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Building a Relationship with Your Stepchildren

Once Burnt, Twice Shy

It's a challenge to build a close relationship with children who have been emotionally injured because their parents split up—yes, even if it was a long time ago. People are reactive; they learn from experience. As a stepparent, you've walked into a relationship with kids who are leery about trusting, both trusting you individually and trusting a new adult relationship.

It's common for kids to withhold their affection from a stepparent, no matter how nice you are, no matter how carefully and kindly you treat them, and no matter how strong your relationship with your Honey is. Be prepared for a cool reception. And be prepared for that cool reception to last a long time. You are going to have to take the risks.

You're In Charge

Ignoring the evil eye and calming the baleful stares will take time, unconditional respect, care, and courtesy. You are the adult here; act like one. Your job is to not withhold approval and affection, and to look behind the negative behavior to see what is driving it. It could be many things: fear of being hurt, loyalty issues to the bioparent, the need for independence, and so on. Being the adult means trying to understand what is going on with the child and to deal with her as you would like to be treated, even if she's treating you like scum. I'm not talking dishrag, floor rug, weak-kneed wimpiness. I'm talking about modeling appropriate behavior. Part of your appropriate behavior may be getting angry about being treated like scum and requesting better treatment.

How do you do this? It isn't always easy. One way is to try to look for the positive intent behind the nasty actions.

Positive Intent, Negative Behavior

Jeanne Elium and Don Elium, authors of "Raising a Family," say, "There is always an underlying meaning—a positive intent—to our words and actions." Looking for positive intent enables you to stop taking a child's behavior personally, to help you see it as a problem the child is having, and to ease your own frustration level.

"You're not my mother, and you can't tell me what to do!" Henry snarls as he tosses his filthy clothes on the floor and storms out of the room. What's Henry's positive intent? It could be one of several things: Henry is feeling concerned that you are trying to step in and take over his mother's role. He's feeling loyal to his mother. Henry could also be feeling the need to take on more responsibility, and he doesn't want to be told what to do by anybody.

Seeking to understand Henry's positive intent doesn't mean that you have to put up with his dirty towels or his snarling. But beginning to understand why he is so surly is the first step to solving the problem.

Demonstrate Your Relationship's Strength

All kids test; it is part of their job description. Testing limits and boundaries is healthy (even when it is uncomfortable for the parents). Kids test more than their physical environment and their parent's patience; they also test the strength of their stepfamily. It can be unbearable, but hang in there. Kids are not looking for weakness; they are looking for strength.

Dealing with difficulties

Ignoring Behavior

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 you—your words, deeds, and physical presence—your 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.

Guilt, Again

"You're not fair!" Especially in combined families, kids—both 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 you—they 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.

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 morning—something she'd never done before—as 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.

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