So you’ve met someone who understands you, supports you, and makes your day a little bit brighter just by being in it. You’ve tied the knot and are moving in together to begin a new chapter in life. It would be lovely if that was all there was to it, if it were that simple. But starting a new life with someone is never so easy, more so if one or both of you are bringing children from a previous marriage to become a blended family.
As a step parent, you get the gift of getting to know and build a relationship with your new step child or children. But how do you care for and raise a child you weren’t there to raise at the beginning? How do you balance being a new authority figure in a young person’s life while also being their friend? Daftein addresses these questions and more for a harmonious life together with your spouse and the rest of your blended family here.
Step Parenting a Blended Family: What It Isn’t
The first thing you should familiarize yourself with as a new step parent is what your new role IS and ISN’T. To help manage everyone’s expectations, the following aren’t a part of this delicate and difficult, but ultimately rewarding, endeavour:
- Replacing your step child’s biological parent – Do not try to be someone you aren’t. Whether or not your step child got along with your spouse’s ex, presenting yourself as a replacement for someone who may have had a huge presence in their young life only sets yourself up for failure. Your role as the step parent is to be an additional adult that the child can trust and rely on.
- Getting a “ready-made” family – Don’t take your remarriage to be an easy way to get a family, even if your blended family coincidentally resembles a ‘traditional’ nuclear family. At the start, your step children would consider you an acquaintance of their parent that they like or a complete stranger they’re willing to get to know at best or an interloper in their original family dynamic at worst. If you want your blended family to become a real family, then you’ll have to put in the work first.
The path to becoming a harmonious blended family is challenging, and as a step parent your job is certainly cut out for you. But keep in mind that the children will likely be affected the most. They may feel confused, abandoned, lost, angry, or a combination of those. So, on top of adjusting to your new life, prepare to walk the tight rope of befriending your step children while acting as a constant and grounding force in their new circumstances.
As the step parent, you might find yourself at a loss with how to connect with or even understand your step children. On the other hand, your step children might find it hard to open up to a stranger or become frustrated because they don’t know where they fit in the family dynamic now.
It’s no secret that the adjustment period for both step parents and children may be difficult and take a while. But with patience, understanding, and time, it’s possible to cultivate a healthy and positive relationship with your spouse’s children.
Tips on How to Form a Bond with Your Stepchildren
Let Your Step Children Take the Lead, Practice Patience, and Respect Personal Boundaries
The first thing you need to know about the business of forming a healthy bond with your step child is that your timeline is irrelevant—throw it away. Your job is to respect the child’s pace and let them take the lead when it comes to milestones in your relationship.
You could strike out and get a kid who welcomes you and the blended family. More often than not though, you have a long road ahead of you with a lot of landmines that you’ll step on even when you and your step child do get along. The key to success is not to let lost battles cost you the entire war—that is, be patient and keep on keeping on.
If your particular circumstances mean that their other parent is around frequently, then don’t be an obstacle to their relationship. Remember, you’re not there to usurp their biological parent’s place. So treat their other parent well if you can manage it, or civilly at the very least, for the sake of the child you are all raising and let them have their time together. You’ll have your own opportunities as well, so don’t let your step child feel like they have to choose one over the other.
You also need to handle the subject of your step child’s relationship with their other biological parent delicately. If your spouse and their ex’s relationship ended in divorce, then the child might’ve still harboured a hope that they’d get back together. You could have dashed those hopes by coming into the picture. Let them have the space to grieve the loss of that possible future and be understanding as they come to terms.
At times, trying to foster a bond with your step child will feel like an uphill battle. Stick to your guns, though, and power through. The relationship between you and your step child may be very surface-level right now, but that could change over time with effort and a genuine desire to connect with your spouse’s kid.
Be Involved in Your Step Children’s Lives and Support Their Interests
Showing that you take an interest in things that your step child is interested in doesn’t have to be a big production. There’s no need for over-the-top ‘ooh-ing’ and ‘aah-ing’. Kids have a sixth sense for when you are patronizing them; the act will get old fast and erode whatever respect you’ve managed to win with them.
If you want to be supportive towards your step child, then simply showing up, being sincerely curious about what their projects, or asking them to choose an activity you could do together already speaks volumes. Here are some hobbies or passions your step child might be engaged in and how you could step up:
- Sports or school performances – Support your step kids by cheering them on from the bleachers or the audience. That alone sends a strong signal that you’re serious about being involved in their lives.
- Visual art, writing, music, etc. – If your step child is the artistic type, ask after their projects. They don’t have to show you—they might not be comfortable with that yet, if they ever do—and that’s their prerogative. Don’t push the issue, but don’t let them feel like you’ve given up, lost interest, or are disappointed that they didn’t show you by dropping the subject altogether either. Let them feel that it’ll be safe to show you their work, play you their music, or just talk about what’s on their mind.
