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By Kay Adkins (Excerpted from I’m Not Your Kid, Baker Books, May 2004)

“Dear God. Just tell me what to do. Nothing I’ve tried seems to work. Just tell me what to do.”

As a stepmother, this was my prayer more than once in the few years my stepdaughter lived with us. Numerous times I changed my approach to her, hoping to find a happy medium from which to base our new relationship—one in which I could be a friend to her, maintain integrity as a responsible guardian, and not overstep boundaries as a “not-the-momma.”

Still, it didn’t occur to me that a day would come when she would reject me. I never expected that my husband would be torn between us, or that others would come to suspect that I didn’t provide her with proper care.

The negative images of the fairy-tale stepmother combined with lack of blood relationships create some very tainted filters through which stepkids, biological parents, and sometimes other outsiders view the stepparent. Stepparents can try to position themselves in a better light, but they are powerless to remove those filters from the eyes of those who watch them.

Does that mean stepparents are doomed to an eggshell existence, forever tiptoeing through stepfamily life trying not to upset the status quo? Definitely not! But to live outside of that eggshell existence will mean developing empathy for the little darlings that seem bent on ruining our lives!

What do you do to change how you feel about your stepkids? How do you keep from actually becoming that dreaded malevolent being? Here are a few power points to take you from eggshells to empathy:

Power Point 1: Knowledge is Power

“Getting” stepfamily life is empowering—like having the right tools and knowing how to use them. Step-relationships cannot work like biological relationships, so to expect them to is like cutting against the grain of a hard wood; it creates lots of splinters and rough edges.

By working with the grain instead of against it, a stepparent can more gently carve a proper fit into the family, rather than hacking a way in, only to damage the integrity of the whole.

  • Read all you can about stepfamily life in general. Research will help you understand what you can realistically expect, and why it is so hard to develop those loving bonds you wish you could have.
  • Learn all you can about the histories of each family member: your spouse, the stepkids, and even the “ex.” Understanding the pain in their pasts will help soften your heart for them in the present.
Power Point 2: Self-Control

In their study guide The Fruits of the Spirit: The Stepfamily Spiritual Journey, Steve and Dena Sposato apply the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23 to stepfamily life. The first fruit they chose to tackle, I believe with good reason, is that of self-control. They state, “Self-control is not about having strength and willpower—it is the absence of trying to control others.”[1]

  • Self-control means living authentically. Even Jesus, who was perfect, did not spend his time on earth trying to straighten us out. Instead, he showed us the way by living a perfect life, he taught the way when people were hungry to hear, then he sacrificed his life to prove how serious he was about ours.
  • Self-control means choosing battles wisely. If an issue is not important to both you and your spouse (the biological parent), think twice before bringing it up. If the issue is truly important, first gently win the support of your spouse.
Power Point 3: Know that God Is in Control

A critical element in moving from that fearful eggshell existence as a stepparent into the realm of being a powerful presence is confidence that indeed, God IS in control. What a burden that takes off of us! We don’t have to control everything, and He can work His plan through us in our stepfamilies!

  • Faith in God guards our hearts against hurtful words or behaviors of stepchildren. We know that if we are faithful to God in our role as stepparent, the rest is up to him.
  • Through faithful stepparents, Christ brings His presence into our families. We have an opportunity to let God touch our family members through us. What an awesome and humbling privilege!
  • Faith in God through our suffering works to perfect our hearts:
    • For you, O God, tested us; you refined us like silver (Ps.66: 10).
    • Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons (Heb. 12:7).

Webster’s defines empathy as being “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.” Understand, be aware of, and sensitive to the experiences of your family. Understand, be aware of, and sensitive to your own tendencies to control others. Understand, be aware of, and sensitive to God’s purposes for you in your stepfamily.

By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; And by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches.

Proverbs 24:3-4
[1] Steve and Dena Sposato, Fruits of the Spirit: The Stepfamily Spiritual Journey, (Stepfamily Living, n.p., 2002), 8.

Taken from I’m Not Your Kid: A Christian’s Guide to a Healthy Stepfamily by Kay Adkins. Used by permission of Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, copyright © 2004. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Publishing Group. Baker Books.