UF Expert Offers Tips on Navigating Mother’s Day as a Stepparent
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Heather Griffith grew up spending alternating weeks at her divorced parents’ homes. But on Mother’s Day, there was no question where she would be: with her mom.
“It was never an issue; it was just understood that my mother got us on that day to celebrate our relationship with her,” said Griffith, who grew up in Gainesville. “Whatever issues there were at the time, Mother’s Day was considered a sacred time for us to spend with our biological mother. I really appreciated that it was never a tug-of-war.”
According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 42 percent of adults have at least one step-relative, with 30 percent indicating they have a step- or half-sibling. These relationships already have difficulties built in, but those stressors can be exacerbated by holidays.
“Love doesn’t occur instantly between a child and stepparent. So, while they are trying to build a new relationship, the stepparent also has to consider the ongoing relationship between the child and his mother,” said Victor Harris, associate professor of family, youth and community sciences in the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “One way to make the new relationship more likely to succeed is to not make the child feel guilty about spending time with her mother, especially on Mother’s Day.”
Harris, who leads the UF/IFAS Extension SMART Couples program, which provides relationship classes to Florida residents, said another challenge is avoiding putting down the ex-partner in front of children, especially during the holidays. “Control your anger at the ex-partner if they say something negative about you to the children,” he said.
Most importantly, Harris said, become aware of putting children in the middle of conflict. “You just don’t want to put kids in the center of what you are arguing about, whether it be for power or control,” he said. “Keep the child’s best interest in mind.”
To avoid scheduling conflicts and the awkwardness of being in the presence of the ex-partner, one part of family could celebrate Mother’s Day on Saturday, and the other on Sunday, Harris said. “Let the children have two holidays and honor both mothers. The children appreciate that and the parents aren’t fighting,” he said.
Harris also offered the following suggestions:
- Encourage children to have a healthy relationship with the ex-partner, unless the ex is abusive or a danger to the child, he said. “Become aware that children can play mother and new wife against each other. Stick to rules and standards,” he said.
- Do something with each stepchild. Do things they like to do, and make sure all of the parents understand the developmental needs of children, which change as the child grows.
- Hold family meetings so each person feels like they have a voice. Each person can discuss creating new rituals that can help alleviate stress. “It’s important to let children be involved. Be flexible: Rigidity gets everyone in trouble,” Harris said.
- Most of all, said Harris, “Make sure mom is honored and happy.”
The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS web site at ifas.ufl.edu and follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.