How to Build a Healthy Relationship
With Your Stepchild
By Ron L. Deal, M.MFT.
Parenting holds a great many challenges. Little is more challenging
than the role of Christian stepparent. In short, the stepparent
joins the biological parent in raising his or her child, but does
so initially without a clear bond with the child. Parental authority
is based on the depth of relationship between adult and child.
The stepparent-stepchild relationship is weak due to little emotional
connection and only a brief shared history (developed while the
adults were courting), making the stepparent's role very difficult
Consider the email I received from a biological father looking
for help: "Jean is the stepmother to my seven year old son.
In the past ten weeks, a very intense relationship has developed
between them. Once inseparable, Jean now wants nothing to do with
him and has told him as much. This has strained our marriage,
and she has talked about leaving. Our marriage is as perfect as
one can get when my son is visiting his mother, but when he returns
it is very uncomfortable for everyone. My wife does not understand
why God is doing this to her, and she is questioning her faith."
Stepparenting is Tough!
I can just imagine this stepmother explaining her situation. She
likely feels confused about her role, displaced from her husband
when her stepson is around, andhelpless to change the situation.
Despite all this, my experience tells me that she is also feeling
guilty, because she knows that God is expecting her to love this
boy. It's a tough situation to be in. Finding an effective stepparent
role is indeed a challenge. Yet, with healthy expectations and
a specific strategy to build relationship, a satisfying bond can
Stepparents and biological parents alike frequently expect too
much from the stepparent, especially early in the stepfamily's
development. Research confirms, for example, that stepparents
and biological parents generally assume that the stepparent should
be affectionate with stepchildren and attempting to assert authority
(to establish their position as "parent"). However,
stepchildren report-even five years after the wedding-that they
wish the stepparent would seek less physical affection and back
away from asserting punishment. The challenge, then, for biological
and stepparents alike is to lower their expectations and negotiate
a relationship that is "mutually suitable" to both stepchild
and stepparent. Let's examine some key principles that may help.
1. Give yourself time to develop a workable relationship.
Realize that love and caring takes time to develop, especially
with pre-adolescent and adolescent children. Some research suggests
that children under the age of five will bond with a stepparent
within one to two years. However, older children-teenagers in
particular-may take as many years as they are old when the remarriage
takes place. In other words, a ten-year-old may need ten years
before they feel truly connected with you. Try to imagine your
stepfamily in a crock-pot; it's slow cooking, so don't rush it.
Besides, crock-pots do gradually bring all the ingredients together
so trust that the low heat will eventually do its work. Here are
some "low-heat" crock-pot cooking recommendations:
- Do not expect that you or your stepchildren will magically
cherish all your time together. Stepchildren often feel confused
about new family relationships, feeling both welcoming and resentful
of the changes new people bring to their life. Give children
space and time to work through their emotions.
- Give yourself permission to not be completely accepted by
them. Their acceptance of you is often more about wanting to
remain in contact with their biological parents than it is an
acceptance or rejection of you. This realization will help you
to de-personalize their apparent rejections.
- Give your stepchildren time away from you, preferably with
their biological parent. The exclusive time stepchildren had
with their biological parent before he or she married you come
to a screeching halt after remarriage. Honoring your stepchildren
by giving back this exclusive time will help them to respect
2. Children's loyalty to their biological parents may
interfere with their acceptance of you. Children are
often emotionally torn when they enjoy a stepparent. The fear
that liking you somehow hurts their non-custodial, biological,
parent is common. The ensuing guilt they experience may lead to
disobedient behavior and a closed heart. In order to help stepchildren
deal with this struggle:
- Allow children to keep their loyalties and encourage contact
with biological parents.
- Never criticize their biological parent, as it will sabotage
the children's opinion of you.
- Don't try to replace an uninvolved or deceased biological
parent. Consider yourself an added parent figure in the child's
3. The cardinal rule for stepparent-stepchild relationships
is this: Let the children set their pace for their relationship
with you. If your stepchildren are open to you and seem
to want physical affection from you, don't leave them disappointed.
If, however, they remain aloof and cautious, don't force yourself
on them. Respect their boundaries, for it often represents their
confusion over the new relationship and their loss from the past.
As time in the stepfamily crock-pot brings you together, slowly
increase your personal involvement and affections. Together you
can forge a workable relationship that grows over time.
Recently a gentleman told me that it took 30 years before he
could tell his stepfather he loved him. Undoubtedly, his stepfather
struggled through those years for his stepson's acceptance. But
despite his godly attitude and leadership, his stepson simply
couldn't allow himself to return that love. Eventually, however,
love won out and was able to express appreciation to his stepfather
for being involved in his life. Trust that doing the right things
in the name of Christ will eventually bring you and your stepchildren
together. In the meantime, set realistic expectations that don't
leave you feeling like a failure (until that day arrives).
Relax and Build Relationship
Relax. It's an interesting word to hear when you feel like you're
not making any progress as a stepparent, yet that's exactly the
word I continue to use in therapy with stepfamilies. The crock-pot
will eventually bring you closer together with your stepchildren,
but you can't force their affections. So relax, accept the current
level of relationship, and trust the crock-pot to increase your
connection over time. In the mean time, use the following suggestions
to help you to be intentional about slowly building your relationship.
Early on, monitor(1) your stepchildren's activities. Know what
they are doing at school, church, and in extracurricular activities,
and make it your aim to be a part. Take them to soccer practice,
ask about the math test they studied for, and help them to learn
their lines in the school play. Monitoring seeks to balance interest
in the child without coming on too strong.
