by Margaret Broersma
Author of Daily Reflections for Stepparents
"Love is patient, love is kind" (1 Corinthians 13:4 NIV).
"How do I get my stepchild to like me?" As a speaker and stepfamily support group leader I have often been asked this question. My answers have varied from time to time, depending upon the obvious need of the questioner, or even my own experience of the moment. Finally, I decided the time had come to really find out. So I commenced a survey of 50 stepkids—ages six to fifty-six, to see if I could find out why they did or why they did not, love their stepparent.
The first discovery was perhaps not too surprising: If the stepchild felt loved by the stepparent, they usually loved the stepparent back—or at least acknowledged a good relationship. What surprised me though, was what it was that made those stepkids feel loved, and equally as surprising was the uniformity of their answers, despite the wide age differences and the variety of stepfamilies represented.
Love Your Spouse First and Foremost
The youngest stepkid I surveyed was only six, so I helped by reading him the questions. When I asked, "Joey, does Steve like, love or hate you?" he answered, "loves." Then, I asked, "How do you know Steve loves you?" And he sheepishly exclaimed, "Cause . . . cause he kisses my mom!" Joey’s answer tells me that the greatest thing that makes a stepkid feel loved—and consequently what will win his heart—is knowing his parent and stepparent love one another.
I saw a more tragic example of this truth when surveying three children whose father had just left their stepmother. Jim said he was leaving because Gerri didn't love his kids; she was unfair and too demanding. He told me his kids felt hated. But when I surveyed the children, and assured them their parents would not see the answers, they did not say they felt hated. They said their stepmom liked them and they liked her, but the one thing she did that made them feel unloved was: fight with their dad. In response to the question "why don’t you love her," each of them said again, "she always fights with my dad." In our whole conversation they never mentioned that she was unfair, nor that she was too strict. All three of them stated parental arguing as the reason they knew she only liked them and didn't love them. And because she obviously did not love their dad (proven, they thought, by the fighting) she did not love them—so they didn’t love her.
Even the older stepkids I surveyed answered in similar ways. The 35 year old, who had been a stepkid since she was four told me, "Well, she was a good stepmom . . . she is such a good wife for my dad. And even though she was not very affectionate, she always took an interest in my life, knew what I was doing, encouraged me to do my best, etc." A 56 year old who became a stepkid as an older child said, "I love my stepmom. She has always been so good to my dad, and always been there for me."
Apparently, in a blendedfamily, just as a nuclear family, the couple’s love and commitment is the foundation and security upon which the home is built. It has been said many times that the greatest gift parents can give their children is to love their spouse. But when searching for the answer to the question, "How do I win my stepchild?" we stepparents may look everywhere except to that same obvious truth.
Of course complete commitment and love for our spouse does not guarantee that our stepchildren will love us. This is only the beginning. The other greatest thing we need is time—time to create a shared history—time to prove we care by being interested in their lives. Every sporting event we attend, every compliment we give, every conversation we have, showing we are interested in him/her as an individual, every bit of time we take, will build a relationship with our stepchildren until one day they will say, "I know my stepmom loves me and I love her!"
"Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up" (Galatians 6:9 NIV).
It Takes Time
The stepchild-stepparent relationship is truly complex, filled with emotions that contradict, frustrate, and puzzle. Just when we think we have won the heart of our stepchild, loyalty conflicts within the child herself may cause an unexpected explosion of anger. She may be growing quite fond of her stepparent, only to suddenly feel overcome with guilt for being disloyal to her birthparent. The result of this guilt and divided loyalty may be an argument picked for no apparent reason, an increased negativity, and a general lack of cooperation. Once again, a gulf forms that may seem impossible to bridge. With hurt feelings, the stepparent may retreat as well. Eventually, a stepparent may decide to reach out by doing something he thinks will please the child, only to hear, "My real dad never does it like that!" Or, we watch in confusion as our stepchild reacts to a situation in a way we simply don’t understand, a way that leaves us feeling puzzled and hopeless. The truth is, we lack a shared history, and we don’t share the same genes and chromosomes, so in many ways we do fail to understand what makes the other "tick." But despite a lack of shared history and shared genes, we can win that stepchild into a workable if not loving relationship.
Through all the struggles to bond with our stepkids, one thing remains true: If we parents love each other, and show it through affection and kindness, the kids will feel safe and loved too. Security and stability are especially important in a stepfamily because every stepfamily is born of a loss. One marriage has ended; through death or divorce a family was broken. Then mom or dad remarried and a new home was created. The child may wonder, "Will this home too break apart?" So if we can establish a stable and secure environment through a strong couple love, we are half way there in building a solid relationship with our stepchildren. From this security of a strong marriage we need one other ingredient to win the hearts of our stepchildren: time.
