Unfortunately, conflict between stepchildren and stepparents is common among stepfamilies. Around three-quarters of new stepparents will experience problems of conflict with their stepchildren. (Artlip et al., 1993) So if you reached this page because you fall into this category, you’re not alone.
Reasons for stepparent-stepchild conflict
There are a number of reasons for conflict with stepchildren, many of which we’ve already touched upon: the adjustment period in trying to live with a new person, their dislike at having a new authority figure to contend with, their difficulty adjusting between homes. But most often times, their primary reason for conflict is simply their unhappiness with the stepfamily arrangement in general. As Artlip, Artlip & Saltzman write, “Children act out their emotions, and if they don’t want this new package, parents and stepparents end up being the ones who pay the price.” (1993, p. 28)
The problem of self-replicating patterns of conflict in stepfamilies
“My stepson is a hateful, spiteful, ungrateful, argumentative, manipulating, posturing, insecure little creep who refuses to let anyone get close to him. This is very frustrating to me.”
– Steve, 35, from Florida (Artlip et al., 1993, p. 30)
The biggest problem in stepfamilies – and really conflict of any type – is that it develops into a self-perpetuating cycle: New stepparent arrives on the scene. Stepchild is initially suspicious of this intruder and doesn’t want new stepparent there. Stepparent senses this tension and is on edge. Child misbehaves or says something hurtful. Stepparent reacts in a negative way. This negative exchange confirms the stepparent’s suspicions that the child hates her and is going to be difficult. It also confirms the child’s fears that this new stepparent is bad news. That stepmother or stepfather is out to get them. The child comes away feeling more hurt and upset, the stepparent feels more insecure. With the child more hurt and stepparent more insecure, their interactions degrade further, which leads to another negative exchange. Child ends up more hurt, stepparent more insecure and bitter. On and on it goes in perpetuity, the negative cycle feeding off itself to create an escalating pattern of conflict and despair.
Think about the quote above. This man’s statement is a perfect example of what results when these patterns aren’t corrected. It sounds like Steve is quite frustrated. But do you think for a second that this stepparent’s attitude towards the boy (that he’s a “hateful, spiteful, ungrateful, argumentative, manipulating, posturing, insecure little creep”) isn’t coming through in his interactions? Of course it is…it would be impossible for it not to. What child in their right mind would want to connect with an adult who thought such things about them? I have no idea who Steve is and we’ve certainly never argued before, but I don’t want anything to do with Steve either based on that judgmental attitude.
Stepparents often form the impression that their stepchildren are intentionally trying to hurt them. “She only does that because she knows it annoys me” says one stepparent. “She must hate me, otherwise she wouldn’t do that” says another. “She’s just making my life miserable to try to get me to leave,” claims a third. Sometimes, there may indeed be malicious intent behind a stepchild’s actions (either because they’re rebelling against the situation or because they’re seeking revenge for past hurts). However, it’s also just as likely that the stepkids form similar impressions about you: “She’s only making these rules to make my life miserable” or “She wants to come in and change everything so that I’ll leave and go live with my mom.”
Such patterns are like a giant whirlpool: they suck everyone down and prevent more positive exchanges from developing. Everyone’s so caught up in their suspicions and too busy seeking retribution for last week’s insults that they can’t approach one another rationally or productively. This cycle eliminates opportunities for more positive interactions and ensures more conflict and more wounds at more frequent intervals.
Millions of families have found themselves caught up in this whirlpool of conflict that sucks their blended family right down the drain and leads them towards their doom, resulting in another divorce. On a more positive note, if you can interrupt this pattern of conflict or keep it from developing in the first place, you can avoid much of the conflict with stepchildren that plagues so many stepparents.
- Want to learn how to resolve this conflict & get yourself out of such patterns? It’s all contained in our Stepfamilies eBook, which you can get for just $4.99. All proceeds from your purchase go to help kids in need, so you’ll be helping your own family and helping children at the same time!