A second suggestion also seeks to build relationship, but slowly.
Throughout the first year of remarriage, stepparents should be
involved with stepchildren when another family member can be present.
This "group" family activity reduces the anxiety children
feel with one-on-one time with a stepparent. Adults frequently
assume that the way to get to know their stepchildren is to spend
personal, exclusive time with them. This may be true with some
stepchildren; however, most stepchildren prefer to not be thrown
into that kind of situation until they have had time to grow comfortable
with the stepparent. Honor that feeling until the child makes
it obvious that he or she is okay with one-on-one time.
Another suggestion for building relationship is to share your
talents, skills, and interests with the child and to become curious
about theirs. If you know how to play the guitar and a stepchild
is interested, take time to show him how. If the child is interested
in a particular series of books or a video game, become interested
and ask her to tell you about it. These shared interests become
points of connection that strengthen trust between stepparent
and stepchild. Sharing the Lord through dialogue, music, or church
activity is another tremendous source of connection. For example,
service projects are wonderful activities for parents and stepparents
to experience together. Little brings people together like serving
others in the name of the Lord. Discussing values through the
eyes of Christ and having family devotional time can, also, strengthen
your relationship, as well encourage spiritual formation in the
Find Your Role with Discipline
Perhaps the most confusing role for a stepparent is how to set
limits, teach values, and enforce consequences. Indeed, the most
common pitfall for stepfamilies is when the biological parent
hands off too much responsibility for child rearing, and the stepparent
begins to punish the child for misbehavior too quickly. Rather,
a unified team approach that involves both biological and stepparent
Early on, teamwork for the biological and stepparent begins with
the acknowledgment of the stepparent's lack of authority due to
a weak-although growing-relationship with the children. Until
parental status(2) is attained (and that can take 18 months to
many years) the stepparent should focus on building relationship
(see section above) and being an extension of the biological parent's
authority. Initially, this is done by through two tasks: 1) negotiating
a set of household rules and a standard of conduct for all the
children (whether biological or step) and 2) putting the stepparent
in the role of "baby-sitter."
Negotiating a household set of rules and conduct involves both
adults, but takes place (initially) outside of earshot of the
children. As all effective parents, the couple must discuss rules,
standards, consequences, and a system of discipline for the children.
Then the biological parent can communicate this to the children.
When either adult acts outside these negotiated rules (or fails
to uphold them), children can divide and conquer the couple. Conflict
and resentment are sure to result.
On the other hand, when a baby-sitter cares for children, it
is understood that they have authority because the biological
parent has put them in charge. Likewise, once rules are communicated,
the biological parent must pass power to the stepparent by communicating
to the children the expectation that they obey and respect the
stepparent. If a rule is broken, it is the "household's"
or the "parent's" rule, not the stepparent's. If a punishment
is executed by the stepparent, it is the "biological parent's"
punishment. Later, when the biological parent enters the picture,
they should support the stepparent's decisions (hopefully they
are in line with the pre-determined system of discipline), and
then reinforce their expectation that the child obey the stepparent
in the future. This baby-sitter role thus creates space for the
stepparent and stepchildren to build relationship and, at the
same time, empowers the stepparent to have influence in the home.
If children have struggles accepting the stepparent's position,
compare their obedience to the stepparent with their obedience
to a teacher, coach, or camp counselor. Sometimes, the fear of
betraying a non-custodial, biological parent keeps children from
being cooperative with a stepparent. However, their fears might
be reduced if they view the stepparent "just like a teacher."
Eventually, the stepparent may move from a baby-sitter role to
that of an uncle or aunt (where the children consider the stepparent
"extended family," but don't offer them the full authority
of parenthood). In addition, because stepparents will bond with
younger children much sooner, they may be "extended family"
to young children and "the baby-sitter" with older children.
As you can tell, keeping open communication about the stepparent's
changing role with children is an important task for couples.
The Value of Stepparents
Did you ever stop to notice that the God of the universe entrusted
His son to be raised by his stepfather, Joseph? Yes, in that sense,
Jesus was a stepchild. Despite little scripture about Joseph's
character, we can rest assured that God picked him for a reason.
He must have had a tremendous influence on Jesus during his early
years. I suppose we could say that Joseph's impact on Jesus' growth
in wisdom, stature, and favor with God and man (Luke 2:40, 52)
The challenges of stepparenting are very real. The importance
of your role in the life of your stepchild is invaluable. Commit
yourself to the Lord, as did Joseph, and offer His love to your
stepchildren (to whatever degree possible). You may never realize
how important you are.
More family and parenting articles on CBN.com
Visit Successful Stepfamilies
Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family
Ron L. Deal is President of Successful
Stepfamilies, author of
The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family,
and serves as stepfamily educational consultant to Focus on the
Family. He has appeared on numerous broadcasts, including Focus
on the Family, and conducts stepfamily conferences and ministry
training around the country. He and his wife, Nan, live with their
three boys in Arkansas. This column was originally published on
www.familylife.com. Reprinted with permission.
(1) Bray, J. (1998). Stepfamilies: Love, marriage, and parenting
in the first decade. New York: Broadway Books.
(2) Gamache, S. (2000). Parental status: A new construct describing
adolescent perceptions of stepfathers. Unpublished doctoral dissertation,
University of British Columbia, British Columbia, Canada.
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