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Stepfamily struggles: Readers share challenges

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As a 16-year-old girl, Nicole put up a fight when her mom married her stepdad. Nine years later, she plans to have both her stepdad and her "real" dad walk her down the aisle.

"My stepfather made it clear that he wasn't trying to replace my dad, and I grew closer to him," writes Nicole, who lives in Philadelphia. "Now I am 25 and I have two 'dads.' I call them both 'Dad' and I feel blessed to have both in my life."

In response to an story about new research on the trials of being a stepdad, readers responded with their own tales of stepfamily challenges — and how they got past them.

"The 'tests' and the 'trials' that these children throw at us are merely their protective instincts at work," writes Katie of Staten Island, N.Y. "Just like us, they are afraid of rejection and heartbreak. They come from broken marriages and are just afraid of enduring that heartbreak again. Have some patience and understanding and all will work out."

Keep reading for more responses.

Never refer to the kids as "step" — you need to refer to them as your kids. And let them know you love them. I had the best teacher, my step dad, better know as Dad. He took in my mother and five of us brats (two of which were still in diapers). I never ever heard Dad refer to us as stepkids. As far as he was concerned we were his. Him and mom never had kids together. He passed away a year ago, I still love and miss him.

— Rex, Elizabeth, Colo.

My method: treat them with respect and kindness. Eventually they will grow up.

— Jerry, Lincoln, Neb.

It took me marrying my husband, who has two kids from a previous marriage, now 9 and 14, (hey were 6 and 11 when we married) for me to realize what my stepmother went through with me and my sister. We were horrible to her. I got lucky and got some great stepkids, but I felt terrible that it took me this long (I am now 33) to realize how we treated her. We now have a great relationship, but I wish I would have made these realizations sooner.

— Anonymous, Ohio

I am a stepmother to two wonderful children. When I met my husband I was more afraid of his 8-year-old daughter than I was of my future mother-in-law. She was a daddy's girl through and through. ... My husband had been through some failed relationships with a few woman in the past and his daughter had eventually gotten close with all of them. I think she took his break-ups rather hard and she was afraid of another heartbreak for her daddy and for herself. Eventually she came around and started to open up to me. Now we are married for about a year and a half and have a new baby boy. Both of his children are absolutely crazy about their little brother and they are very close to me. Most of the time, they want to stay with us when given the choice between their mom and dad's homes on the weekend. There was a bit of tension at first when I had to do mild disciplining. I was afraid, after all I am not their mother. But I think they have come to accept that I am a mother figure and in the absence of mom or dad, what I say goes. Now, especially with my stepdaughter, I find she opens up to me about things that she won't tell her mother or her father. I am about 12 years younger than her mom and I think she sees me more as a friend. ... I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would be a step-mom but I am. I love those kids like they were my own and that's just how I treat them.

— Katie, Staten Island, N.Y.

I was raised by a stepparent. My stepfather was a better father than my biological father. I respected him more, because he didn't have to be there, and my father never was.

— Patrick, Phoenix

I was raised by my father until I was 6. At that time, he married the stereotypical horrible stepmother. Although she was decent to my younger brother, she saw me as competition for my father's affection — since I was a girl. After a few years, my Dad finally saw the light — this woman was manipulative and had major issues. When I was 16, he started dating again. He married an incredible woman that has taken us into her heart and soul. I find it demeaning to call her a "stepmother." She has been more of a mother to us in ways that our biological mother never could have been. She is my mother, and I am very fortunate that we found her.

— Shannon, Belton, Texas

My name is Shaun and I am 29 years old. I have a stepdaughter who is now 19 years old. She is part African American and part Hispanic, and I am Caucasian. As you can see, we are very different. We met we she was 9 years old, and she seemed to absolutely despise me. Over the years she would deliberately disobey me, tell me I am not her father, etc. But I maintained my stance that I do in fact love her, and my rules are my rules. I assured her that I was not there to be her friend, but rather to make sure she does right. We had some very tough fights. Now, at 19 years old, she is a wonderful, bright, disciplined, well spoken young women. I'm very proud of her, as I always have been. And to be quite honest, her and I have a better relationship than she has with either her mother or father. My advice, stepdads, is hang in there, the test is make sure you will stand the test of time, and I did. She's a great kid.

— Shaun, Oswego, Ill.

I was raised by a stepfather, and I am now a mother of my 11-year-old son and a stepmother of another 11-year old boy and a 16-year-old daughter. Because all three kids were so young when we married (5, 5 and 9) and because they all three lived with us most of the time until the past couple of years, we have had the benefit of getting more family vacations, holidays, etc. My husband and I believe that it is these together times that have helped us through the inevitable roller coaster times that come in all marriages — certainly in blended families. ... I can say that we have, if not a conflict-free family life, a supportive and goofy and bonded and respectful one. The journey was a roller coaster for awhile, but I believe our focus on family vacations was THE key — we had these to look forward to, and we made sure that the kids had time on their own during these as well as with the entire family. ... Stay the course! Get marriage counseling! Bite your tongue frequently in the early years! Read self-help books! And go easy on yourself — give it time and wonderful feelings will develop.

— Nancy, St. Louis

I have been married to a woman for four years whose daughter is now 17 years old, and knows everything. The biggest challenge that I have met with is that she feels I have no right to step into arguments that her and her mother are having. Even if I feel she is being disrespectful, I have no right to say anything. The only way I have found to get past it is, for the most part to stay out of their conversations. However, when I feel like she has gone to far, I will step in. I have told her this is my house and I have every right in the world to interject. It is not a perfect solution but one that will get us through the next couple of years until she goes off to college.

— Dennis, Pulaski, Va.

I am a stepdad of my stepson Mallory. It has not been a challenge, he is an easy kid to parent. Mallory is 13. I have been married to his mother for 9 years. The key, without which, one is doomed, is to have absolute unity with the other parent. Any crack in that union will be exploited by the children. Discipline must be applied, jointly agreed on (between parents) modulated to the infraction, and creative (jumping on the furniture? OK, you cannot use any furniture for a week). Be tough early, and you will not need to be tough later. Treat your step kids as your own. A good relationship with mom will make easy a good relationship with the kids.

— Anonymous, Toronto

Being a stepfather in a blended family is a nightmare. This is especially true when you are only allowed to be a parent during the good times and not the bad times, when you spouse does not back you up when you say anything to your stepchild regarding behavior, discipline and chores. Still looking for answers...

— Anonymous

My stepfather found it very difficult to deal with my twin sister and me. He was a strict and sometimes abusive disciplinarian. When I was 35 he apologized for being a bad parent. I found that apology to be quite useful in helping me move forward, away from my view of myself as a victim. I have a good second marriage (the first was a mirror of my bad relationship with my stepfather). Raising my own daughter has let me see how hard it must have been for my step father. Raising your own children, those you love unconditionally is difficult. They try and test you in many ways and almost daily. I believe this would be even harder for someone who came into the relationship late — and was not the birth parent.

— Cathy, Oakland, Maine

The biggest challenge I have faced is (my stepson's) great ability to remember facts but his inability to interpret them correctly. I have learned through this how important it is to be able to separate my love for him from his behavior, and to communicate that to him effectively. In other words, we need to love our children unconditionally and be sure they understand that, while simultaneously holding them responsible for their actions/behavior. The more I have explained that to him, and lived it out, the greater our relationship has become. Kids tend to think they need to perform to earn their parents' (especially their stepparents') love. I believe it is critical that we dispel that belief through our actions.

— Anonymous, Charlotte, N.C.