Tessa was about twelve years old when her father, Kevin, 48, married Lila, 47. At the time, she felt she had little control over the events unfolding in her life, including her father remarrying and starting a new family quickly. However, she never told her dad her feelings of frustration about her lack of control.
Even though Lila seemed nice enough, it still didn’t seem fair to Tessa that her life had to change so drastically after Lila and her dad got married. For instance, she was told that she had to give up her bedroom and share a room with her six-year-old sister so they’d have room for Lila’s ten-year-old son.
When she met me for an interview, Tessa was eager to share her perspectives as a stepchild. In her mind, nothing would ever be the same after her parents' split. She believes that her parents should have been more understanding about her experience and the turmoil their divorce created.
Tessa reflects: “I thought things were difficult when my parents got divorced, but at least I got to see them alone. Then when my dad married Lila, we hardly ever had time alone and our house just got noisier and more chaotic.”
During our interview, Tessa spoke with anguish about her dad getting remarried two years after he moved out. Since she shares her time between two homes, she suddenly had to spend three or more days a week with a new stepmother. She explained, “My dad told me that I just had to get over it, but inside I was wondering, what about my feelings? My mom was more understanding, but told me she couldn’t do anything about it.”
While no two stepchildren will have the same response or emotional reaction to a stepparent entering their life, one thing is certain: as a stepparent, you’re most likely an “outsider” who needs to win over their respect and trust gradually. It’s essential that you try your best to understand your stepchild’s perspective. Try to give him or her a sense of permanence by being consistent and understanding.
That said, do everything within your power to be an adult friend who might be an asset because you’re helpful and a good partner to their parent. First of all, you must decide how you will fit into the family and not allow yourself to feel easily rejected by your stepchild. Children tend to give unconditional love to their biological parents and they may not even realize it when they're leaving you out.
Following the below strategies on understanding your stepchild will help you weather the rough times and to be a supportive stepparent.
7 Tips on Understanding Your Stepchild
Here are 7 ways to build trust with your stepchild and create positive memories as a stepparent.
1. Take your time in getting to know your stepchild.
If you rush the relationship, it may satisfy your own needs to be liked, but it may also backfire. After all, you will be most likely be seen as an “outsider” since your stepchildren spent some time alone with their biological parent before you came on the scene. It’s important to realize that you’re not replacing your stepchild’s other parent and your role is more of a mentor. Never make your stepchild feel like they have to choose between their biological parent and you.
2. Respect your spouse’s relationship with your stepchild.
Don’t feel threatened by their close connection. Your partner will want to spend special time with their children, so try not to feel neglected by him or her. Make plans with your friends and graciously step out of their way.
3. Have realistic expectations of your stepchild.
Just because things went well when you were dating his or her biological parent, doesn’t ensure things will go smoothly once you’re a committed couple. A marriage effectively ends any hope of their mother and father reunifying and can reignite those feelings of loss for your stepchild. It may be more challenging to form a bond with a stepchild
of the opposite gender, especially if your personalities clash and you don’t share interests. Many stepchildren are likely to see a stepparent as a rival for their biological parents’ attention.
4. Bond with your stepchild through daily activities, hobbies, and shared interests.
Sharing interests from sports to the arts can help you develop a better relationship. Spending time together, even if it’s eating a meal or watching a movie, can help to weave the fabric of stronger stepfamily relations.
5. Seek to understand your stepchild’s view.
First, it’s a given that your stepchild had a relationship with your spouse that existed before you came on the scene. Stepfamilies are complicated, and even if your stepchild seems to like you well enough, they will sometimes prefer you weren’t in the picture. They may express this by ignoring you, or being indifferent or rude. It’s not a good idea to tolerate disrespect, but encourage your spouse to intervene.
6. Be respectful of your stepchild’s “other parent.”
Keep in mind that it is unlikely they would have chosen to have their children live with them part-time. Stepparents need to stay out of interactions between biological parents working out holiday or vacation schedules in front of a stepchild. If you have wishes and preferences, express them privately to your spouse.
7. Don’t expect instant love with a stepchild.
Understanding your stepchild won't happen right away. Even if you don’t hit it off with your stepchild, you can still develop a working relationship built on respect. If your stepchild does not warm up to you right away, that does not mean you have failed. Adopting realistic expectations can help you get through some rough spots. Be patient and try not to react with frustration if your stepchild gives you the cold shoulder or is a little impolite sometimes. Patience will pay off in the long run.
Finally, cooperate with your partner and model respectful communication.
Most of the talking will take place away from your children or stepchildren, but be sure to have cordial conversations and informal discussions about family rules, roles, chores, and routines with the kids. Volunteer to give your stepchild a ride to school, an event, or a friend’s house. Be sure to do this with a smile on your face and it will go a long way to promote a good relationship with your stepchild. Hopefully, they will see you as an adult friend or mentor, rather than a rival for their parents’ attention.