Of course, no foolproof way to make anybody love you actually exists, and stepchildren are often pretty hard sells. But ways to create an atmosphere in which a real relationship can grow is possible. With stepchildren, however, the reality is that they often have more reasons to dislike you. After all, you represent the end of their nuclear family. You also represent competition for the attention of their parent. And they need those attentions in order to mature, develop self-worth, and learn right from wrong.
Understanding these factors stand in your way is the key to growing a relationship that can be mutually rewarding. You may know that you have a lot to offer, but unless you create an open atmosphere and become a safe person, that potential will go unrealized. Kids are very concrete in their needs for their parents. This is a sacred relationship, that of parent and child. You can either support it or sabotage it. But if you choose to love, and I mean sacrificially and truly, both your spouse and their children, you will support their journey, no matter how rocky it gets.
Rule #1: Nobody has to like anybody, ever. The heart of real relationship is freedom. And the truth is that not even every parent likes every kid. You have no guarantee that you will like your step-son or daughter and certainly no guarantee they will like you. But the moment you drop expectations is the moment those good things have a chance to occur. Instead of trying to make like happen, concentrate on being authentic in all of your dealings. Kids can detect a fake for miles.
Rule #2: Don’t compete for their affection. Any way you look at it, you are an outsider in the parent/child bond that has been growing since way before you entered the picture. Women, especially, can get competitive about who is the better cook or housekeeper or even who is just more fun. We size up the ex-wife and try to outshine her, thinking that might win us the affections of the kids. It doesn’t. Kids attach at a deep level with their parents, as they ought to. Very rarely can another adult take that place.
Rule #3: Don’t make them choose. You will lose. As a step-mom or step-dad entering into a new family dynamic, jealousy can raise its ugly head. A new wife might get jealous of the time her new husband spends with the kids. In fact, I have seen women get downright threatened by the bond between her new husband and his kids. But there is no choice. Kids are dependent on their parents. The parent/child relationship is unconditional until the kids are grown. A spousal relationship is not.
But don’t get discouraged. Research shows that second marriages are more unstable for the first couple of years while everyone is getting used to each other. But second marriages become more stable than first marriages after the fifth year, usually because people are more careful to find compatible people the second time around. If you can let things develop naturally, then the fulfillment you were longing for will happen.
Rule #4: Don’t try to buy them. The moment you try to buy stepchildren’s affection, you turn that relationship into an economic one. That can be very hard to back away from. Stepchildren are just kids after all. If they can milk you for what you are worth, they often will. But no matter how much you buy for them, they will know why you are doing it. And you short-circuit any real relationship from occurring.
Rule #5: Don’t criticize any of the other parents involved. Everyone knows that divorce is traumatic. But what people often miss about those studies on kids and divorce is that the actual divorce is not the problem. Conflict between parents is the culprit for childhood stress. And divorce is rife with it. But as a step-parent, you have a choice to be respectful or not. And believe me, stepchildren notice which one you choose.
Rule #6: Do jump on the co-parenting wagon. If tensions arise (and they will), make sure that all three or four of you agree on your approach. Kids are opportunistic. If they can divide and conquer, they will. I am very serious about this, having been the subject of countless end runs by kids who were way too smart for their own good. You may not agree on everything (in fact, you will not) but by working together with mutual respect, you prevent the kids from having to take sides or from being able to work a situation to their advantage. And yes. Stepchildren who respect you will eventually be stepchildren who like you. And they may even love you eventually.
Rule #7: Accept them for who they are, no questions asked. The problem with stepchildren is that you haven’t raised them. They do things totally differently from the way your kids do them. Learn to appreciate them for the good things they bring to the table. If you play the comparison game, even in your head, you set up a barrier between you and them. We all know when we are judged. Step-kids often come with a whole set of judgments about you. If you take down your weapons, over time, they will too.
Rule #8: Don’t play mom or dad. My stepchildren have always called me Alice. I have developed a genuinely loving relationship with both. But I didn’t try to usurp their mother’s position. I thought of myself as an aunt. An adult friend. Eventually, they both came to see me, not as their mom, but as a mother figure in their lives. But I didn’t push that. I just tried to be me and let them be who they were.
I enjoy a good relationship with my stepchildren. In fact, we are kind of crazy about each other, especially now that they are grown. I love them as deeply as I do my own four daughters. But the reason I love them is that over time our relationship grew at its own pace. I wish I had known some of these things sooner, but at least learning the hard way teaches you quickly.