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Parenting isn’t easy, and stepparents have their own set of challenges that could lead to mental health conditions like depression.
Being a stepparent can be difficult. You often have to learn to navigate a unique situation that other parents might not face.
There’s the desire to be accepted by the stepchildren and the arguments about differences in child-rearing. You might even have to face ongoing divorce and custody hearings.
There are numerous reasons why stepparents are prone to depression.
When a family is blended, it often requires adjustments and compromises on both sides: for the stepparents and the family.
Children may see a new stepmom or stepdad as a threat to the status quo.
“If a parent has been divorced and spent some time being a single parent, a certain flow develops that a new stepparent may interrupt,” says Jason Drake, LCSW-S, BCN, lead clinician and owner of Katy Teen & Family Counseling in Texas.
Children also may view the new stepparent as trying to replace their mom or dad. And having to adjust to a new parent and their parenting style is difficult for everyone involved.
“When a person remarries, there is now a new adult in their lives who is co-parenting not only their biological children but the stepchildren as well,” Drake says. “This can be hard for children and especially teens to accept. Parenting styles may differ with a new stepparent entering the mix.”
As stepparents, it’s not just you and your partner involved in raising the children.
“The ex-spouses, depending on divorce decrees, are also a part of the decision making process in their children’s lives,” Drake adds. “This can be stressful and contentious at times if each of the parents are not unified in their approach to co-parenting.”
Stepparenting can be difficult. Trying to figure out your role as a new parent in an already established family system is a challenge.
“It’s difficult for numerous reasons: experiencing divided loyalties between their own biological children and the stepchildren, the desire to be accepted, talking about how to raise the kids, and the list goes on,” Drake says. “Throw teenagers into the mix, and the challenges multiply.”
All of the above can result in symptoms of depression.
Research has shown a correlation with increased mental health challenges for stepparents compared with those who are parents in a first marriage.
In the book “Fertility, Living Arrangements, Care and Mobility,” the authors review a study that explores the connection between a stepparent and poor mental health.
The study suggests that “adults in stepfamilies were more likely to express ‘negative feelings’ and suffer from depression than those in first families.”
In her book, “Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do,” author Wednesday Martin, PhD, explains why stepmothering is the “perfect storm” for depression.
Risk factor 1: Isolation and alienation
Tension and conflict are byproducts when blending families. This can feel isolating for stepparents, whose circle of friends may not know how to relate to what they’re going through.
Risk factor 2: Rumination
When you’re isolated, it can lead to overthinking and overanalyzing.
Martin quotes Yale psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, PhD, who defined ruminative thinking as “a cycle of rethinking the past, worrying excessively about the future, not taking action, going over and over the same issues, letting concern spread to other issues until there’s an avalanche of concern and a feeling of being overwhelmed.”
Risk factor 3: Relational tendencies
Martin calls the stepfamily a “tinderbox of sorts” due to the stepparent’s relational tendencies with that of their spouse and the stepkids’ conflicting emotions.
Risk factor 4: Overcompensation and the need to ‘fix it’
“With the specter of the wicked stepmother floating above our heads, we are under enormous pressure to prove — to the world and to ourselves — that we are not corrupt or sadistic, that we are, in fact, good, even perfect and beyond reproach,” Martin writes.
Martin continues: “A fifty-eight-year-old stepmother named Belinda calls this the ‘Cinderella-in-reverse syndrome’ — the stepmother’s drive to be whiter than white, better than best, and her tendency to overcompensate at her expense.”
Risk factor 5: Double standards that disempower
Martin says that stepchildren are often given a pass when showing resentment toward their stepparent. However, this isn’t the case for stepmoms. A stepmom is expected to show unconditional love for her stepchildren.
Martin says that whereas stepchildren have social support when they vent about their stepmom, the stepmother often doesn’t.
Risk factor 6: Punching bag syndrome
It’s common for stepparents to get blamed for things they aren’t responsible for, according to Martin. And the term “punching bag” refers to the fact that stepmoms will often take it.
Risk factor 7: Unsupportive spouses
“A woman’s husband can make all the difference in her adjustment to remarriage with children and to the smooth functioning of the family,” Martin writes.
In one study cited in the book, Martin notes that nearly half of the remarried men with children expected their wives to be ‘more maternal’ than they were with their children.
“Such expectations can clash with women’s agendas and desires,” Martin writes, “especially when we are repeatedly rebuffed or disappointed in our attempts to build a bridge to his kids.”
Risk factor 8: Professional bias and bad advice
The “avalanche of unsolicited advice,” Martin states, can wreak havoc on both the stepmom’s home life and emotional state. More than the average mother, a stepmom receives pointers about how to raise the children and handle her current situation.
However, since many women can’t relate to her complex circumstances, the advice can be hurtful and make the stepparent feel inadequate.
There are some things that parents and stepparents can do to help prevent, reduce the likelihood, or decrease the intensity of the parent-child conflict. And as a result, this will help reduce the likelihood of developing depression.
Communicate early and often
It’s important that the parents communicate often and co-parent in a unified way. This will help decrease conflict and stress and provide consistency and structure for the children.
“It is not uncommon to have children try to pit their biological parent against a stepparent,” Drake explains. “Disciplining the children is often a point of contention if there is not clear communication and agreement on how to discipline in co-parenting. There are also ex-spouses that the stepparent is required to coordinate with.”
Children want to be heard. They want to know that their concerns, fears, worries, hopes, and dreams are being taken seriously.
If the parents can go out of their way to show their child they’re heard and part of the solution, this can ease the tension in the home and strengthen relationships, Drake says.
Regular date nights
Aim for a weekly date night. It’s important not to lose sight of the romantic connection and spend time together. Maintaining a strong bond benefits your marriage and the entire family.
“Date night should be a time where the stressors of life are put on the back burner,” Drake says. “You can always revisit these later, but date night is a time for the parents to enjoy each other’s company and strengthen their relationship.”
There are several resources for stepparents:
- Step Talk. Step Talk is a place where stepparents can connect. They can provide suggestions for other stepparents and a place to ask for advice. Step Talk is free to register.
- Remarried With Children. This is another online support group free of charge. It’s a place for stepparents to connect, share their experiences, and get support.
- Family therapy or couples counseling. This can also be a source of support and help. As a couple, seeing a couples counselor can help you navigate the complicated journey of being a stepparent and co-parenting your children.
“Being proactive as a couple in seeking out couples counseling before you marry can help,” Drake says. “If you know that you will be moving in together or marriage is in the near future, and a blending of families will occur, seek out a couples counselor to help you learn about the upcoming challenges and the best ways to manage these challenges as a couple.”
Family therapy can also be a source of not only support but change. In family therapy, everyone is part of the solution and has things to work on. A family therapist can help the children and the parents navigate this new life journey.
Looking for a therapist but unsure where to start? Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource can help.