Step children: How to parent beyond the stereotype

Stepmothers have a tough job. They’re compared – often negatively – to biological mummies. They’re portrayed as ‘wicked’ in just about every fairy tale ever written. And many struggle for years trying to build a healthy relationship with their stepchildren.

For many stepmothers, it can cause years of anxiety, family tension, and resentment and relationship pressures. But rarely do we hear stepmothers speak out about their experience.


Bella Tumusime, a mother of four, got married to a man who had two children from a previous marriage. She was well aware of what she was getting herself into; she knew that it wasn’t going to be a smooth ride, but she did it anyway because she loved him and was ready to make it work.


When they were still dating, she says things were easy, but all hell broke loose when it dawned on the kids that she was going to be their ‘new mother’.


“There was resistance, the children didn’t like me. They would do anything to annoy me because they wanted me out of the house; they were rude and didn’t hide the fact that they hated me. At times, they would gang up on me and destroy my things,” she says.

Tumusime almost gave up, but what helped her endure was her perspective on the matter.

“I knew it wasn’t personal; they didn’t dislike me as a person, they just didn’t want anyone taking the place of their mother. I put myself in their shoes and understood what they were going through,” she says.

She says though it was going to be a process, she was determined to make them one happy family, and she finally did.

“It was hard but I was patient and nice to them. I took it one day at a time and slowly by slowly, I won their hearts,” she says.

Tumusime says that though there is no formula when dealing with step-parenting, it is up to the adults to find a way to handle the situation level-headedly.

However, even though women often face judgement and have to rewrite the ‘wicked’ stepmother stereotype, men have not been spared.

In general, there’s not a lot of mythology about stepfathers. What there is tends to portray stepfathers as abusive. Stepfathers often complain that people assume the stereotype about them and automatically view the relationship as a disaster waiting to happen.

Richard Shema, for example, struggled with step-parenting until he eventually won over the hearts of the minors in his care.

“The line between step-parenting is blurry, it is very confusing and one just doesn’t know if they are doing the right thing, or crossing the line, when dealing with another person’s child,” he says.

He says that in the first few years of their marriage, step-parenting almost broke their marriage.

“I was very impatient with the kids and pushed them too hard; I wanted them to be like me but I did it the wrong way. I later learnt to give them space and when they gave me a cold shoulder, I learnt how to be patient with them. We eventually worked out our differences and the kids have now accepted me as their father,” Shema says.

Families should strive to work as a team and focus on having love as a unifying factor. Net photos

Rewriting the stereotypes

Counsellor, Beth Gahongayire, says the stereotypes around step-parents are deeply rooted because of how they have been portrayed over the years.

She, however, says things can always change as long as people are willing to take the necessary steps.

A healthy relationship is very important between a step-parent and children because it determines the happiness and security of a family. A beautiful relationship with all family members is crucial for a harmonious home, she says.

Gahongayire advises step-parents to find time for their children to bond, but at the same time, give them enough space to learn how to accept them.

“Children need time to mourn their parents’ separation, give them time to adjust to the new changes and in the meantime, you can work on building trust and being the supportive parent they can lean on,” she says.

The counsellor emphasises the need to be ‘real’ on the parents’ side because fake bonds will destroy the relationship.

“Children can sense when a person is not sincere towards them, and if this happens, it can spoil all the chances of building a real relationship.”

Alexis Butare, a father of two, says parents need to take the lead for the world to break the fear that surrounds step-parenting.

“At times, people take it personal when children don’t warm up to them, instead of being considerate, they become harsh towards the children. But this only makes matters worse,” he says.

Butare also says that at times it’s the tension between adults that causes trouble.

“This is common with women, they tend to bad-mouth each other and children pick on such things.”

He is, hence, of the view that parents should set the right example if step-parenting is to be made easier.

Sarah Tuyishime, a step-mother of two boys, says step-parenting is no joke, especially if the children are not willing to accept you. It is up to the adult to be willing to sacrifice whatever it takes to make things work, she says.

“The thought of having a step-mom scares them because they know chances of their parents getting back together are now gone. At times, you win their hearts and other times, it fails,” she says.

She, however, says since divorce rates are high nowadays, more and more families are coming up and it is up to people to write new scripts.   

Why a positive relationship is important 

Gahongayire says when there is a healthy relationship between the children and their parents, it makes the role of parenting easier.

“It is hard for children to respect someone they don’t like and this makes parenting even harder, but a healthy relationship creates a conducive environment for parenting,” she says.

Charles Gahigi, a counsellor, believes that a bad relationship between a step-parent and a child takes a huge toll on the health of the child. Up-bringing is affected which can affect mental and physical health.

“People and their step-children should work hard towards having unified goals. They should strive to work as a team and focus on having love as a unifying factor.”

He also says that the stepchild-parent relationship determines the success of the marriage.

He says that though challenges are bound to come up, especially on the side of parents, adults should take the high road and sacrifice all they can for the good of the family.

The ability to lead and influence children comes the old-fashioned way — you earn it. Trust, respect and honour grow out of a relational history, and there is no quick way to establish that. Step-parents must be dedicated to building a relationship over time.

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