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How to Build a Relationship With Your Stepchild

With healthy expectations and a specific strategy to build a relationship, a satisfying bond can be nurtured.
By Ron L. Deal


Little is more challenging than the role of Christian stepparent. In short, the stepparent joins the biological parent in raising his or her child, but does so initially without a clear bond with the child. The stepparent-stepchild relationship is weak due to little emotional connection and only a brief shared history (developed while the adults were courting), making the stepparent's role very difficult and frustrating.

Consider the e-mail I received from a biological father looking for help:

Jean is the stepmother to my seven-year-old son. In the past ten weeks, a very intense relationship has developed between them. Once inseparable, Jean now wants nothing to do with him and has told him as much. This has strained our marriage, and she has talked about leaving. Our marriage is as perfect as one can get when my son is visiting his mother, but when he returns it is very uncomfortable for everyone. My wife does not understand why God is doing this to her, and she is questioning her faith.

I can just imagine this stepmother explaining her situation. She likely feels confused about her role, displaced from her husband when her stepson is around and helpless to change the situation. My experience tells me that despite all this, she is also feeling guilty, knowing that God expects her to love this boy. Finding an effective stepparent role is indeed a challenge, yet with healthy expectations and a specific strategy to build relationship, a satisfying bond can be nurtured.

Stepparents and biological parents alike frequently expect too much from the stepparent, especially early in the stepfamily's development. Research confirms that stepparents and biological parents generally assume that the stepparent should be affectionate with stepchildren and should attempt to assert authority to establish their position as "parent." However, stepchildren report—even five years after the wedding—they wish the stepparent would seek less physical affection and back away from asserting punishment. The challenge for biological and stepparents is to lower their expectations and negotiate a relationship that is mutually suitable to both stepchild and stepparent. Let's examine some key principles that may help.

1. Give yourself time to develop a workable relationship. Love and care take time to develop, especially with pre-adolescent and adolescent children. Some research suggests that children under the age of five will bond with a stepparent within one to two years; however, older children, teenagers in particular, may take as many years as they are old when the remarriage takes place. Try to imagine your stepfamily in a crock-pot—it's slow cooking, so don't rush it. Here are some tips for keeping it on low heat:

  • Don't expect that you or your stepchildren will magically cherish all your time together. Stepchildren often feel confused about new family relationships, feeling both welcoming and resentful of the changes new people bring to their life. So give them space and time to work through their emotions.
  • Give yourself permission to not be completely accepted by them. Their acceptance of you is often more about wanting to remain in contact with their biological parents than it is an acceptance or rejection of you. This realization will help you to de-personalize their apparent rejections.
  • Give your stepchildren time away from you, preferably with their biological parent. The exclusive time stepchildren had with their biological parent before he or she married you came to a screeching halt after remarriage. Honoring your stepchildren by giving back this exclusive time will help them to respect you sooner.

2. Children's loyalty to their biological parents may interfere with their acceptance of you. Children are often emotionally torn when they enjoy a stepparent. The fear that liking you somehow hurts their non-custodial parent is common. The ensuing guilt they experience may lead to disobedient behavior and a closed heart. In order to help stepchildren deal with this struggle:

  • Allow children to keep their loyalties and encourage contact with biological parents.
  • Never criticize their biological parent, as it will sabotage the children's opinion of you.
  • Don't try to replace an uninvolved or deceased biological parent. Consider yourself an added parent figure in the child's life. Be yourself.

3. The cardinal rule for stepparent-stepchild relationships is this: Let the children set their pace for their relationship with you. If your stepchildren are open to you and seem to want physical affection from you, don't leave them disappointed. But if they remain aloof and cautious, don't force yourself on them. Respect their boundaries because it often represents their confusion over the new relationship and their loss from the past. As time brings you together, slowly increase your personal involvement and affections.

