8 Steps to Developing a Relationship with Your Stepchildren

By: Deanna Conklin-Danao, Psy.D.
: October 20, 2016

You can fall in love with a person and not their kids. It happens. While these situations can be difficult, there are steps that you can take to help develop a better bond with your stepchildren:

1. Recognize and respect differences in personality styles.

Often, family conflicts are due to personality differences. While personality-driven conflicts can occur in all families, they can be particularly acute in mixed families, where personalities are thrown together without the parties having much time to adjust to each other. Perhaps you’re an introvert who prefers quiet and thoughtful conversion and your stepdaughter is an extrovert who prefers activity and has difficulty engaging one-on-one. It’s easy to see these styles clash in things ranging from planning family activities to dealing with interpersonal conflict.   

It is important to recognize that personality styles are not inherently good or bad; they are just different ways of being in the world. Recognizing and respecting different personality styles can help conflicts feel less personal and, when it feels less personal, it can be easier to address.

2. Be sensitive to the changes the kids are experiencing.

Adding a stepparent can be difficult for a child. It can be a painful reminder of the end of their family or an end to the fantasy that their family may be reunited. Divorce creates many strong emotions in children, including anger, sadness, and disappointment. These emotions can limit the child’s ability to connect with you or even turn them against you. Remember that you may be stirring up old hurts that need time, patience, and perhaps professional help to heal.

3. Remember that adults are responsible for the relationship.

As an adult, you have more perspective and impulse control, so it is your responsibility to do the work of connecting to a child. This can be stressful, so don’t try and do it on your own. Look for support from your spouse, friends, and family to cope with this phase. Working with a mental-health professional should also be considered.

4. Find one activity for the two of you.

Find an activity that works for both of you that you can do at least once a week to connect in a positive way. Do not feel that this needs to cost any money! Depending on the age and interest of the child, you can craft together, play a sport together, read a chapter book, bake, or take a nature hike. This list is hardly exhaustive, but it gives you some ideas for free or inexpensive ways to be together that are active. Passive events, like watching a movie, are fine to do together, but they will not yield the same connection as an activity. Make sure it’s an activity that appeals to both of you so that it is genuinely setting you up for positive bonding, not just forced time together!

5. Have house rules in place established by you and your spouse.

A tenuous bond between you and your stepchild should not be license for allowing child to get away with bad behavior. Rules around respectful language, behavior, and chores should be in place so that everyone has consistent expectations. Additionally, the consequences for failing to meet expectations should also be clear and enforced.

6. Communicate your struggle with your spouse.

It is important for your spouse to support your developing relationship with his/her child. However, it does not mean that your spouse should be placed in the position of taking sides or choosing between the two of you. Let your spouse know that you want to develop a healthier relationship and get their suggestions on how this can happen. Remain open to suggestions involving change from your side.  

7. Remember this is a phase.

Your stepchild will grow and change, as all kids do. Your relationship with a 12-year-old girl could look very different when she’s 16 or 20. Keep an open mind (and heart) to the possibility that the relationship will develop. That will provide more space for a relationship to grow than if you have decided that it’s hopeless and stopped putting in any effort.

8. Consider counseling.

Seeing a family therapist to understand the conflicts and help facilitate the relationship can be very helpful. Therapists are trained to address strained relationships and blended family dynamics. While you may want to give the relationship some time to grow on its own, consider going for assistance early if you notice problems, as they will be less entrenched and easier to impact.

It can be very painful to dislike being around a stepchild and to want to connect with him or her and fail. It can also strain your new marriage. At the end of the day, you can’t make a child like you. All you can do is show up, keep an open mind and heart, and try to nurture a relationship.