By Terry Gaspard MSW, LICSW
Most of the stepparents who contact me for support tell me they had no idea what they were getting into. One stepdad, Steve, put it this way, “I was never a father before, and at the ripe “young” age of 42, I was thinking that I was somehow going to “get by” and become accepted by my stepchildren, primarily because I had married their mother. I was getting by trying to be “nice” to my new stepkids but comments like “You’re not my father” made me feel disrespected.
Different from a biological parent, a major thrust of being a stepparent is to be a friend to your stepchildren on some level. Not like a school friend, but an adult friend more akin to being a guidance counselor or mentor who is also a parental figure.
There are many ways you can develop a positive relationship with your stepchildren if you invite them to participate in activities that interest them and expose them to some of your hobbies. For instance, inviting your stepchildren to share your love of hiking while on a summer vacation can help you form a friendship.
However, it may be more challenging to form a bond with a stepchild of the opposite gender, especially if your personalities clash and you do not share interests. There is no such thing as instant love between a new stepparent and a stepchild. One of the most crucial things to learn about a stepfamily is that most children give love and trust to their parent, but feel that their stepparent must earn their love and trust over time.
Attending some of your stepchildren’s school events, showing interest in their hobbies, and supporting their need for one-on-one time with your spouse can promote a caring relationship. This takes time, years really.
8 ways to bond with your stepchild:
- Stepparents had best proceed slowly: Take your time in getting to know your stepchild. Rushing it may satisfy your own unmet needs to be liked but backfire. After all, you will be most likely be seen as an outsider since your stepkids spent some time alone with their biological parent before you came on the scene.
- Respect your spouse’s relationship with your stepkids and don’t feel threatened by their close connection. He or she will want to spend special time with their children so try not to feel neglected by him/her. Make plans with your friends and graciously step out of their way.
- Have realistic expectations: Just because things went well when you were dating his or her biological parent, does not ensure things will go smoothly once you’re a committed couple. A marriage effectively ends any hope of their mother and father reunifying and can reignite those feelings of loss for your stepchildren. Remember that your stepkids will be there for the duration whether a positive relationship unfolds with you, so step to the higher ground and be the adult role model they deserve.
- Develop a relationship with your stepchildren through hobbies and interests. Sharing interests from sports to the arts can only help you develop a bond. Be persistent if he or she fails to invite you to an event or activity. Keep in mind, you are the adult and need to be the mature one. Say something like: “I’d love to go to your basketball game, how do I get tickets?”
- Understand your stepchild’s view. First, it’s a given that your stepchildren had a relationship with your spouse that existed before you came on the scene. Stepfamilies are complicated and even if your stepchildren seem to like you well enough, they’ll sometimes want time alone with their parent and prefer you weren’t in the picture.
- Stay out of interactions between biological parents working out holiday or vacation schedules. Try to be courteous and respectful of the “other parent”, keeping in mind that it’s likely neither parent would have chosen having their children live with them part-time.
- Realize that love often comes later. Even if you do not hit it off with your stepchild, you can still develop a working relationship built on respect. If your stepchild does not warm up to you right away that does not mean you have failed. Adopting realistic expectations can help you get through some rough spots.
- Cooperate with the biological parent living with you, and talk talk talk. Most of the talking will take place away from your stepkids but be sure to have cordial conversations and informal discussions about family rules, roles, chores, and routines with the kids.
Presenting a united front with your spouse is very helpful to the formation of a healthy stepfamily. This action requires respect, caring and lots of love because it may not be easy to do if you do not agree with your spouse. Caring and respect are especially important, cannot be rushed, and are “earned” or granted over time among all family members.
Always do your best to support your partner’s decisions about his or her biological children. This will help build trust between you and your stepchildren. Remember you are a “competitor” for their parents’ attention, especially when a remarriage takes place within a few years after the breakup of your stepchild’s family. Try not to feel threatened by the time your stepchild spends with your spouse.
Be sure to encourage and listen to your stepchildren’s input so they’ll feel validated. Ultimately you and your spouse are the adults who have the last say on household decisions but showing your stepkids you respect their input will help cement a good relationship in the years to come.
Should stepparents discipline their stepchildren? This is controversial and needs to be negotiated by parents. Experts agree that your role as a stepparent includes helping your stepchildren abide by family rules. In any case, thread lightly on being a disciplinarian – especially if you are a new stepparent.
Keep in mind that the relationship between your spouse and their children existed before you arrived and your relationship with your stepchildren isn’t built on solid ground. It is essential that you know this and honor it. Therefore, if you feel like you are walking on eggshells, you are not alone – most stepparents feel tenuous at times in their new role.
One stepmom put it this way: “At times I felt like a stranger around my stepson when we were first married and I didn’t know exactly how to relate to him. But over time, by showing interest and attending his soccer games, things got better and I no longer feel like the fifth wheel.”
Let’s end on the wise words of author Suzen J. Ziegahn, P.h.D.: “As a stepparent, it’s to your advantage to develop a tolerable, hopefully positive relationship with your stepchild as soon as possible. It will encourage the survival of your stepfamily – and your marriage because the relationship you have with your stepchild may redefine the relationship you have with your partner.”
Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter and Facebook. She is pleased to announce the publication of Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-lasting Relationship (Sourcebooks).
This article first appeared on HuffingtonPostDivorce.com