Recently a gentleman told me that it took 30 years before he could tell his stepfather he loved him. Undoubtedly, his stepfather struggled through those years for his stepson's acceptance. But despite his godly attitude and leadership, his stepson simply couldn't allow himself to return that love. Eventually, love won out, and he was able to express appreciation to his stepfather for being involved in his life. Trust that doing the right things in the name of Christ will eventually bring you and your stepchildren together. Until that day arrives, set realistic expectations that don't leave you feeling like a failure.

Relax—that's an interesting word to hear when you feel like you're not making any progress as a stepparent, yet that's exactly the word I continue to use with stepfamilies. The crock-pot will eventually bring you closer together with your stepchildren, but you can't force their affections. So relax, accept the current level of relationship, and trust the crock-pot to increase your connection over time. In the mean time, use the following suggestions to help you to be intentional about slowly building your relationship.

First, monitor1 your stepchildren's activities early on. Know what they are doing at school, church, and in extracurricular activities, and make it your aim to be a part. Take them to soccer practice, ask about the math test they studied for, and help them to learn their lines in the school play. Monitoring seeks to balance interest in the child without coming on too strong.

Second, throughout the first year of remarriage, stepparents should be involved with stepchildren when another family member can be present. This "group" family activity reduces the anxiety children feel with one-on-one time with a stepparent. Adults frequently assume that the way to get to know their stepchildren is to spend personal, exclusive time with them. This may be true with some stepchildren; however, most stepchildren prefer to not be thrown into that kind of situation until they have had time to grow comfortable with the stepparent. Honor that feeling until the child makes it obvious that he or she is okay with one-on-one time.

Third, share your talents, skills, and interests with the child and become curious about theirs. If you know how to play the guitar and a stepchild is interested, take time to show him how. If the child is interested in a particular series of books or a video game, become interested and ask her to tell you about it. These shared interests become points of connection that strengthen trust between stepparent and stepchild.

Sharing the Lord through dialogue, music, or church activity is another tremendous source of connection. For example, service projects are wonderful activities for parents and stepparents to experience together. Little brings people together like serving others in the name of Christ. Discussing values through the eyes of Christ and having family devotional time can also strengthen your relationship and encourage spiritual formation in the child.

Perhaps the most confusing role for a stepparent is how to set limits, teach values, and enforce consequences. The most common pitfall for stepfamilies is when the biological parent gives too much responsibility for child rearing to the stepparent and he or she begins to punish the child for misbehavior too quickly. A unified team approach that involves both biological and stepparent is best.

Teamwork for the biological and stepparent begins with the acknowledgment of the stepparent's lack of authority due to a weak, although growing, relationship with the children. Until parental status2 is attained (which can take 18 months to many years), the stepparent should focus on building a relationship and being an extension of the biological parent's authority. Initially, this is done by first negotiating a set of household rules and a standard of conduct for all the children (whether biological or step) and then putting the stepparent in the role of "baby-sitter."

Negotiating a household set of rules and conduct involves both adults, but takes place (initially) outside of earshot of the children. As all effective parents, the couple must discuss rules, standards, consequences, and a system of discipline for the children. Then the biological parent can communicate this to the children. When either adult acts outside these negotiated rules (or fails to uphold them), children can divide and conquer the couple. Conflict and resentment are sure to result.

On the other hand, when a baby-sitter cares for children, it is understood that her or she has authority because the biological parent has put them in charge. Likewise, once rules are communicated, the biological parent must pass power to the stepparent by communicating to the children the expectation that they obey and respect the stepparent. If a rule is broken, it is the household's or the parent's rule, not the stepparent's.

Later, when the biological parent enters the picture, they should support the stepparent's decisions, and then reinforce their expectation that the child obey the stepparent in the future. This baby-sitter role thus creates space for the stepparent and stepchildren to build relationship and at the same time empowers the stepparent to have influence in the home.

Eventually, the stepparent may move from a baby-sitter role to that of an uncle or aunt (viewed as "extended family" but not the full authority of parenthood). In addition, because stepparents will bond with younger children much sooner, they may be "extended family" to young children and "the baby-sitter" with older children. As you can tell, keeping open communication about the stepparent's changing role with children is an important task for couples.