Give the Relationship With Your Stepchild Time and Attention
In my survey of stepkids, I asked, "How do you know your stepparent loves you?" Almost every stepkid surveyed, who felt loved by his stepparent, mentioned that he or she felt loved, in part, because "my stepparent spends time with me," or, the older respondents would say, "shows an interest in my life." When ask, "Why do you like/love your stepparent?" the answer was the same—"He/she spends time with me—shows an interest in my life." Think about any friendship you may enjoy. Your friendship grew from spending time together—from the experiences you shared. Yet we parents and stepparents may think that just because we married their mom/dad the kids will instantly love us. Of course it doesn’t happen that way. Any relationship needs time and attention in order to grow, and it will not grow in a void of passivity. Keep in mind that we parents are the adults in the situation and we are probably the ones who will have to initiate the relationship building. I have heard stepparents say they hesitate to reach out to the stepchild because they fear rejection. To them I say, "So what?" You are going to be rejected sometimes, count on it! But as the adult, I also challenge you to do the right thing anyway. Don’t base your actions as a parent on your feelings and fears. Decide what is loving and kind and do it. Decide to take an interest in the child, share in his life, and you will have a relationship. It may not be love, not at first, but you can develop a workable, respectful and even enjoyable relationship if you take the time to have one.
Take time to listen and time to play
Something as simple as asking about the details of his day, and really concentrating on the child and listening to his answers can let that child know, "this person really cares about me." Beyond listening, observe what is important to the children and be a part of it. Be there to watch their games and cheer them on. Catch balls, shoot baskets if that is what your stepchildren like to do. Do what they do, but also something which you can share.
I remember being angry with my husband because he wasn’t willing to play video games with my kids. They really liked to spend their time that way, so wasn’t it obvious that he should do it with them? But he hated video games, and viewed playing them as a terrible waste of time. I persisted in thinking if he really cared about my boys he would do it anyway. Instead of course, he found something else to share with them, something both he and they could enjoy together, and do for many more years than the video game phase probably would have lasted. They build things and work on cars together—the tool of their bonding has become lasting interests they share.
Caring and running can be time to bond if you are listening.
But spending time together doesn’t have to be a specifically designated activity. Running an errand? Take a kid along. While with them, talk to them about what you are doing and ask them questions about themselves. Custodial stepparents of young children can get quite a lot of meaningful time with a child simply from the one on one physical care of bathing, dressing, and feeding.
The key to making it a bonding experience rather than just one more obligation is interacting with child while you do it. When we first married, I spent so much time focusing on my new daughters, fixing hair and selecting clothes, and of course talking with them, that my sons felt left out. They wanted that much one on one attention too. So back and forth I ran, on the teeter-totter of trying to be fair. It was difficult for some of the kids, especially the two oldest, to understand that mom and dad's attention was now spread among five children, and it could not be the same as it was when there were only two or three. But the love and care had not stopped, and over time, as we focused on each of them, they understood that they were not loved less.
Time to work can be time to bond.
It may take weeks to give every kid a turn at being alone with you, but if they know you want to spend time with each of them individually, they will begin to get the message that each one of them is important. And they can further get this message if we parents include them in the things that need to be done just to maintain our homes. Have to work in the yard? Get the kids—birth and step alike—to work with you. The littlest kids can rake, and pick up. Older kids can do the same things we do.
Participating in the chores for daily living can make all the kids in your home, whether custodial or visiting, feel like real parts of the family rather than like guests. That means everyone helps get the meal on, everyone helps clean up. One warning: make this activity very chore specific. For example, a general order like, "Everybody help clean up now," can lead to chaos, confusion, and probably a kid or two sneaking away. Instead, you may want to specifically say, "Johnny please clear the plates, Jane please wash the pot, Jeffie can make the chairs neat, etc." But handing out orders and doing the job are not what makes it a bonding time. Working together goes from simple work into a relationship forming activity when you let them know how much they are appreciated. "Wow! Many hands really do make light work, thanks for the help!" Better yet, let them hear you telling your spouse what a good job they do. "Honey, have you noticed what a great pot-scrubber Blair is?" or "Did you see what a nice job Lee did setting the table?" As the children grow older, these moments of working together will become times of sharing yourselves, talking while you work.
If the chores for daily living are shared by all kids equally, it will also help reduce the inevitable stepsibling rivalry, another thing that often creates a barrier between the stepchild and stepparent. "He likes his kids best!" In response to this objection, the birthparent may want to honestly say to the child, "That may be true, after all, they have had a life time together, but see how he spends time with you too? See how we expect the same of all of you?" We may need to remind ourselves as well as our kids that a relationship takes time to grow.
If you are a stepparent and you want to have a loving relationship with your stepchildren, remember what the stepkids themselves told me: Love your spouse. Then show interest in the children by taking the time to share your lives.
Taken from Daily Reflections for Stepparents. Used by permission. Margaret Broersma and her husband, Roger, blended a family that includes Margaret's two sons and Roger's three daughters. She is adjunt professor of English at Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Purchase her book Daily Reflections for Stepparents.