How to Build a
With a Stepchild
© 2008 Bill Nodrick, PhD and Bev Nodrick, RSW
Getting oriented to
the task: Deep, caring,
affectionate relationships develop slowly. Sharing experiences (good and bad),
“working through” countless points of difficulty, and the simple passage of
time are all required. So, if you are trying to build a relationship with
your stepchild, you will need to be patient. It will help to remind yourself:
“This is much too important to rush.”
A reality check: You are quite
unlikely to develop the same feelings for a stepchild that you have for your own
biological child. The feelings that emerge towards your stepchild may be very
positive and strong, but they are almost certainly going to be different from
the feelings you have for your biological child—and that’s OK.
There are many ways to love. For example, you love your parents differently than
you love your partner, correct? The same applies here.
It's important to discuss the kind of relationship you want to have with your
stepchild with your partner. Your partner will need to "step back" to
create some "space" so you and the child can begin to relate to one
another. As long as there is a third person in the middle of your relationship
with your stepchild, you are most unlikely to develop a good relationship with
that child. Keep in mind, in the beginning of your stepfamily, and usually for
quite some time thereafter, your partner will find it easier to
"allow" your relationship to develop with their (biological) child: a)
if you are NOT trying to be the child’s disciplinarian, and b) they have
consistently seen you and the child relating in a civil, pleasant, or some other
When questioned about
the kind of relationship they would like to have with their stepchild, many
stepparents offer that they would like to be the child's " friend".
The fact is that almost anyone can be the child's friend (and ideally, the
child’s friends should be approximately the same age as the child). A
stepparent needs to be something more. Consider this: An adult approaches you
says: "I want to be your son/daughter's friend". How would you react?
Suspiciously, I would hope. Fortunately, there are many perfectly acceptable,
and much more functional models to consider as possibilities for your
relationship with your stepchild (e.g., an aunt/uncle, a coach, a mentor, an
If your goal is to
develop a relationship where you will be able to “discipline" your
stepchild like you would discipline your own child, use the child's age when the
stepfamily forms as the approximate number of years it will take for you to
accomplish that goal. For example, if the child is two or three when your
stepfamily forms, in two or three years the child will "welcome" your
discipline. If they are 14 or 15 when the stepfamily forms, chances are they
will have moved away from home before that goal will be accomplished.
Unrealistic goals are unlikely to be achieved. Clearly, with older kids, you
must ensure that your relationship goals are realistic.
try to discipline your stepchild until: a) your partner supports it, and b) you
have a meaningful relationship with that child.
Don't expect or
require your stepchild to call you “mom” or “dad”. Most stepchildren
refer to the stepparent by the stepparent’s first name. Find out, or ask your
partner to find out, what label or name the child would be comfortable using,
and follow the child’s lead.
one-on-one time with the child. During that time, don't talk about other kids.
If you do, it is very likely to provoke rivalry between the child you are with,
and the one(s) you talk about. Plus, it won't endear you to the child who is in
your company. They will be thinking that you’d rather be with the kid(s) you
are talking about.
If you are a male wishing to
establish a relationship with a stepson, the odds are that he will react better
to you in his mom's absence. Boys tend to defer to the “alpha” male when
their mother is not on the scene.
If you are a male wishing to develop a relationship with a girl, she is likely
to feel less comfortable with you when her mom isn't around—with
this being especially true as she moves into puberty.
a female, wishing to establish a relationship with a teenage boy, you will
probably need to give up on the idea of establishing connection with him by
having a good "heart-to-heart" talk.
If, however, you do want to get some talk going, here's what you need to
Don't sit opposite him looking him in the face.
He will likely respond by fidgeting, looking at his feet, or by looking
away. In the animal kingdom, an
eye-to-eye encounter is a
challenge. Instead, do an activity that requires you both face the same
direction -- such as going for a drive in the car, or taking a long, brisk walk.
