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Avoid the 'wicked stepmother' woes

Try these smart steps for new stepmothers. Dr. Gail Saltz offers advice to help moms hit it off with their new spouse's kids.
/ Source: TODAY

Since the days of Cinderella, stepmothers have been thought of as wicked. Jokingly referred to as stepmonsters, they can feel like a threat to the kids and families they enter into. As part of her “Today” show series, “On the Couch with Dr. Gail Saltz,”  Dr. Saltz was invited to appear on the show to give some guidance to help stepmoms navigate their new relationships. Here are Dr. Saltz' thoughts:

So you’ve married and assumed a whole new role of stepmother. There’s a reason this character is so reviled in fairytale lore: After all, she is always the “wicked stepmother.”

This negative connotation has nothing to do with you personally. And once you have worked through some issues, being a stepmother is often gratifying and rewarding.

Still, as a stepmother, you are starting off with some big strikes against you. It’s not your fault, but it’s  true. You are not the biological mother of your stepchildren, and never will be. You are a living, breathing reminder that their dad has forsaken their mom for you. They fear he will stop loving them, too. Or that he will love you more than them.

So if the kids are mean or standoffish, don’t take it personally. Even if they like you, they will feel guilty and disloyal toward their mom. In many ways, your new marriage is a painful last chapter for the stepchildren. You represent the end of  hope that their parents will reunite, thereby returning life to the way it was. The kids are secretly hoping your marriage will fail.

As you know, you, the new stepmother, are in a delicate position. But there are things you can do that will help smooth the transition to stepparenting:

Let relationships progress at their own pace. Relationships take time. You cannot force these children to love you, so don’t be overeager or desperate for approval. It will happen over time, organically.

Be available during ordinary moments. Include the kids when you’re doing everyday things, like watching TV, shopping for food or washing the dishes. This gives them time to warm up to you.

Team up with their dad for discipline. Otherwise, the kids will pit you against each other. Don’t grant them the power to create discord.

Brush up on child development. If you don’t have children of their age, do some reading on developmental issues. That way you won’t be blindsided.

Spend separate time with your own children and your stepchildren. Everyone should feel special enough to get your undivided attention.

And the biggest one: Never, ever speak ill of their biological mother. It doesn’t matter how much you dislike this woman. These are her children and they have a relationship with her, possibly a close one. Criticism from you will be hurtful to the children, and drive a real wedge between you. So if you have negative things to say about their mother, say nothing.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to “Today.” Her latest book, "Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts" (Penguin), helps parents deal with preschoolers' questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, .

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist. Copyright ©2006 Dr. Gail Saltz. All rights reserved.