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Stepparenting: The Attachment Difference

 

Ron L. Deal

 

 

          Have you ever wondered why one person hears the word of God and follows it, while another ignores it? Why does one person see—and heed—the wisdom of God’s laws for holy living and another thinks them foolishness? One difference between these two responses is attachment.

          Relationships people have with the heavenly Father come in many shapes and sizes, with many layers. Some only believe that He exists, while others have elevated Him to the Lord of their life. Some float in and out of their relationship with God, but others are deeply attached to Him. A similar dynamic occurs in parenting.

Attachment is a psychological term used to describe the deep emotional connection and trust we experience in intimate relationships. Infants must experience attachment from their primary caregiver (usually their mother) if they are to develop a strong sense of trust and self-assurance; this provides them a secure base from which to explore the world. If someone is deeply attached to God, they trust His leading and guidance, respect His commands, and have a sense of their own value (i.e., they are loved and worthwhile). But if someone has limited attachment to God, He has limited influence in their choices.

          To become effective leaders of children, stepparents must develop a secure bond with their stepchildren. And just as God never thrusts Himself on anyone unless they have invited Him in to their life, stepparents must pace their authority based on a developing attachment with stepchildren. Biological parents are “born” with strong attachment to their children; they have a built-in blood-bond connection that affords them love and trust—and respect—from their children. Stepparents, however, must grow this deep attachment in order to increase their parental authority and influence. The contrasts are striking:

  • Children are quick to offer grace to biological parents in conflict, but have a low tolerance for disappointment from stepparents.
  • Biological parents are afforded “insider” status while stepparents are sometimes viewed with a “you don’t belong, outsider” perspective.
  • Children love biological parents, period. It isn’t decided; it’s automatic and deeply felt, while love for a stepparent must be nurtured, tested and retested, and ultimately chosen. 
  • Auto-approval. This attitude says, “If mom says it, it must be right” and results in a natural bias toward approval of a biological parent’s actions. Stepparents typically do not receive a benefit-of-the-doubt attitude.
  • Auto-trust. Children assume that bio parents can be trusted (even when proven otherwise). Stepparents have to prove their trustworthiness, again and again.
  • And finally, bio parents are granted access to a child. “My space is your space.” If, however, a stepparent moves in too quickly, it can be perceived as a violation of the child’s personal boundaries.

Clearly, attachment gives biological parents a profound advantage in parenting. Stepparents who do not understand these differences can easily sabotage themselves by trampling on their stepchildren. Consider these principle suggestions.

 

Building Attachment a Step at a Time

 

1. A watched pot never boils. Love and caring takes time to develop and you won’t hurry it along with worry. Children under the age of five may bond with a stepparent within one to two years while older children, teenagers, or adults may take many years. Persist in trying to deepen relationship while enjoying the relationship you have today.

2. Loyalty may be a barrier. I’ve written before about how children are often emotionally torn when they enjoy a stepparent. The fear that liking them somehow harms their non-custodial, biological parent creates guilt that confuses the attachment process. Here’s how you can help:

  • Don’t be offended by a child’s loyalty and encourage regular contact with biological parents.
  • Never criticize their biological parent in front of the child, as it will sabotage the child'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 life, not a replacement parent. Note that a child’s emotional attachment to a deceased parent continues well after death. Children should be encouraged, especially by the stepparent, to keep alive their thoughts and feelings toward their deceased parent. Biological parents can talk with them about how they can “make room” in their heart for their stepparent while also keeping alive their parent’s memory.

3. Follow the cardinal rule: Let children set the pace for their relationship with you. If your stepchildren are open to you, don't leave them disappointed. If, however, they remain aloof and cautious, don't force yourself on them. As time brings you together, slowly increase your personal involvement and affections. Together you can forge a workable relationship that grows over time.
 

 

 

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Ron L. Deal is President of Smart Stepfamilies and author of a series of DVD’s and books for stepfamilies including The Remarriage Checkup. This article first appeared in the July 2010 issue of HomeLife magazine. Used with permission.

 

 
Comments ( 3 )
 
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#3: by Aliza on 02.23.2011 @ 03:53pm CST

I have been a step parent for 5 years and each year things seems to change. I have a step daughter that is 13, a step son that is 10, and my son who is 10. In the begining I did all that a bio parent would do for their child (what I was doing with my own son), volunteer in the class, help with homework, etc, etc. The bio mom didnt care for me to do those things so last year I decided I would step out of the picture and not do anything. Now it seems my relationship with my 2 step kids has changed dramatically. I feel like I am stuck in the middle. I am praying things change. Step parenting is by far the hardest thing I have had to do.
#2: by T on 01.12.2011 @ 02:03pm CST

Blending our families has been challenging and confusing at times. This was very helpful in encouraging me to be patient and tolerant of my adult soon to be step daughter. I am trying so hard to just step back and wait on the Lord. That is truly the only choice I have. I am quick to find resolve but realize how destructive and intrusive that may be for her and may create issues between my fiance' and I. Reading about the typical dynamics has helped me relax today and take a breath. Thanks!
#1: by carol on 01.03.2011 @ 08:26am CST

Very good advice. I've been a step parent for 6 years now. My Sk when we were married were 5, 7 and 8 and they are now 15, 13, 12. there are a lot of ups and downs. I still have a hard time connecting with the oldest (a boy), and know their loyality and love to their bio-mom dispite the fact that we have the kids 24/7. Being a SP is the toughest job ever, esp when you don't have any kids of your own and desire that close relationship with the kids.

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