Getting to know your stepkids begins by having an understanding of where they are coming from. Lack of understanding is at the root of all conflict, so if you can understand one another better, you can have a better relationship going forward.
Understanding what stepchildren worry about
Fear is a powerful emotion. It drives people to act in irrational ways, and left unaddressed, it can tank a relationship with your stepchild before it has even begun.
- Stepkids will be suspicious of what this new arrangement will mean for them. All of us instinctually fear change, especially change we are forced into. So a stepchild’s assessment of you basically boils down to this: How might he or she change my life? Will they make things difficult or interfere with those things that are dear to me? If you can resolve this anxiety early on, it will go a long way towards ensuring a healthy relationship.
- Some of the angst and hostility you encounter is simply a matter of kids fearing change. Think about all the workplace gossip and badmouthing that might occur anytime a new boss arrives and wants to mix things up, even if the new situation turns out better than before. Kids will feel the same angst before you’ve even set foot in the door. Much of their hostility is related to the sphere of change. It isn’t personal, so don’t take it as such.
- Kids are conditioned with the “evil stepparent” myth throughout the media, and some may have had friends who experienced bad situations with stepparents. With so many kids living in restructured families, and so many of these families struggling with stepparent issues, it’s quite possible your kids have heard negative things from friends. If it happens to be a close friend that is feeding them these things, their influence can be quite powerful.
- Even toddlers have a grasp for the economy of scale, and understand that if you have three people and two jelly beans, someone is going without. So when they have one parent with limited resources, and suddenly you burst onto the scene (possibly complete with a set of new stepsiblings), they’re going to worry that even in spite of your best intentions, things may not work out. “Often they are afraid there isn’t going to be enough to go around –enough bedrooms or ice cream, enough toys or money – and, especially, enough love.” (Artlip et al., 1993, p. 117)
- Many kids, fresh off a divorce, have just learned a painful lesson that family isn’t forever – that people who once loved each other can simply decide to stop loving someone and abandon them at a moment’s notice. So they’re going to be suspicious about your resolve and afraid of getting hurt again, which can leave them with reservations about getting too close. Some children have learned to keep their hearts closed for fear of failure.
- They worry that loving you is somehow a betrayal of their other parent.
Why stepchildren seem to change after marriage
Stepparents routinely say that stepchildren act differently after marriage than they did in the days leading up to it. But not all of this is on them; much of it has to do with the nature of the situation. Just as you learn your partner’s every wrinkle and quark once you begin living with them, the same is true for children. People seem different when we’re around them all the time as opposed to when they drop by for a few hours over dinner or when you meet for a trip to the zoo. Once living together, the protective veil of self-censorship is removed, and you’re suddenly met with the full catastrophe of a nuanced human being.
So the hostility children express after marriage isn’t just about them being difficult. It’s also because you’re suddenly much more annoying than you used to be. Likewise, you’re seeing them with all their warts and wrinkles, so they suddenly appear much more difficult to get along with as well. This phenomenon contributes a lot to the sense that “things are different now.”