Ron L. Deal
“I just can’t put my finger on it, Ron. For some reason, I just can’t break through the walls my stepkids are putting up.” Weston had been a stepdad for just six months, but was feeling defeated and discouraged. “My wife and I go back and forth trying to figure out what’s going on, but mostly we don’t agree. And even when we do, we’re not sure what to do about it.”
When stepparents and stepchildren struggle to connect or have a strained relationship, family members naturally look for something—or someone—to blame. Biological parents sometimes blame the stepparent for not trying hard enough to emotionally connect with the child. Stepparents might blame the child for not opening up to them or the noncustodial parent for running interference. Children (including adult stepchildren) may blame their parent for a quick remarriage or their stepfather for some personality attribute they find uninviting. Sib
lings, extended family members, even ex-spouses get into the mix with their blame theory of why people don’t get along. Blame has been part of tense relationships since the first family on earth; when stepparents and stepchildren struggle to connect, stepfamilies have their share of blame games, too.
Hit the Bulls-eye
Stepparents, you can’t control every response from stepchildren, but you can manage yourself as you seek connection with stepchildren. Take this self-examine to see if you are hitting the bulls-eye.
True or False -- Even when discouraged, I try to stay emotionally engaged with my stepchildren.
True or False -- I create and take advantage of opportunities to connect with my stepchildren’s interests (e.g., sports, music, books, movies, youth group, etc.)
True or False -- My stepchildren would say that I take interest in their activities and support them (e.g., attend performances and events, show regard for their desires, appreciate their talents, etc.)
True or False -- I am generally warm and friendly toward my stepchildren. They feel safe with me.
True or False -- My spouse does not feel threatened by my actions toward her children.
True or False -- I am intentional about experiencing memorable events with my stepchildren (e.g., taking special trips together, attending concerts or service events together).
True or False -- I express heart-felt value and affection to my stepchildren through verbal and non-verbal means (e.g., saying, “I appreciate you,” giving hugs, or developing fun “inside” jokes).
True or False -- Friends of our family would say that I, even when rebuffed, am stubbornly persistent in caring for my family and developing deeper bonds with my stepchildren.
The first two years of stepparent-stepchild relationships tend to be tense and stressful for everyone. During this tumultuous period many stepparents became increasingly distant because their efforts are rebuffed by the children; adolescents in particular have the ability to discourage stepparents from continuing to build relationship. Yet despite obstacles research consistently reveals that stepparents who eventually develop close bonds with stepchildren remain persistent in their efforts to communicate with the child and establish a warm, friendly relationship(1). They do so by engaging the child in activities that are of interest to the child (not just activities that are of interest to the stepparent), they found opportunities to talk directly with the child, communicated empathy and compassion for the child, and shared their desire to get along(2).
But while it’s clear that smart stepparents are persistent in seeking connection with their stepchildren, the absence of this connection cannot be blamed entirely on them. True, stepparents sometimes stop affinity-seeking behaviors far too quickly or prefer a distant parenting posture to a close, connected one. But children can also contribute to the problem by blocking or ignoring their stepparent’s efforts to get close. They may not value the new relationship, have much in common with a stepparent, or find themselves unable to resolve a loyalty conflict with their biological parent. Even still, sometimes biological parents themselves block the stepparent’s attempts at connection, even though doing so only sabotages their stated goals of a “blended” family.
My point is this: there can be a myriad of dynamics at play in the evolving relationships between stepparents and stepchildren. Placing blame is nearly always shortsighted and only begets defensiveness. Instead of finding blame for the past, your family is much better served by shared efforts to grow relationships and build toward the future.
Stepparents should commit themselves to a stubborn loving presence in the lives of their stepchildren, even if they aren’t currently open to reciprocating the relationship. Success is not found in technique or an amount of shared activity. The most important thing you have to offer is you; love them with an undeniable, unconditional love (just like God loves you) and eventually most children will be won over.
Biological parents should commit to valuing the relationship your spouse currently has with your children. Their relationship probably isn’t as strong as you’d prefer, but constantly being discouraged over what isn’t is a drag on everyone’s ability to enjoy what is. No, you don’t have to be satisfied if they have a weak, strained relationship. But do try to appreciate what is going well for them. Building on strengths is always more productive than casting blame or focusing solely on deficits.
Ron L. Deal is President of Smart Stepfamilies, an expert in remarriage and stepfamily relationships, and author of a series of DVD’s and books for stepfamilies including The Smart Stepfamily and The Smart Stepdad.
(1) Ron L. Deal (2006). The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family. Bloomington, MN: Bethany House.
(2) Lawrence H. Ganong & Marilyn Coleman (2004). Stepfamily Relationships: Development, Dynamics, and Interventions. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers