“I got along fine with them when I courted my wife. I used to bring the kids a little treat when I came over, and they seemed to really enjoy my visits to the house. I thought things would be great when I moved in, but they were not. When I moved in everything changed. It was like I was in the way. They weren’t nice to me and made it clear that I didn’t belong.”
– A divorced father (Frieman, 2005, p. 158)
If you’re having problems with stepchildren, you’re certainly not alone. Many stepparents – including those who try really hard and are perfectly loveable parent figures – can struggle with stepchild problems as they work themselves into the new family. If the first impression with stepkids is positive, many people envision a happy stepfamily life with nothing but blue skies and sunshine ahead. This makes any problems that arise especially difficult to handle. But as Artlip, Artlip & Saltzman note, “Though positive first meetings with the children may be important to you, these first impressions can be deceiving. Sixty-three percent of our survey respondents reported that their first meetings with the children were positive. Yet this fact had no statistical correlation with later stepfamily success rates. After the wedding ceremony ends, ‘real life’ begins.” (1993, p. 33)
Reasons for discipline & behavioral problems among stepchildren
Children in stepfamily situations are often more unruly than other children. There are a number of reasons for this:
- Divorce itself is a traumatic experience. In terms of its measurable impact on kids, it’s often more damaging than most types of child abuse. Decades of research has linked divorce to behavioral problems in children. So in stepchildren, you’re not just getting kids who are new to you. There’s a good chance you’re getting injured or even severely damaged children – kids with attachment injuries or insecurity issues.
- Divorced parents often feel guilty, and therefore let the children have their way more often. Kids can become quite skilled at playing parents over these guilt trips. The end result is a more permissive parenting style where children get their way most of the time.
- Single parenting is hard. Single parents are often busy. Therefore discipline can recede on account of this family structure alone. You may be inheriting children who aren’t accustomed to having structure or being told what to do.
- If kids are raw about what transpired in the old family and desire a return to what they see as “the good old days,” they may make it their mission to make your life difficult. As Elaine Shimberg writes, “They may still be angry with their parents for getting a divorce and their anger spills over to you just because you’re there.” (1999, p. 170)
Dealing with stepchild problems
Problems with stepchildren not only make life difficult, they have the potential to derail the entire family. Eighty-nine percent of men and women who experienced marital difficulties in a stepfamily situation stated that it was not easy to relate to their stepchildren. Eighty-one percent felt dissatisfied with the relationship they had, and 59% said that it seemed like stepchildren treated them worse AFTER the marriage than they did before. (Artlip et al., 1993)
Even if they don’t break up the family, problems with stepchildren can certainly strain the marriage. As one 32-year-old stepmother says, “The kid problems are behind us. From here on out, everything should work out pretty good. The problem is – I look at my husband now and think ‘I’m tired. I’m not in it anymore.’ …Who cares? That’s where I’m at. We’ve been fighting tigers for five years, and now that it’s stopping, I look at him and go: Do I really want him?” (ibid, pp. 211-212)
Types of problems with stepchildren
The rest of this chapter explores some of the specific problems you might face and talks about how to address them.
- The conflict triangle
- Stepkids refusing to let you get close
- Stepkids being standoffish or sending the message that you don’t belong
- And so on.
We’ve divided this chapter into several subsections and also provided some general tips that will help you in dealing with problems of all types. Keep in mind, however, that many of the solutions for these problems are universal, and so the solutions for one problem may help you with another. Therefore much of our advice on what to do if a stepchild is refusing to get close will also work when the kids are excluding you, and vice versa. So if you’re experiencing problems, we suggest reading through it all, because what helps with one issue might help with the problem you’re having.
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