When you undertake, say a long, brisk walk, don't try to initiate conversation.
Leave that to the boy. If you come upon a park bench, sit there briefly.
Again, don't try to initiate conversation. Just be patient. The boy will
eventually introduce conversation. When he does, it's important to be fairly
sparse in your comments. Build gradually on your successes.
your stepchild to show physical affection toward you -- especially if you are a
male, and the child is a female.
Don't try to
earn the affection/admiration of your stepchild by buying them things. Even
very young children will see through it, and think poorly of you for your
partner in their efforts to discipline their child by “monitoring” the
child’s behaviour. Here, monitoring means expressing your interest or caring
concern in what the child is doing -- not "snoopervising" or being a
tattle-tale. Kids will see your interest and concern for them as affection.
Before making any attempts to
address your stepchild's misbehavior, ensure that you and your partner have
carefully discussed, detailed, and agree upon the behaviors you require, and
those you will tolerate. Then, when you do address the child’s misbehavior,
you will say." In this house
we....". Doing so allows you to draw on the strength of the relationship
your partner (i.e., the child’s biological parent) has with the child.
If a situation arises where you
feel you must confront an issue that is of important concern, introduce the
issue to the child by saying: "My relationship with you is too important to
let this go unaddressed…."
confront a misbehaviour, strive to see the child as separate from their
misbehaviour. To do this say:"
I like/love/admire/respect you; but I really dislike what you've done.
Always give the child, a chance to
"reclaim" -- to put things right with you. If you are struggling with
this notion, ask yourself: "Is my stand on this issue so
important that I would be willing to permanently end my relationship with this
child--and shoulder all of the fallout with my partner that doing so would
Recognize that your stepchild is almost
certain to feel a huge, disloyalty towards their [absent] parent as they develop
an attachment to you. This may be expressed when, after having a very positive
or pleasant experience with you, and without apparent provocation, they
"turn" on you. Your
challenge is to refuse to personalize their reaction, and "metaphorically,
take the child by the hand to their bioparent." To elaborate, never “come
between” the child and his or her biological parent—especially an absent
biological parent. Always speak respectfully of their biological parent(s).
Acknowledge that, at times, the child’s loyalty to his/her (absent) parent may
produce situations that are exceptionally difficult for the child. If the
situation warrants it, you might also say to the child: “Whenever it comes
down to having to choose between me and your biological parent, pick your
biological parent every time. It is the right thing to do, and I will always
support you in that choice, to the best of my ability."
Offer to help the child to get a gift
and/or a card for their absent parent if and when doing so is appropriate.
When a child achieves a goal, or some other accomplishment, say,"
that must make you feel very good/proud about yourself."
Avoid saying," I'm so proud of you; or you have made me so happy.
The former helps the child to see him/herself as capable and competent. The
latter two comments are, in the bigger picture, much less helpful for the
Say what you
mean, and mean what you say. Talk is cheap. Be true to your word. When you say
you will do something...do it. Otherwise, the child will find it difficult to
believe you or respect you. Caution: Do your best to consider
the implications of any pronouncements you plan to make before you make them.
refuse to compete with that child on the child's level. Discuss your concerns
about the child with his/her parent, in private. Don’t plead “your case”
to your partner in the child’s presence.
Say at least
five positive things for every negative comment/criticism you make about the
child. Strive to have a balance of many such positives "in the bank".
Children learn what they see. Be proud of what you show them.
Another dose of reality: Sometimes, despite the best efforts, a tender, loving relationship between a stepchild and his/her stepparent fails to develop. (The same sometimes occurs between a biological parent and his/her child.) In these situations, establishing a polite and respectful relationship with that child then becomes your relationship goal. Here, the good news is that a polite and respectful relationship is almost always possible. This is because it’s very difficult for anyone to persist in being disrespectful towards you if you consistently treat them in a polite and respectful way.
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The Stepfamily Foundation of Alberta