The role of being a stepparent has some inherent challenges. So I was pleased to interview Erin Munroe, author of The Everything Guide to Stepparenting: Practical, reassuring advice for creating healthy, long-lasting relationships, about some of the boundary issues between the roles of stepparent and friend.
Can a stepparent be a "friend" with a birth parent?
It depends on the situation and the situations are so mixed that this is a tough question to answer. If there was never a marriage between the birth parents or they had a very happy divorce and are still friendly with one another, it makes a stepparent being friendly with a birth parent a little easier for everyone.
If there is animosity, however, or potential for one parent to be manipulating another then it is a slippery slope. Being "friends" and being "friendly" are quite different. Friends also have the potential to get in arguments more than those who are simply friendly to one another. The problem with arguing with a friend about something unrelated to your stepparenting role is that it will probably take a toll on your relationship as parent/stepparent, and that is a relationship you really need to protect for the sake of the child. So, you might want to keep it "friendly", and not become BFFs until the child is old enough to be out of the house and on his or her own!
Can a stepparent be a friend with and adolescent or adult child?
Adult, potentially - If you became the stepparent to child who is already a mature adult, you may be more of a friend figure anyway. You are not going to be disciplining your stepchild, or making major life decisions for her so having more of a friendship won't confuse the adult stepchild.
It could still get hairy, however, if you have an argument with your stepchild since you can't really cut ties if necessary. Your stepchild will be your stepchild whether or not you are friends. You don't want an argument that could potentially disrupt your family unit in anyway, so you would still have to proceed in friendship with that in mind.
As far as boundaries go, telling each other your deepest, darkest secrets is out the window - unless you don't mind your spouse finding out and your stepchild doesn't mind risking her parent finding out! Keep in mind, your friend might be interested in intimate details about your relationship with your partner - your stepchild probably isn't!! As far as a friendship, proceed with caution and be aware of the dangers and boundaries.
Friends with your adolescent stepchild? No way. You are a parental figure. Adolescents need guidance and to know that they are safe when in your care. They don't need adult friendships from stepparents; they need strong supportive adults!
What are some of the landmines a stepparent faces with her stepchild's friends' parents who were friends of the birth mother?
The possibilities are daunting: She may have aired all your dirty laundry and then some to the other parents. The other parents might want to be gossipy and get you talking about the birth mother. The other parents may have chosen "a side" without even hearing your side.
The best thing to do in this situation is remain courteous, don't bad mouth the birth mother, and appreciate that these folks have a history with her, and to them you are "new" or "an outsider". Keep in mind, this is probably less about them not liking you and more about them feeling loyalty to the birth mother. If you act respectfully people will form their own opinions (it may take a LONG time) and eventually realize that you are just fine!
Any other thoughts about friendship and stepparenting, Erin?
Friendship is tough, at times, no matter how great the friendship. People go through different stages in life that can really throw a wrench into a friendship. I have always been friendly with my stepson's birth mother - not friends - but I would say we have grown a bit closer since I had my own son, and my stepson is away at college. We recently took pictures of my son and her daughter (my stepson's half siblings) together in their Halloween costumes as a surprise for him. So although we won't be hanging out with one another or chatting on the phone, we love my stepson enough to put our differences aside to assure that he feels that he has a loving family to come home to no matter which house he stays in!
Erin Munroe is a licensed mental health counselor, school adjustment counselor, school guidance counselor, and proud stepmother of her nineteen-year-old stepson. She lives in Braintree, Massachusetts and completed her MA in behavioral medicine and mental health counseling from Boston University School of Medicine. She currently works for the Boston Public Schools and holds a part-time position at a confidential teen-clinic, where she provides counseling to at-risk adolescents.
* DISCLOSURE: The Friendship Doctor (me) served as a technical reviewer for Erin's book, which I thought was extremely practical and thorough!