“Single parents have already developed close ties and bonds with their children. They have a shared history. As you look at their photo albums, you realize a family system already exists. Their relationship predates yours. When you join the family, many adjustments are going to have to be made.”
– Artlip, Artlip & Saltzman (1993, pp. 36-37)
Dealing with stepchildren requires a little extra tact and a slightly different approach than you might take with your own children. The following set of guidelines will help you deal with stepkids the right way.
How to deal with stepchildren
- Be patient in dealing with stepchildren
It takes time to learn all the new mannerisms, codes and expectations in a new stepfamily, so anticipate a transition period for children. Studies suggest that it takes children an average of 2 years to adjust to a new family environment. (Hetherington, 2003) So be patient and don’t expect too much too quickly.
- Don’t rush your authority
The biological parent should take the lead role on discipline issues in the beginning. This doesn’t mean you never discipline the children or correct them when they do something wrong, only that you lay off your role as authority figure until your bond has become more established. “Taking over the discipline without first earning the child’s respect and loyalty is a bad mistake,” warn Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee (2000, p. 243). Especially when dealing with tweens and adolescents, take a step back from demanding they regard you as an authority figure, and instead ask for mutual respect: “I know I’m not your parent, and I haven’t yet put in the time it takes to earn the same love and respect that a parent might command. But let’s make a deal: until I’ve earned this privilege, let’s agree to treat each other with mutual respect.”
- Don’t stir things up
You’re walking into a family environment with an already established mode of operation. Try not to stir the pot. Trying to make wholesale changes right off the bat is going to ruffle everyone’s feathers. Be the observer and follow everyone else’s lead. If you do want to make changes, talk them over with your spouse ahead of time and then transition into them slowly.
- Insist on equal treatment
Make sure you are treating stepchildren the same as your own children. If you give your daughter a hug, give your stepdaughter one too. If you buy your own kids a treat, get the stepkids one too. Kids will be looking for any hint of favoritism, and will interpret this to mean that you don’t consider them your “real” children.
- Opt for soft power over hard power
So-called “hard power,” or trying to rule by brute force, doesn’t work well with stepchildren. Familiarize yourself with the principles of soft power as discussed in our parenting book.
- Stick with the game plan
Focus on what you can control, and treat your stepchildren with kindness and dignity, regardless of how they treat you. As one stepmother says, “Sometimes you have to just do your best and accept the fact that maybe some of your stepkids won’t ever really like you. It’s too bad, but it’s reality.” (Shimberg, 1999, p. 137) Go into the situation with the resolve that you’re going to be the best stepparent in the world, and if the child doesn’t reciprocate this behavior, it doesn’t affect what you feel or how you behave.
Dealing with stepchildren of different ages
Younger kids typically adjust better to stepfamily situations than older ones, and teens are especially likely to give you problems. That said, you shouldn’t automatically assume that younger kids are going to fall in line. As Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee write, “it’s a mistake to think that little children have little feelings. Little children have powerful feelings and, despite their limited skills, can disrupt a second marriage as effectively as any adolescent on the warpath. Children of all ages have strong mixed feelings about stepparents.” (2000, p. 275)
Advice on dealing with stepchildren of all ages
- Understand that they may intentionally push your buttons as a means of testing you and your devotion towards them.
- They may resist new ideas as a way of trying to preserve the past.
Dealing with young stepchildren
- Understand that young children often maintain fantasies that their parents will get back together, and therefore may be openly hostile towards you and any affection you show your spouse.
- Be sure to include small children in shared affection. If your husband comes along to kiss you or hug you when the child is around, say “Wait a minute…someone’s missing here, where is Kayla?” Then invite the child over and swoop her up in your arms to share in the moment. Not only is this a gesture the child will appreciate, but it’s a great way to bond.
You want to avoid the dangerous dynamic that puts the child on the outside looking in as this intruder steals affection away from her beloved parent. Such a scene provokes jealousy and alienation from the child’s perspective. Bring them into the circle, and all of a sudden it becomes a shared bonding moment.
- On a positive note, the smaller the child is the more potential there is for your bond. An infant will bond just as strongly to a stepparent as a biological parent if that person is involved in their care.