How do you build a relationship with your own children? We don’t always start with that rush of affection or have an instant bond. Even when we do, as time passes and they grow and inevitably change we sometimes have to revisit and renew our connection with them. You build a relationship with your stepchildren in exactly the same way.
Accepting them for who and what they are
They may do things we hate and irritate the hell out of us at times but deep down, children are ours and we love them unconditionally. Stepchildren may not be yours but, by loving their parent they become yours by proxy. You build a relationship by accepting that, and them.
Spending time with them
We don’t always feel we have enough time for our partners, our own children and ourselves so stepchildren may come some way down the list of priorities. It is important to try and prioritise children where you can as unlike partners who are with you for life children grow up and leave. You’re on a ticking clock but in a time that is vital for both of you. The few years you have full time with them set the standard for the whole of their life and set a flavour for the rest of yours. There’s a song with the beginning verses about the man who can’t play with his son because he’s too busy. The last verse is the now-adult son fobbing off his father, now old, with exactly the same excuses. Having stepchildren who value and feel affection for you and want to continue seeing you will be something you prize later on. It starts with you valuing and wanting to spend time with them, now. Ask them what they did today and don’t interrupt or comment – simply listen. Sit on the sofa and watch their favourite programme and don’t sneer. Take them to the movies, take them bowling and take them to the park. Doesn't matter if you hate doing these things, if they like it, they’ll like you for doing it with them.
The process of change
There may be times when a stepchild either suddenly becomes moody or argumentative or hostile to a stepparent, or steps up previous dislike to active warfare. It’s very easy to wonder “what did I do?” and become riddled with guilt. Or, to search your mind, come up with nothing and become furious with the child for being so unreasonable. That’s the time to wonder what is happening in the other family.
Perhaps there are arguments going on which upset the child, who finds it hard to protest or put their own case there. They may be anxious that disclosing their emotions would make an already fragile situation even worse, so conceal their feelings out of a wish to protect that family or parent or siblings. But the feelings have to go somewhere so they may resort to taking out frustration and distress when with you. Children often hit out and kick back at the adults in their life who seem safe and steady rather than risking alienating those they feel are vulnerable or unreliable. Or maybe some change is going on – the other family may be under strain, or conversely being strengthened by a marriage. Or maybe there’s a baby on the way, or step or half siblings may be changing their pattern of being in that home.
Whatever changes in the other family are not something that happen in isolation from you. Because the child lives with a foot in both camps, they are intimately affected by changes in both, and bring their reaction to such events from one to the other. A child who seems balanced and quiet and well-behaved may be playing merry hell elsewhere. If the other family come to you saying the child is acting up, it may be worth honestly examining what is happening in your life and your family that might be driving them to act out distress or anger or pain in another arena.
Patience is key
You are only a partner for as long as a relationship lasts, but you’re a parent (and can be a stepparent) forever. Children occupy a full-time place in your life, even if they cannot do so in your diary, for all time. All stepfamilies start with unfinished business and baggage, and with parents and children having different views. What is a beginning and a joy for the adults is an ending and a loss for the children. Adults need to make the effort to understand and accept the child’s feelings otherwise the stepfamily or any new relationship will suffer.
Don’t expect instant results or acceptance. Take your time, keep trying and don’t take things personally if children are argumentative or uncooperative. It’s not about the stepparent, it’s about the fact that their parents now live apart and that some of their old life is gone forever.
Communication is the key to everything in a stepfamily. This doesn’t just mean talking, it means listening too. Respectful, concerned and concentrated listening helps the other person to listen to and hear you. In turn this can lead to negotiation and compromise – the solutions to so many stepfamily problems.
Building a step child/parent relationship is not an instant thing. Patience, acceptance of the child for who or what they are and spending as much time as possible with them will help as will having realistic expectations. There is no such thing as a perfect parent or stepparent. What you aim for is being “good enough”.
We are here for you
It may help to chat to other parents on our forums to find out how they are dealing with this issue within their family life. You can also talk to us online via our live chat service, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on our helpline on 0808 800 2222 to speak to trained family support worker.