The challenges of stepparenting are very real. The importance of your role in the life of your stepchild is invaluable. Commit yourself to the Lord, and offer His love to your stepchildren (to whatever degree possible). You may never realize how important you are.

Adapted from The Smart Stepfamily by Ron L. Deal, Bethany House Publishers. Used with permission.


1 Bray, J.(1998). Stepfamilies: Love, marriage, and parenting in the first decade. New York: Broadway Books.

2 Gamache, S. (2000). Parental status: A new construct describing adolescent perceptions of stepfathers. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of British Columbia, British Columbia, Canada.

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Meet the Author: Ron L. Deal

Ron Deal

Ron Deal is a marriage and family author, conference speaker, and therapist. He is founder and president of Smart Stepfamilies™ and director of FamilyLife Blended™, the ministry initiative of FamilyLife® to stepfamilies (for more visit www.RonDeal.org and www.FamilyLife.com). 

Ron is author of The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family (and DVD series), The Smart Stepdad, Dating and the Single Parent, The Smart Stepmom (with Laura Petherbridge), and The Smart Stepfamily Marriage: Keys to Success in the Blended Family (with Dr. David Olson). A highly sought-after, recognized expert in marriage and blended families, Ron is a member of the Stepfamily Expert Council for the National Stepfamily Resource Center, and is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Licensed Professional Counselor with over 25 years experience in local church ministry and family ministry consulting. He is a featured expert on the video curriculum Single and Parenting (2011, Church Initiative) and his material is widely distributed by a variety of family education initiatives

Ron served as a member of the Couple Checkup Research Team (headed by Dr. David Olson, PREPARE-ENRICH) which conducted the two largest studies of marital strength ever accomplished. They surveyed over 100,000 marriages and remarriages (over 200,000 people) and examined the qualitative differences between highly satisfied marriages and low-quality marriages. The results of their groundbreaking research for couples are published in the books The Couple Checkup (Olson, Larson, & Olson-Sigg, 2008) and The Smart Stepfamily Marriage (Deal & Olson, 2015), and are featured in Ron’s newest seminar for dating, engaged, married, and remarried couples, the Couple Checkup Conference.

Ron is a popular conference speaker and has appeared in dozens of national radio and TV broadcasts both in the U.S. and Canada. His daily 60-second radio feature, FamilyLife Blended, is heard by thousands each week around the country and online. He has appeared on Fox News, MSNBC, ABC’s Nightline, WGN-News, The Mike Huckabee Show, FamilyLife Today, Focus on the Family, HomeWord with Jim Burns, Celebration, and The 700 Club, and his work has been referenced online (e.g., ABCNews.com, Today.com), in magazines (e.g., Essence), and in newspapers throughout the world (e.g., USA Today, New York Daily News, Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal, and Minnesota Star Tribune). The May 2012 issue of Ladies' Home Journal featured Ron's therapy work with a blended family couple in their popular feature column “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” Ron has written feature family articles addressing a variety of family matters for a variety of publications and online magazines including Focus on the Family magazine, ParentLife, The Family Room, Gospel Today, Christianity Today, and HomeLife magazine. On a regular basis Ron trains therapists, marriage educators, and ministry professionals at conferences around the country and has spoken at the National Stepfamily Conference, and the Utah and Arkansas Governors' conferences on the family.

Ron and his wife, Nan, have three boys. Their middle son, Connor, died unexpectedly in February 2009 at the age of 12. In his memory, the Deal's have partnered with Touch a Life Foundation to rescue and rehabilitate children in Ghana, West Africa, from trafficking. They would be honored if you would help them sing Connor's song. Visit Connor's Song to learn more about this ministry and to hear Connor sing.

In addition to FamilyLife sponsored events Ron is available to present his Couple Checkup Conference or Building A Successful Stepfamily conference in your church or community. Learn more here.

 

 

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