So the divorce is over. The raw emotions are beginning to heal and now you’re finally ready to move on. You’ve met someone new. It looks like the start of a wonderful new chapter in both your lives. But what happens when children are involved?
The post-divorce family is challenging for everyone, but it can be especially confusing for children. Their idea of “home” has completely and utterly changed. That’s just one of the many reasons why step-parents have such a delicate role to play.
Bonding with stepchildren can be quite a challenge. It’s normal to feel disconnected from your stepchild, to some degree. You shouldn’t feel that you have to love them straight away. It takes time to develop an attachment, and that goes for you as much as for them.
When times get tough, however, know that your relationship isn’t set in stone. It can develop in all sorts of positive ways. Bonding with stepchildren can be a long process, but it is absolutely possible.
1. Let the Child Take The Lead
Make sure you respect your steppchild’s pace. It may take some time for them to want to get to know you. For some children, this might take months, rather than days or weeks. Try not to take their reluctance personally. When bonding with stepchildren, patience is more than a virtue – it is vital!
In our experience as family therapists, it is not you “per se” that is upsetting them, but rather the whole situation itself. Many children simply want their old family life back, just as it was – and of course, that won’t happen. It will take time for this to sink in. This may be faster or slower for one sibling than for others. Every child is different.
Sometimes children feel like they are betraying their other parent if they bond with their stepfather or stepmother. At other times, they misinterpret your presence and believe you are trying to replace their mom or dad.
Don’t worry if it takes a long time for your stepchild to open up. Put things into perspective. You probably represent one of the biggest changes they have had to face in their lives so far! It’s OK if your relationship remains superficial for now. Allow things to develop at their own pace.
Remember, you don’t need to be their favorite person. Be yourself and remain a consistent, calm, and kind presence in their lives.
2. Try a Solo Outing
Once you and your stepchild have known each other for a while, you can suggest an outing, just the two of you. This might sound nerve-wracking, but it’s also a great way to bond.
Choose an activity where you aren’t forced to talk to each other the entire time. This can be something active like bowling, an arcade, or playing a sport. If that’s not your thing, try a movie or a play that you can talk about afterwards. While you are in the car you can let them choo se the music.
That being said, try to get comfortable with silence. Don’t expect your stepchild to be talkative. It’s OK to demonstrate curiosity, but avoid asking too much. It might make them feel scrutinized and uncomfortable.
Keep outings local and budget-friendly. You don’t want to child to feel disappointed when the next time you’re only going to the playground, as opposed to DisneyWorld!
If they reject your invitation, just wait a few weeks, then ask again. They’ll understand that you’re trying to build a relationship with them, and this may help them to warm to you.
3. Support Their Interests
When bonding with stepchildren, this is is one of the most important thing you can do.
– Offer to help them with their homework: Keep your feedback encouraging and constructive.
– Attend a school performance or a sports game: You don’t have to make a big deal about going or shower them with compliments afterwards. They will notice that you showed up.
– Do what they enjoy doing: Whether it’s reading, sports, art or music – try and develop an interest yourself, and join in.
4. Support The Other Parent
The sense of disloyalty that a child can develop towards the “other parent” as they become closer to you should not be underestimated. Children can struggle with hugely conflicting emotions at this time. This may manifest itself as sudden anger or aggression towards you, often without warning.
Recognize that they are experiencing guilt and shame, and that these are powerful feelings, however irrational. Hard as it may be, it’s crucial to avoid retaliating – especially if you’re hurt.
You can go some way to mitigating these feelings by always speaking respectfully of their biological parent. Make it clear that you will never come between them. Leave no doubt that their biological parent always comes first – even if the child enjoys a strong and happy bond with you.
5. Form A Plan With Your Partner
Do discuss what kind of relationship you’d like with your stepchildren with your partner. He or she needs to be able to feel comfortable enough to “step back” and allow your relationship with the children to form naturally. Try to agree in advance how you will both behave in certain situations that have potential for conflict – for example, when getting everyone ready in the morning, or when a child has misbehaved.
It is wise to avoid disciplining the children until a) you have the complete support of your partner, and b) you have formed a strong enough relationship with the children for them to accept your discipline. In the meantime, your partner and the other parent must be willing and able to shoulder all disciplinary responsibilities. This is not to say that a child should be allowed to get away with misbehavior. You should simply hand over the reins here to your partner, and minimize your involvement – even if it affected you directly.
Remember, you and your partner are always a team, even if he or she needs to take a backseat while you work on your relationship with the children. Discuss any issues as soon as they come up.
No matter how tough or awkward things get, it’s important to remind your stepchild that you care for them and that you support them. Say things like, “I’m here for you,” “I care about you,” “I hope you know you can always talk to me,” and “If you have any questions for me, feel free to ask.” They might not immediately (or ever) take you up on this but they will keep these positive messages in the back on their head. Keep at it. Your efforts are bound to pay off in the end!
PARC © 2016. PARC (Park Avenue Relationship Consultants) is a group of highly skilled and experienced NYC relationship therapists working with couples, families, and individuals. PARC therapists have private office locations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Riverdale, and Long Island. Each therapist has extensive clinical training and experience, and is fully licensed and certified by New York State. Privacy and confidentiality are guaranteed. Out-of-network only. For more information, please call PARC client services at (917) 340-7592 or visit parkavenuerelationshiptherapy.com.