It's not easy being a stepparent. There are the children ("I don't have to do that because you're not my real parent"). Then there are the new rules for the family ("No, dear, you may no longer barge unannounced into the bedroom on Saturday mornings"). And the everlasting problem of money ("You mean we have to pay support even when the kids spend the summer with us?").
The biological parent has no easy time, either. Some parents liken it to spending time on the rack with the new partner on one end and the children on the other.
To help ease the adjustment for stepfamilies, experts offer these tips: For stepparents, get to know your stepchildren before you try to discipline them. "Be like a camp counselor," says Dr. James Bray, a psychologist at Texas Woman's University in Houston. "They should respect you, and you can tell them what to do, but don't discipline them." Show your children that you understand what they are going through -- even if you can't change it. When children complain about a stepparent, commiserate. Suggests psychotherapist Patricia Papernow: "Tell them, 'It must be hard dealing with a new adult in this family -- it's one more change that you didn't ask for.' " But avoid being drawn into character assassinations. In families where one parent suffers from alcoholism, drug abuse or another mental disorder, keeping the peace between former spouses is particularly challenging. "It's important to validate a child's experience," says Papernow. "You can say, 'Yes, your father is mean to you when he drinks,' or 'Yes, your mom promises things when she's drinking and then doesn't come through. I know this is difficult for you.' " But don't say: "Your mother is a terrible mother because she drinks." When setting up a new household, make sure that each spouse and child has something in the house that is meaningful to them. "The person moving in has to feel that they have done something to give the house their stamp," says Dr. Clifford Sager, director of family psychiatry at the Jewish Board of Family and Children and Services. If children must share a room, try changing furniture or doing something to make the room a joint effort between the children. As a stepparent, be prepared for a thankless job. Being any kind of parent is challenging, experts say, and being a stepparent is no exception. "But you can also be prepared for the satisfaction of doing something more creative than anything else you could do -- to help another human being grow up," says Dr. Robert Kirsch, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Bethesda. If children yell, "You're not my real parent," Papernow urges stepparents to say, "You're absolutely right, and it's going to take time for us to get know each other, and it's really hard for both of us. And then we may still not like each other, but we do have to find a way to live together."