What should my stepchild call me?

… I get letters … well, actually I get emails, often in response to this blog or my Facebook pages or referrals to my websites. And they are almost always about disasters hitting the dazed home of a fledgling stepfamily.

Generally, they are about some sort of breakdown in communication – My ex-spouse is causing trouble, or my kids hate my new spouse, or my new spouse can’t stand my kids, or they’re all driving me crazy – things like that.

And I don’t mean to belittle these issues because I’ve been there myself, 24 years ago when I married a sweet lady who came with a 14-year-old attachment in the form of an angry at the whole world girl. After going through a suicide attempt, physical and verbal attacks, and a threat to kill her mother, we survived, won her over, and moved on to teach others. So I get it. These Disasters really are serious, life changing events.

One question that pops up pretty regularly is the question I got this week: “what should a stepchild call their stepparent“. That is all they asked, no explanation, no idea of who was calling whom what. So I tried to cover the whole topic. And since my answer was deep and wide, I thought I might as well share it with you, my dear readers. My answer was …

What a stepchild calls his (or her) biological parent’s partner (legally wed or not) is up to 1) the child, 2) the stepparent, and 3) the biological parent. This order of control is important because no one can make a child think of the stepparent as “Dad” or “Mom” – that is entirely subject to the child’s own mindset. As long as the child is respectful, the title they use is usually more of an issue for them/you than for the child. If she chooses to call her stepparent by their first name, that is probably fine – as long as it is done respectfully.

It is the responsibility of the biological parent to teach their child to respect their partner. It is not the responsibility, or right, of the stepparent to school their partner’s child on manners or etiquette any more than it would be for them to make rules for the stranger’s kid at the mall. If your stepkid is bad mouthing you, do the same as you would at the mall – take it to the parent to deal with. (“Not my circus; not my monkeys,” so to speak.)

However, most of the time this question is asked, it is because the stepchild has started calling a stepparent Dad or Mom. And the biological parent is upset about what it might mean.

I understand why many biological parents are uncomfortable about hearing a relative newcomer to the family referred to as Dad or Mom. After all, that guy or gal is not, never has been, and never will be your child’s blood parent. (Adopted children and parents change everything. That’s a-whole-nother topic.) And grandparents seem to get more upset than even biological parents when they hear the D word or the M world used for “that other person.”

But, to a child who has been through divorce, labels become a bit fluid. When my own teenage stepdaughter, after four years of resistance and blow ups, one day casually said, “OK, thanks Dad,” she was telling me and her mom that she had finally accepted that I was there to stay, and that she respected me for playing the supporting role of dad-stand-in for her when she needed it.

My stepdaughter was not suffering from head trauma or a psychological break so that she was suddenly unsure who her blood/biological parent is. If I had stood next to her biological dad and ask her to pick out which one is which, she will still know who is whom. She hadn’t forgotten her father.

She is bestowing an honorary title on this adult who has proven him/herself to the child. She is outwardly saying what she has been inwardly thinking for awhile. It doesn’t mean she loves them more than you, or that she is replacing you, or that they are her “favorite.” It just means she is giving them that privilege.

Look at it this way, isn’t it great that your child has one more person in her life with whom she feels close to? That she has one more adult looking out for her? And, if your child feels this close to his or her stepparent, maybe it’s time you got to know them better, too.

As they say, “Keep your friends close and that jerk who has moved in on your family closer.”

God bless y’all,

Let me know if I can help.

Stepcoach Bob Collins

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