The relationship between a step-parent and stepchild can be a rocky one, but nonetheless, it is an important one.
With all of the emotions still raw from the breakup of a family and uncertainty in new surroundings, step-parents and stepchildren can find it tough to see eye-to-eye.
“I think it’s a really important relationship and it’s one that is grounded in discomfort for a lot of families,” said Julie Freedman-Smith, a parenting expert and co-founder of Parenting Power. “It starts out as a very uncomfortable relationship and has the opportunity to grow and be an important one, but it’s not an easy one.”
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Children feel many emotions when a step-parents enters the picture and because of that, it can take them time to feel comfortable, Freedman-Smith said.
“Often times adults know what’s coming in a relationship and have time to get used to [the change] way before the children do. The step-parent may have been in a relationship with the parent for a long time before the kids ever meet that person. So the relationship might progress faster than what the children are anticipating.”
Surprise and shock are common emotions that kids experience, as well as anger, resentment, hostility and jealousy. They also grieve the loss of their old family.
But the relationship between a step-parent and stepchild is an important one for a child’s development, Freedman-Smith said.
A good or even stable relationship, she explains, helps kids feel safe in their environment and contributes to their over health and well-being.
“Depending on the situation, often times the step-parent really is a vital adult in that child’s development over time. Creating a safe and secure environment for a child is really important for their healthy development over their childhood.”
So what can be done to help along that relationship between step-parents and stepchildren? Freedman-Smith offers some tips.
1. When it comes to discipline
Before step-parents assume any role in disciplining, they should watch and observe how it’s already handled within the household, Freedman-Smith says. Once you get an idea, then it’s time to team up with your partner to figure out how the discipline will be handled from here on in.
“My recommendations is that discipline is planned by both adults in the house and discussed with the children as a team,” Freedman-Smith advises. “So instead of it being the step-parent coming down harder than the biological parent – or way more leniently than the biological parent – there’s a plan that’s made with clear expectations for behaviour, clear consequences for when the behaviour is not as expected.”
Freedman-Smith says it’s best to have these rules written down. This shows both parents are on the same page and shows the children how the family works.
2. Mind the emotions
When a stepchild lashes out at a step-parent, Freedman-Smith says step-parents shouldn’t take it personally.
The children may not want the step-parent in the relationship and may be jealous because they feel the step-parent is taking time away that they were having with their biological parent, Freedman-Smith explains.
“Now there’s another person they have to share their parent with,” she says. “So it’s got nothing to do with if you’re a nice person, it has to do with all the changes that are happening and that role the step-parent is playing. So try not to take it personally.”
3. The rules of respect
Another important thing for the family to do is determining key rules around respect, Freedman-Smith said.
For example, it might be OK for the child not to like the step-parent or the situation they’re in, but everyone in the household must be treated with respect.
It’s about presenting a united front in these situations, Freedman-Smith added, so both parents have to make sure they agree on the rules and agree to enforce them both equally.
4. Family time over individual time
The step-parent and/or biological parent might feel it’s a good idea to set aside designated time for the step-parent and child to bond.
Freedman-Smith says it’s best to hold off.
“It really depends on the family,” she says. “We want the kids to feel safe, so if the kids don’t feel safe one-on-one with that person then going off to spend a couple hours with that person is not helpful for anybody. Spending a few minutes with that person – a short time – then sure.”
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Instead, the better idea would be to plan time together as a whole family, she says.
“It’s more reasonable to expect rather than one-on-one step-parent time,” Freedman-Smith advises. “It’s about having the kids get comfortable with that step-parent. But sometimes it’s the step-parent who’s the one that’s there to drive them to their soccer practice, for example. So sometimes that time has to happen, and therefore a relationship gets built. But forcing them into long periods of time together may not be the best thing for that child.”
5. It takes a village
It’s not only up to the step-parent to build a relationship with a stepchild, it also requires help from the biological parents, Freedman-Smith said.
This means that the adults should – ideally – show respect for one another. Freedman-Smith says this is critical, especially in that moment when all of these new relationships are forming.
But there will also be times where the child just needs to be with their biological parents because they’re not yet comfortable with the step-parent, and the step-parent needs to accept this.
6. It will take time
For some families, the new dynamic might work well and everyone might get along. For others, however, if that tension exists and the step-parent works hard to build that relationship, realize that it’s not going to happen overnight, Freedman-Smith said.
“You might not ever know if the relationship is in a good place. For many of us, whether it’s biological parents or step-parents, we don’t have that appreciation of adults and the work that they did until we’re adults ourselves. So as a step-parent, you might not be appreciated until somebody is actually in that position themselves.”