You fell in love with someone who was absolutely amazing, and you agreed to share the rest of your lives together. But you didn’t only gain a spouse; you also took on his or her children. While the two of you were dating, you got along well with the kids, and you expected you’d become a happy blended family.
A year later, you’re wondering what you could have been thinking. The children are frequently angry and direct cruel remarks toward you. When you try to address their behavior, they become defiant. Your spouse defends them and makes excuses for what they say and do, and your relationship is becoming strained.
Relationships between stepparents and stepchildren are rarely as idyllic as people imagine. The normal tensions associated with living with someone else multiply when you add the dynamics of a blended family. It’s hard on adults, but it can be even harder on the children. If one or both of the previous marriages ended in divorce, the kids may still be grappling with anger over the loss of the lives they knew. If a child’s parent died, they may still be grieving (even years later) and resentful over what they see as an attempt to replace a beloved parent. In either case, they may lash out at the stepparent and seek ways to sabotage the marriage.
If you’re a stepparent who’s ready to tear your hair out, don’t give up hope. Many stepparent-stepchild relationships grow into loving interactions, and you can increase the chance of that happening by following some basic steps:
Go slowly.Don’t try to force a relationship on a stepchild. Get to know them a little at a time, letting the child set the pace. Show an interest in their activities, but don’t jump into them in an effort to win their love. Instead of one-on-one activities, focus on those involving the entire family.
Plan discipline. It’s important for parents to discuss who will discipline kids and to stay consistent with that. Don’t undermine each other to try and be nice, and never threaten the kids with “wait until your father gets home” kinds of remarks that make it seem as though you’re ganging up on them. As time goes on, the stepparent can play a growing role in discipline, but move there slowly.
Work together.Let the parent lead the relationship and be an eager, understanding partner. As time goes on, your relationship with your stepchild will likely deepen.
Allow alone time.Each of you needs to spend time with your own children, because that will help them feel loved and valued. If your spouse wants to participate with their child in a favorite activity, don’t feel jealous or left out. In fact, you should encourage them to do so.
Protect your marriage.If the two of you cannot parent as a team, you’re setting your home up for jealousy, anger, and outright war. When parenting issues come between blended families, marriages suffer and resentment grows. Invest time and energy in your marriage, with date nights and private time, and don’t let the children divide you.
If you’re trying these steps and are not seeing any progress, or issues with stepchildren are fracturing your marriage, you may want to consider involving a professional family counselor. We’re not referees who determine who’s right and who’s wrong. Instead, our goal is to help you overcome the issues and roadblocks that can interfere with forming healthy families. Why not sit down with one of us and share your concerns, so we can help you find a better way?
Jennifer Strege is one of Care to Change’s professional counselors. Her specialties include marriage, with a particular focus on issues associated with blended families and adult women.