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The Attachment Difference

Have you ever wondered why one person hears the word of God and follows it, while another ignores it? Why does one person see—and heed—the wisdom of God’s laws for…

Have you ever wondered why one person hears the word of God and follows it, while another ignores it? Why does one person see—and heed—the wisdom of God’s laws for holy living and another thinks them foolishness?

One difference between these two responses is attachment.

Relationships people have with the heavenly Father come in many shapes and sizes, with many layers. Some only believe that He exists, while others have elevated Him to the Lord of their life. Some float in and out of their relationship with God, but others are deeply attached to Him. Those who are deeply attached to God will trust His leading and guidance, respect His commands, and have a sense of their own value (i.e., they are loved and worthwhile). But for those with a limited attachment to God, He has limited influence in their choices.

A similar dynamic occurs in parenting.

A secure base

Attachment is a term used to describe the deep emotional connection and trust we experience in intimate relationships. Infants must experience attachment from their primary caregiver (usually their mother) if they are to develop a strong sense of trust and self-assurance; this provides them a secure base from which to explore the world.

To become effective leaders of children, stepparents must develop a secure bond with their stepchildren. And just as God never thrusts Himself on anyone unless they have invited Him in to their life, stepparents must pace their authority based on a developing attachment with stepchildren.

Biological parents have a natural strong attachment to their children; they have a built-in blood-bond connection that gives them love and trust—and respect—from their children. Stepparents, however, must grow this deep attachment in order to increase their parental authority and influence. The contrasts are striking:

  • Children are quick to offer grace to biological parents in conflict, but have a low tolerance for disappointment from stepparents.
  • Biological parents are afforded “insider” status while stepparents are sometimes viewed with a “you don’t belong, outsider” perspective.
  • Children love biological parents, period. It isn’t decided; it’s automatic and deeply felt, while love for a stepparent must be nurtured, tested and retested, and ultimately chosen. 
  • Auto-approval. This attitude says, “If mom says it, it must be right” and results in a natural bias toward approval of a biological parent’s actions. Stepparents typically do not receive a benefit-of-the-doubt attitude.
  • Auto-trust.  Children assume that bio parents can be trusted (even when proven otherwise). Stepparents have to prove their trustworthiness, again and again.
  • Bio parents are granted access to a child. “My space is your space.” If, however, a stepparent moves in too quickly, it can be perceived as a violation of the child’s personal boundaries.

Clearly, attachment gives biological parents a profound advantage in parenting. Stepparents who do not understand these differences can easily sabotage themselves by trampling on their stepchildren. Consider these principle suggestions.

Building attachment a step at a time

1. A watched pot never boils. Love and caring takes time to develop and you won’t hurry it along with worry. Children under the age of five may bond with a stepparent within one to two years while older children, teenagers, or adults may take many years. Persist in trying to deepen relationship while enjoying the relationship you have today.

2. Loyalty may be a barrier. I’ve written before about how children are often emotionally torn when they enjoy a stepparent. They fear that liking them somehow harms their non-custodial, biological parent and this creates guilt that confuses the attachment process. Here’s how you can help:

  • Don’t be offended by a child’s loyalty and encourage regular contact with biological parents.
  • Never criticize their biological parent in front of the child, as it will sabotage the child’s opinion of you.
  • Don’t try to replace an uninvolved or deceased biological parent. Consider yourself an added parental figure in the child’s life, not a replacement parent. Note that a child’s emotional attachment to a deceased parent continues well after death. Children should be encouraged, especially by the stepparent, to keep alive their thoughts and feelings toward their deceased parent. Biological parents can talk with them about how they can “make room” in their heart for their stepparent while also keeping alive their parent’s memory.

3. Follow the cardinal rule: Let children set the pace for their relationship with you. If your stepchildren are open to you, don’t leave them disappointed. If, however, they remain aloof and cautious, don’t force yourself on them. As time brings you together, slowly increase your personal involvement and affections. Together you can forge a workable relationship that grows.

Taking action

Tips for stepparents to strengthen attachment:

  • Be aware of your stepchildren’s activities and interests. Know what they are doing at school, church, and in extracurricular activities, and make it your aim to be a part.
  • If one-on-one time with a stepchild seems awkward, focus on group family time. Move to exclusive time together only when it feels comfortable for both of you.
  • Share your talents, skills, and interests with children.
  • Share the Lord through dialogue, music, or service projects.

How biological parents can help:

  • Listen to your spouse. Remember that you don’t experience your kids the same way they do. Stepparents need to be heard with empathy, not defensiveness. 
  • Require and maintain a standard of courteous behavior from your children toward your spouse, the stepparent. Even if they don’t display deep affections for them, they should be courteous and decent in their tone.

For those ministering to stepfamilies:

It’s important to remember that nearly all parenting books and curriculum resources used by churches assume attachment between adult and child. In other words, they give advice and outline discipline strategies based on a strong parent-child attachment. Naively telling stepparents to follow the same advice can actually fray fragile stepfamily relationships. Make sure to supplement your parenting training programs with materials designed for stepfamilies, not just biological families. Consider using The Smart Stepfamily DVD curriculum.