Communicating with stepchildren is much harder than communicating with one’s own children. First of all, there’s no shared history between you, so you lack the type of mutual understanding that biological parents enjoy. Secondly, many stepchildren are unhappy about this current arrangement, and are none too pleased with having a new authority figure in the house. This makes them more hostile towards your thoughts and ideas and more likely to interpret your words in the worst way possible. But most of all, everyone’s a lot more suspicious of one another and much more insecure in their relationship, which leaves a smaller margin of error and makes misunderstandings more likely. “Walking on eggshells” is a common sentiment described by many stepparents when it comes to communicating with their stepchildren.
In this type of environment, any type of uninvited negative feedback can seem like an attack, especially coming from someone we don’t consider to have authority over us. “Stepparents,” says Karen Wright, “often find themselves engaged in a struggle to wield the same authority as natural parents, precisely because children don’t see them as eligible to give feedback on homework, manners, peer groups – you name it. A child confronted with criticism might respect a natural parent’s requests but rebel if a stepparent attempts correction.” When children are inclined to interpret everything a stepparent says with a negative filter, then everything they say can seem like an argument. This problem is “commonly resolved only when the natural parent leads his or her authority in support of the stepparent’s position.” (Wright, 2011, p. 61)
Communicating with stepchildren: The most important rule
One way to diminish this tendency is to do your best to adhere to a two-for-one rule or a 60/40 communication ratio in terms of positive versus negative statements. If you’ve read our book on parent-child communication ($2.99 for the eBook), you know that most parents tend to fall into a pattern of nagging kids for what they do wrong but very rarely mention what they do right. Imagine if you had a boss who was always nagging but never acknowledged anything positive you did. How much fun would it be to work there? More importantly, how motivated would you be to try and please him or her if it seemed like nothing you ever did was good enough? Some of you may have worked for a boss like this, and so you know exactly what it’s like. Yet this is often the pattern of communication we fall into with children.
Correcting this ratio so that you’re giving more acknowledgments than reprimands can vastly improve the way children behave. This principle is especially crucial for stepparents, since they don’t have the same bond with a stepchild that biological parents enjoy. Without this foundation in place, the type of negative-leaning communication that biological parents can sometimes get away with will be disastrous for stepparents.
So make a conscientious effort to watch this ratio, and ensure that you are giving around 2 acknowledgements for every 1 reprimand, or at least a 60/40 ratio between the two. This doesn’t mean you have to walk around giving false praise or telling children how wonderful they are all the time. This type of butt-kissing is counterproductive. It simply means giving positive feedback for the prosocial things they do. Such acknowledgement can be given in a number of ways:
- Physical gestures: A simple high-five, a pat on the shoulder, or a quick hug can say a lot without having to say a thing.
- Noticing what you like: “I like the way you did your hair today” or “I love the way your room looks…so clean!”
- Expressing interest in what they do: “That’s interesting…how’d you think of that?” or “It’s neat how you…”
- Offer unsolicited compliments (acknowledgements that come spontaneously as opposed to after you’ve asked them to do something): “That was very gracious of you” or “I like how you’re being such a good helper” or “I love the way you take care of your little sister.”
- And of course, be sure to say “thank you” and “good job” after they fulfill a task you’ve asked them to do.
Understand that stepchildren may have different styles of communicating
Different families have different ways of communicating with each other, and it may take some time to get totally initiated into these subtle mannerisms. For example, certain families use sarcasm on a regular basis, even when they’re speaking in an affectionate way. To the uninitiated person, however, this may simply seem hurtful and rude. Some families are open with emotions, others are repressive. Some talk in elevated voices that can seem like yelling.
Whatever the case may be, a stepfamily sometimes takes people from two different communication styles and blends them together, resulting in the potential for a lot of misunderstanding. It’s important for everyone to be aware of this. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification or say something like, “What are you meaning to say?” When your stepkids talk to you, repeat what you believe they’re saying and then ask, “is that right?”
More information on communicating with stepchildren
Our stepfamily eBook contains much more information on communicating with stepchildren. It includes things like…
- How to respond to common statements or accusations stepchildren make
- Talking in ways that will get your stepkids to listen
- Responding to guilt trips & accusations
- Handling hostility & verbal abuse
- + much more.
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Don’t let your new blended family fail! Gain valuable tips for successful stepfamilies by learning from the mistakes others have made in our eBook Blending Beautifully. It’s just $7.99, (far cheaper than counseling or divorce lawyers), and all proceeds go to help kids in need.