Comments such as, “I have two parents and that’s enough, thank you very much,” or “I don’t want some outsider telling me how to live my life” are common reactions to the new reality of a stepparent, but these perceptions don’t always stick. If you are on the receiving end of “stepparent wrath,” it may be tempting to become defensive, but these comments are rarely about you as a person. Instead, they are a reflection of a child’s anger or sadness about changes occurring in the family. A better way to respond is by “depersonalizing” these statements and thinking about how you can develop a cooperative and caring relationship with your stepchildren.
One of the most important qualities a stepparent needs to have is patience. You may need to endure a long period of time during which the child will act like they don’t want you there. In reality, kids often resist developing close relationships with a parent’s new spouse until they’re convinced they will stay. If several other adults have come and gone from a parent’s life, children often adopt an attitude of distrust about their choices, which unfortunately includes you. But all is not lost; there are some proven strategies and guidelines that will help you become an effective stepparent.
1. Don’t attempt to replace the absent biological parent. Even if the other parent is not around because they have refused to take responsibility for their children, that parent is still psychologically present in a child’s mind. Regardless of their flaws, few things will be strong enough to break the bonds between a parent and child, even if the other parent is not a part of their daily life. While your new marriage or committed relationship means positive changes and fulfillment of your dreams, chances are the children are still focused on what has been lost. For now, your presence is a vivid reminder of that loss, and it may be awhile before you carve out your own identity in the eyes of a child.
2. Acknowledge to the child that this is a new and challenging situation for you too. If a child hears you say something like, “You know, I've never been a stepparent before, and you've never been a stepchild, so let's figure how to do this together - and do it well." As difficult as it may be, focus on the positive and find out what the stepchild needs from you. Research has shown that in most cases stepchildren want stepparents to just be their friends. First you must win their trust, respect, and cooperation, but you may move into more meaningful roles at a later time.
3. Adopt realistic expectations – both the child’s and your own. Try to avoid defining what is “normal” or expecting your stepchildren to start treating you like a parent. It may be a while before they understand your rules or appreciate your way of doing things. You may need some help from your new spouse with opening the lines of communication and discussing expectations.
4. Realize that love doesn’t come right away. Stepparents often wonder why it takes so long to develop a trusting and loving relationship with stepchildren, but that can take longer than expected. Over time you and your new family will make memories, tell stories, solve problems together and develop your own style of communicating. Love isn’t always a part of this package, at least not the same kind of love that comes with biological children and their parents, but you can still have an atmosphere of trust, respect and acceptance.
5. Work out your new role gradually. Instead of thinking you should have a stable and comfortable relationship with your stepchildren within a set period of time; this could take months or even years to develop. Patience and flexibility are key ingredients in making any stepfamily work. As a new stepparent, you don’t just want your stepchildren to obey you "no matter what;" you want them to learn how to make good choices.
Stepfamilies can open up a new world for you as you enter your new spouse’s world, and they can grow into nurturing families. As time permits, plan some fun activities that you and your stepfamily can enjoy together. While it may not be comfortable at first, you will soon find that stepfamily life doesn't have to be dreaded but can be very rewarding.
Image courtesy of photostock / FreeDigitalPhotos.net