Building a Relationship with Your Stepchildren
One of the most aggravating stepparenting situations can arise when your stepkids ignore you. Don't take it too personally. "Ignoring" behavior is common, especially at first. By ignoring youyour words, deeds, and physical presenceyour stepchild is saying, I'm not ready to accept this situation."
It's terrible not to exist, especially when you're trying so hard to be accepted, to make the family work, and to make your partner happy. Here's another time when you are going to have to rise to the occasion and be the serene, calm, Zen-like adult who, above it all, is accepting and patient. Little or big, kids aren't thinking about you or your feelings. They are simply coping as best they can.
You have to think for both of you, to be sensitive while not being a doormat. At least you have to make the kid think you are feeling calm, accepting, and patient. Challenging? You bet.
"Why Should I Bother?"
Why should you bend over backward like this? Why should you bother? Listen, you are not acting like a saint out of altruism. You are "being the adult" because it will work, because your goal is to ride out the storms and gain a peaceful, mutually respectful household. You're also doing it because this is an opportunity to teach your stepchild appropriate ways to "be" in the world.
Equity does not mean "same," especially when you're talking about kids, both your own and your steps. Treating everybody the same diminishes the importance and individual needs of each child.
"You're not fair!" Especially in combined families, kidsboth step and bio (if you have any)tend to blindside with guilt. Your task is to avoid being manipulated by cries of favoritism. Here's a specific area where partners need to back each other up.
While your love for each child is different (of course you're going to love your own kid more), your parenting style and approach should be the same. This doesn't mean treating all the kids exactly alike. Treat every kid as an individual, and strive for equity.
The Selfish Beast!
Here's a parenting rule that goes double for stepkids: They will never, ever, ever, ask you about yourself. This doesn't mean they don't care about youthey just may not have the social skills to do so yet. When I was young, I was particularly guilty of this. I remember being aware that when I was talking to adults we always talked about me. I was interested in them, but I never knew what to ask. On top of this, like many young people, I assumed people were more interested than they really were.
I've observed this not only in my stepkids, but also in my young cousins. Because they don't have a frame of reference to put me in, they ignore me and assume that what they are doing is the most fascinating thing on the planet. It still drives me up the wall when my stepkids do this, but I understand what's happening and have some sympathy.
Dealing with Little Ones
In many ways, the younger the stepchild, the easier the adjustment to smooth stepparenting. Little ones have little memory of "the good old, bad old days" and more rapidly accept the step situation as normal. Nevertheless, avoid these pitfalls:
- Be open about the situation. Don't ever pretend you're not a stepfamily, or it will come back to haunt you. As the kids get older, they will come to resent it and to resent you, if they feel you've not been truthful.
- Don't take over as a parent. Encourage the children's relationship with their bioparent.
- Don't ever make children choose between the households.
- Little ones require more hands-on care than big ones. Take an active role in parenting, and share duties with your partner, the bioparent.
Joseph Cerquone, author of You're a Stepparent…Now What?, strongly urges stepparents of teens and preteens to "Keep expectations low, patience high."
Dealing with Teenagers
If parenting any teenager is a bear, stepparenting a teenager is a large, angry, blood-thirsty dragon. Having a relationship with teenagers in a step situation can sometimes be very tricky. Toughen your skin, dust off your library card, and go get some good books on teenage development. Also work on increasing your tolerance level!
Teens and their foibles are too big of an issue to cover in just a few paragraphs here. Go to Stepparenting an Adolescent: What to Expect for much more detail.
Dealing with Adult Stepkids
If the "kids" are adults, many of the immediate day-to-day issues of stepparenting won't feel as pressing. However, if you are a stepparent to kids your own age (or older), some other issues may apply. It is up to the bioparent to assert that you are his or her equal partner and mate.
Anna married Larry when she was in her early 20s and Larry was in his late 40s. Larry had two sons, one five years older than Anna and one two years younger. His daughter Carla was exactly Anna's age. The sons welcomed Anna, and in time she grew very close to them. "Carla was the hardest," Anna says, "maybe because we were the same sex and age, so it was like I should have been one of her friends, not her dad's wife."
Carla was suspicious of Anna's motives, and suspicious that the relationship would not last. She began calling her father every morningsomething she'd never done beforeas if to reassert her presence in his life. At family parties, she subtly skewered Anna with hostile words disguised as jokes. It wasn't until Carla had children and Anna took on an active grandmothering role that Carla began to accept Anna's role in her father's life.
As the stepparent of an adult "kid" who is your age or older, keep these things in mind:
- You may have a problem being taken seriously as a person and as the bioparent's mate.
- Your motives may be looked on with suspicion.
- If you've moved into the family house, you may have difficulty asserting yourself as an "adult."
- The "kid" may stereotype the relationship and you: "She's looking for a father figure." "He's a gold-digging little gigolo."
- Your partner's son or daughter may feel threatened that his or her territory is usurped by the relationship.
- You may have to deal with increased sexual tension between you and the "kid."
- You may run into generation gap issues. Where do you belong?
- Legal issues-wills, powers-of-attorney, and so on-may become more of an issue.
- You have the potential for a very rewarding friendship.
More on: Nontraditional Families
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Stepparenting © 1998 by Ericka Lutz. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.