- School work and academics – School-aged step children are already dealing with a big shift in their lives after they became a part of a blended family. Offering to help them with school work could let them worry about one less thing. Just remember to keep your feedback constructive and positive!
- Conventions, concerts, and meet ups – These days, it’s fairly easy to meet people with the same interests at locally organized events. If you and your spouse deem the theme or topic appropriate for your child, then accompany them or allow them to attend if they’re old enough to do so. Going along with your step kid as a chaperone or just as their ride will allow you to experience their world and passions first hand. This insight could help you understand where they’re coming from better.
Let the Biological Parent Take the Lead in Matters Concerning Discipline
As with everything else about starting your new life together with your blended family, you’ll need to discuss house rules and consequences so you can enforce them consistently. Which rules you want to implement and how to do them are largely up to your parenting preferences, but do keep one key factor in mind: Let the biological parent take the lead when disciplining their child.
It’s especially important to show your step child that you’re 100% behind your spouse with regards to how they plan to raise and discipline them. This not only makes the consequences to their actions clearer to the child, but also establishes a clear link to your authority to their biological parent.
You’ll have to impress this early on because your relationship to your step child isn’t established enough for them to recognize you as a disciplinarian in their lives. If you try to force your manner of discipline on them without first gaining their trust, you’ll risk driving them further away from you. It may cause a strain between you two and slow your progress towards a healthy bond.
What you can do is draw up a list with your step child’s biological parent. Let them discuss each item with their child first so they learn the consequences for certain behaviours from a source they trust. They’ll know what to expect even when their biological parent is away and you’re in charge. If the rules are clear and you enforce them firmly but fairly, then they’ll see you as an extension of their parent instead of a tyrannical villain.
The best disciplining advice for a new step parent who’s still forming a strong bond with their step child, however, is to take a step back and let the biological parent handle it. Be ready to act as your spouse’s support so the child knows that though you’ll defer to their parent, you won’t let them get away with breaking house rules either.
Be Genuine About Being Your Step Children’s Friend
It can’t be stressed enough that as a step parent you aren’t the replacement of a child’s other parent. With that said, what sort of role will you play in your step child’s life? And how do you go about establishing it?
One day in the future, you and your step child may enjoy a loving, familial relationship. But right now, you have to be patient and lay the foundations of a healthy attachment with each other. Let the child feel that you’re genuinely invested in your friendship with them and want earn their trust.
This means being willing to take it slow and let the child dictate the pace at which your relationship develops. They might initially be reluctant to do so because they feel that they’re betraying their other parent by admitting to liking you, so assure them that they can like both and that you’ll be delighted if they maintained a good relationship with their other parent and yourself. Forming an attachment to you and your family doesn’t diminish the importance of their other family in their life, after all.
Furthermore, you can use affirmative language like “You can always talk to me about what’s on your mind” or “I hope you know that I’ll make time to answer your questions as best as I can” to signal that you are a safe adult they can trust.
Be Fair with all the Children—No Playing Favourites
In a blended family, step children are as deserving of your love as any biological children you might have. Of course, you will always have a special bond with your blood-related children. But who’s to say that you can’t develop another kind of but equally precious bond with your spouse’s children? There are no hard rules on how to geniunely love a child under your care, so instead of favouring one over another, show that each child is special to you in their own ways.
This teaching-by-example approach to your step parenting shows the children how to interact with each other in a familial way. As your biological children are assured that your love for them has not diminished even after your families come together, they aren’t likely to try to antagonize their step siblings. On the other hand, step children will be less likely to resist your overtures of friendship if they know that you’ll treat them with kindness and respect.
Don’t Push; Put Aside Prior Expectations and Let Your Relationship Grow Organically
Step parents who are coming from a prior marriage may feel pressured to ‘do better’ or ‘succeed’ with this new family. They may feel like this time their family life could be how they imagined a perfect family life would be. And perhaps it isn’t a pipe dream; perhaps this is the forever family that you’ve been looking for.
But to expect everything to fall into place immediately and without effort on your part is unreasonable. Likewise, demanding that your blended family act the way your ideal of a family should act or forcing a relationship on your step children is a sure-fire way to alienate your blended family.
To build a relationship with your step children, you’ll need time and patience. Take it slow, each moment a baby step building up to a relationship where love was fought for and mutual respect earned out of a sincere desire to be a family. The most successful step-parent and step-child relationships are ones that grow organically over time.
Navigating Your Unique Situation with Grace
Doing right by your step children takes work and it might not always be easy, but learning to communicate properly with one another makes for a good relationship foundation. If you want solid advice on how to make the transition to a harmonious blended family as smooth as possible or just need someone to help you untangle your thoughts, get in touch with a relationship coach from Daftein. We’re happy to help your blended family thrive.