I know, it sounds terrible, doesn’t it? And very few step parents would admit that they find it very hard to bond with their step child and unfortunately in their parenting style they show biological child bias, either consciously, or unconsciously. However, the reality is it does happen and it’s ok. Better to admit and deal with it rather than ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist. I have had step parents in counselling defensively swear black and blue they would “take a bullet for their step child”, only to see the child abandoned once the relationship collapses, sometimes after years of the child being in a family with this step parent. This may well be the unfortunate outcome of lack of bonding, due to contextual issues such as stress, family pressures, financial problems, a child with behavioural challenges, lack of communication and the step parent being overwhelmed and under supported by the biological parent in taking care of all the blended children.
The most recent research suggests that the role of disciplining a step child should be domain of the biological parent, particularly if the step parent comes into the child’s life after the age of 3 or 4. At 5, 6, and 7 children start to separate themselves psycho-emotionally from mum and dad and become more independent in their thoughts and behaviours. Having been parented in a different parenting style environment to the new family culture this can be frustrating and confusing for a child developing their autonomous self and learning about self-actualisation. They take their cues from mum and dad and now the goal posts are shifting. People sometimes jump into blended families with Brady Bunch in mind and rather than work out a strategic plan for merger of the familial corporation, they find they are reactive rather than proactive when it comes to ironing out the creases and clashes. This can be fraught with danger, stress, tension and can set up relational patterns that are damaging for all children in the blend as well as toxins for the new marriage across time.
“Stepparents easily get pulled into authoritarian parenting — a harsh, ‘you will not do that’ kind of parenting,” says psychologist Patricia Papernow, Ed. D., a member of the National Step family Resource Centre’s expert council and author of “Surviving and Thriving in Step family Relationships: What Works and What Doesn’t”. www.parents.com. It’s easy to see how attitude and approach can become the default button when there has not been a history of bonding and nurturing between the step parent and the step child from the early psycho-emotional developmental years.
Step kids will likely test the boundaries of the new family dynamic and are likely to push some buttons. But, says Dr. Papernow, “that kind of firm but not loving parenting is almost always very toxic in a stepparent and child relationship.” Instead, the mind-set of the stepparent should be “connection before correction.” Getting to know your step child is the foundation to a better family environment and closeness. This paves the way for co-operation, respect and compliance.
You are setting yourself up for failure if you don’t. The child will resent a new person, who doesn’t know or love them like mum and dad starts telling them what to do and punishes them for non-compliance. As they get to the teenage years this will only magnify and fester in a cocktail with adolescent hormones and their growing self of justice and independence. And believe me, teens can be very self-righteous!
Things to keep in mind with your newly formed step child relationship:
- Have a plan before you merge the family corporation of what you need to navigate first as a priority. Many things will not become an issue until they rear their head, don’t worry about those things yet, just discuss basic expectations and rules. Make sure you have a discussion with the children both together and alone to get a sense of their concerns and fears in moving in together as a family. This will help the children to adjust better when you do.
- . Keep up ongoing discussions with your spouse about rules and attitudes in the home. It’s a great idea because when you are enforcing a rule with your step child, and they complain, or resist, you can always bring in the “take this up with your Mum/Dad if you have an issue with it and would like to re-negotiate it. As of yesterday, this rule was still active!” This is also a way for you and your spouse to be on the same page and avoid tension in your relationship due to miscommunication and misunderstanding
- DON’T start with too many changes in the newly minted family. The child is already dealing with their parents divorcing and the uncertainty of a new family permutation. It can make them feel unsteady on their feet for a while so ease into it.
- It is important to set a respect agenda from the outset. The biological parent as well as the step parent needs to make it clear that you will be spoken to respectfully and that your rules need to be followed.
- Don’t try to be good cop all the time.Being a pushover is also an easy trap to fall into if you are very keen to “be liked “by your step child. Giving into them can send the message, they can do as they please with no consequences. This will back fire and may also cause problems with their biological parent if the biological parent starts to feel undermined.
- DO get to know your stepchild. The more you engage with your step child. E.g. Asking them about their day, finding out what is going on in their world, their interests , experiences etc, can set up the groundwork for building rapport and bonding. Doing things side by side, like an activity or hobby is also a great way to build your connection. Relationships are organic and need nurturing over time to become loving.
- DO realize that stepchildren will test you, it is normal to test out the boundaries as children anyway, so having a new step parent in the home, they child may test previously accepted rules in the family to see if they can be “relaxed ‘a little, with you. This is where communicating with your spouse regularly is important too.
- DON’T take everything personally. The step child has been through a lot. They may be carrying a whole back pack of emotions confusion, instability, fear, resentment, and grief over the loss of their previous family structure. They may see you as a threat to their relationship with their biological parent, that you are trying to replace their mum/dad and a reminder that they are no longer in a “real” family with mum/dad. They may lash out sometimes. These issues take time to process and heal. If an opportunity arises for you to share your understanding with the step child, take it! it may well make them sigh with relief and their defences may come down a little to allow you to bond. Remember you are the adult. It is your responsibility to create a relationship with the child, not the other way around. Step Family Coach Jenna Korf writes that “Research shows that it can take four to seven years for a stepfamily to function like a family, so give everyone time www.stepmom.com .
- Encourage the child when you see them exhibiting good behaviours and reward them when you feel they have done well. This is all credit in the bank for you, and builds their self-esteem and security of being in the family dynamic.
Marrying someone with child means buying a package deal. The best you can do in the long run for yourself and the whole family system is to work on your relationship with your step child. Harmonious relationships create peace, security, emotional wellbeing for all involved. It is achievable!
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