Step-parents have a tough job. Getting on with your new spouse’s children is absolutely essential for a harmonious life together — but where to start?
Entering into a blended family situation is challenging for everyone, but it can be especially confusing for children. Their idea of “home” has been turned upside down. They may feel lost, angry or abandoned. There’s no question that step-parents have a delicate and difficult role to play.
However, with time, patience and effort, it is absolutely possible for you and your stepchild to form a positive, loving bond, which could benefit the child hugely as he or she grows and matures. Here are some of the first steps you can take.
1. Let the Child Take The Lead
Make sure you respect your stepchild’s pace. It may take some time for them to want to get to know you. For some children, it might take months. Try not to take their reluctance personally. Patience is vital.
If the preceding relationship between their parents ended in divorce, recognize that the child needs time to grieve. This new relationship finally puts paid to any hope that their parents will reunite, and this can be a devastating realization for many children. Give them space and understanding.
Sometimes children feel like they are betraying their other parent if they bond with their stepfather or stepmother. At other times, they misinterpret your presence and believe you are trying to replace their mom or dad.
It’s fine if your relationship with them remains superficial for now. Allow things to develop at their own pace.
2. Try a Solo Outing
Once you and your stepchild have known each other for a while, you can suggest an outing, just the two of you. This might be nerve-wracking, but it’s also a great way to bond.
Choose an activity where you aren’t forced to talk to each other the entire time. This can be something active like bowling, an arcade, or playing a sport. If that’s not your thing, try a movie or a play that you can talk about afterwards.
However, remember to keep outings local and budget-friendly. You don’t want to child to feel disappointed when the next time you’re only going to the playground, as opposed to Disney World!
3. Support Their Interests
This is crucial. Some ways you can do this include:
- Offering to help them with their homework: Keep your feedback encouraging and constructive.
- Attending a school performance or a sports game: You don’t have to make a big deal about going or shower them with compliments afterwards. They will notice that you showed up.
- Doing what they enjoy doing: Whether it’s reading, sports, art or music — take an interest, and see if they’d like you to join in.
4. Support the “Other Parent”
The sense of disloyalty that a child can develop towards the “other parent” as they become closer to you should not be underestimated. Children can struggle with hugely conflicting emotions. This may manifest itself as sudden anger or aggression, often without warning.
Recognize that they are experiencing guilt and shame, and that these are powerful feelings, however irrational. Hard as it may be, it’s crucial to avoid retaliating — especially if you’re hurt.
You can go some way to mitigating these feelings by always speaking respectfully of their biological parent. Make it clear that you will never come between them. Leave no doubt that their biological parent always comes first — even if the child enjoys a strong and happy bond with you.
5. Plan with Your Partner
Do discuss what kind of relationship you’d like with your stepchildren with your partner. He or she needs to be able to feel comfortable enough to “step back” and allow your relationship with the children to form naturally.
Try to agree in advance how you will both behave in certain situations that have potential for conflict, e.g., when a child has misbehaved.
That said, it is wise to avoid disciplining the children until a) you have the complete support of your partner, and b) you have formed a strong enough relationship with the children for them to accept your discipline.
This is not to say that a child should be allowed to get away with misbehavior. Simply hand over the reins here to your partner, and minimize your involvement.
6. Be Their Friend
It’s fine if you don’t love your stepchildren immediately — attachments need time to form, for you as much as for them. Just being friends for the time being is enough.
Be sure to say things like, “I hope you know you can always talk to me,” and “If you have any questions for me, feel free to ask.” Remain a calm, consistent and kind presence in their lives, and there is a good chance that you will form an excellent relationship that will benefit both of you for years to come.