greatest and most justifiable resentment breeder of all is when parents and stepparents marginalize existing children by making new children together. All of the above is compounded exponentially, by the way, when a parent’s relationship with a stepparent began while that parent was still married to the child(ren)’s other parent, i.e. when it started with an extramarital affair, in which case the parent’s child(ren) will likely and justifiably resent the stepparent, if not also the parent, as a home-wrecker worthy of little-to-no respect.
For such reasons, then, I believe that in most cases (acknowledging some exceptions), putting minor children into step-parenting situations is more harmful than helpful to those children. And those children are always my — as they should be everyone’s — priority (hence the eye rolls that you’ve probably seen on television when I’m discussing minor children whose last names are, for example, Johnson and Robertson, with a mother, stepfather, and step-siblings whose last name is Jones — because I know what those children likely have been put through so that Mrs. Jones can be “happy” for a while). Once one makes a child, the adult’s mission in life is to get that child to adulthood as physically, intellectually, emotionally, socially, and morally healthy as possible. It’s no longer about the adult — it’s all about the child; every major life decision made by that adult ought to be guided by that child’s best interests as long as that child’s a minor (I know, some single parents who wish to focus attention on their own love lives may rationalize that their romantic happiness is somehow a prerequisite to their children’s happiness, but it’s not). I believe, therefore, that any parent of a minor who’s contemplating dating, let alone having an extramarital affair, let alone introducing a love interest to his/her minor child(ren), let alone remarrying, let alone making a new child, ought to ask him/herself, “How is this helpful to my [and, if applicable, to my partner’s] minor child(ren)?” and if they’re honest with themselves, I believe that the answer, on balance, most often, is “It’s probably not.”
Again, I can’t give an opinion about any viewer’s or reader’s specific step-family situation in this forum, and yes, I do know of instances in which having a stepparent has been more helpful than harmful to specific minor children. Given, however, the vast majority of cases in which I’ve been involved as a lawyer, psychologist, child-custody expert, national television news analyst, and host of a national television show about divorces-turned-deadly, I retain great admiration for single parents who essentially put their love lives on hold (at least in the presence of their children) and focus their interpersonal attention and energy on identifying and meeting their children’s needs while those children are minors (and by the way, I also retain great admiration for single would-be stepparents who say to single parents of minors, “Focus on your children right now, and when the time’s right, you’ll have someone waiting for you”).
Thanks again for your question,