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The Blame Game

The first two years of stepparent-stepchild relationships tend to be tense and stressful for everyone.
By Ron L. Deal


“I just can’t put my finger on it, Ron. For some reason, I just can’t break through the walls my stepkids are putting up.” Weston had been a stepdad for just six months, but was feeling defeated and discouraged. “My wife and I go back and forth trying to figure out what’s going on, but mostly we don’t agree. And even when we do, we’re not sure what to do about it.”

When stepparents and stepchildren struggle to connect or have a strained relationship, family members naturally look for something—or someone—to blame. Biological parents sometimes blame the stepparent for not trying hard enough to emotionally connect with the child. Stepparents might blame the child for not opening up to them or the noncustodial parent for running interference. Children (including adult stepchildren) may blame their parent for a quick remarriage or their stepfather for some personality attribute they find uninviting.

Siblings, extended family members, even ex-spouses get into the mix with their blame theory of why people don’t get along. Blame has been part of tense relationships since the first family on earth; when stepparents and stepchildren struggle to connect, stepfamilies have their share of blame games, too.

A myriad of dynamics

The first two years of stepparent-stepchild relationships tend to be tense and stressful for everyone. During this tumultuous period many stepparents became increasingly distant because their efforts are rebuffed by the children; adolescents in particular have the ability to discourage stepparents from continuing to build relationship.

Yet despite obstacles, research consistently reveals that stepparents who eventually develop close bonds with stepchildren remain persistent in their efforts to communicate with the child and establish a warm, friendly relationship. They do so by engaging the child in activities that are of interest to the child (not just activities that are of interest to the stepparent), finding opportunities to talk directly with the child, communicating empathy and compassion for the child, and sharing their desire to get along.

But while it’s clear that smart stepparents are persistent in seeking connection with their stepchildren, the absence of this connection cannot be blamed entirely on them.

True, stepparents sometimes stop affinity-seeking behaviors far too quickly or prefer a distant parenting posture to a close, connected one. But children can also contribute to the problem by blocking or ignoring their stepparent’s efforts to get close. They may not value the new relationship, have little in common with a stepparent, or find themselves unable to resolve a loyalty conflict with their biological parent. Even still, sometimes biological parents themselves block the stepparent’s attempts at connection, even though doing so only sabotages their stated goals of a “blended” family.

My point is this: There can be a myriad of dynamics at play in the evolving relationships between stepparents and stepchildren. Placing blame is nearly always shortsighted and only begets defensiveness. Instead of finding blame for the past, your family is much better served by shared efforts to grow relationships and build toward the future.

A stubborn, loving presence

Stepparents should commit themselves to a stubborn, loving presence in the lives of their stepchildren, even if they aren’t currently open to reciprocating the relationship. Success is not found in technique or an amount of shared activity. The most important thing you have to offer is you. Love them with an undeniable, unconditional love (just like God loves you) and eventually most children will be won over.

Biological parents should commit to valuing the relationship your spouse currently has with your children. Their relationship probably isn’t as strong as you’d prefer, but constantly being discouraged over what isn’t is a drag on everyone’s ability to enjoy what is.

No, you don’t have to be satisfied if they have a weak, strained relationship. But do try to appreciate what is going well for them. Building on strengths is always more productive than casting blame or focusing solely on deficits.

Taking action

Couples:

Stepparents, you can’t control every response from stepchildren, but you can manage yourself as you seek connection with stepchildren. Take this self-exam to see if you are hitting the bull’s-eye.

True   False     Even when discouraged, I try to stay emotionally engaged with my stepchildren.

True   False     I create and take advantage of opportunities to connect with my stepchildren’s interests
                         (e.g., sports, music, books, movies, youth group, etc.).

True   False     My stepchildren would say that I take interest in their activities and support (e.g., attend
                         performances and events, show regard for their desires, appreciate their talents, etc.).

True   False     I am generally warm and friendly toward my stepchildren. They feel safe with me.

True   False     My spouse does not feel threatened by my actions toward her children.

True   False     I am intentional about experiencing memorable events with my stepchildren (e.g., taking
                         special trips together, attending concerts or service events together).

True   False     I express heartfelt value and affection to my stepchildren through verbal and non-verbal means
                         (e.g., saying, “I appreciate you,” giving hugs, or developing fun “inside” jokes).

True   False     Friends of our family would say that I, even when rebuffed, am stubbornly persistent in caring for
                         my family and developing deeper bonds with my stepchildren.

Pastors:

The faith development of children is enhanced tremendously when they experience service activities beside a loving family member. For example, when families share in a student mission trip, Christmas musical, or serve dinner together at a local homeless mission, the intimate roots of faith are planted in a child’s heart.

Such ministry activities also afford stepfamilies a secondary blessing: stepparents and stepchildren are bonded through the experience. The challenges faced and the lessons learned support their deepening relationship. Encourage stepparents to engage in service activities with their stepchildren.

© by Ron L. Deal. All rights reserved.

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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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