As more time goes by, blended families are becoming the norm. According to 2011 Census data (the first time the government counted for step-families), 12.6 per cent of families with children were stepfamilies.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re all living in an idealized Brady Bunch situation. The fact is, not all personalities mesh, and when clashes occur between step-parents and their stepchildren, the results can be catastrophic for all the relationships in the family.
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It’s easy for there to be resentment and for children to act out toward step-parents, but experts say a lot of the differences between kids and the new adults in their lives stem from a lack of communication.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is that there are several relationships going on and they don’t address each individual one,” says parenting coach Julie Romanowski. “They think that they’re functioning as a family and using that as a blanket statement, but the step-parent is coming into a family as a foreigner. You have to sit down and have a discussion about rules and policies for each relationship ahead of time.”
That means setting goals and expectations in place for everyone’s roles — the adults need to discuss ahead of time what disciplining the child will look like, for example, whether the step-parent will get involved or leave it entirely in the hands of the biological parent.
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“By doing this, you’re all starting off on the same page and going in with clear expectations,” Romanowski says. “Because kids tend to have their own expectations and push their own agenda and problems arise with their behaviour when they realize their agenda isn’t a reality.”
The parent has to be part of the solution
Part of a child’s misleading agenda is due to a failure on the part of the biological parent, says Alice Wiafe, director of Positive Kids, a psychology clinic that focuses on social-emotional skills.
That’s where some soul-searching has to come into play, Wiafe says. The step-parent needs to ask themselves what the child is doing that is causing the clash, and they need to figure out if the issue is the child’s or their own.
“Answer questions like: ‘When did this start?’ ‘Was there an offence in the relationship early on?’ ‘Has this been an ongoing issue that’s been ignored?’ You have to understand that before you can fix it.”
She also says you need to tap into your own issues, which you may be projecting onto your stepchild. Maybe the child somehow triggers some injustice you suffered in your youth or their lax upbringing causes you to feel resentment due to your own stern parents?
“A lot of the times the conflict you have with someone else has to do with you. And if you’re reliving the issues you had as a child, you’re not being objective in this relationship,” she says. “Children don’t have bad intentions.”
How to connect with your stepchild
Barring serious issues like substance abuse or endangerment of someone in your household, most kids just need a little bit of patience and some understanding before they can settle in and accept a new family dynamic that includes a step-parent.
“Step-parents need to be patient,” says Dr. Jillian Roberts, a child psychologist and author of Why Do Families Change? “Children who have gone through a divorce have just been through a major, stressful life transition. When under stress, kids can act out and may not show their best selves. Step-parents need to rise above all this and not take anything personally.”
If you find that you’re simply having a hard time connecting with the child, which is leading to feelings of annoyance or resentment, you have two choices: swallow your emotions or express them to your partner.
“Start with the truth. Tell your spouse that you’ve been trying to build a connection and it’s not working, that you don’t feel you’re getting anything back,” Romanowski says. “Most kids are keen on new people and they’ll take to them if they have true intention.” Addressing the situation head-on is a step toward establishing that true intention.
She says like all budding relationships, you need to let this one build up naturally by nurturing it. Make an effort to spend time with your stepchild physically, emotionally and verbally.
“Play a game or go to the movies together, ask them how they are or how their day was, and connect with them in a way that they’ll understand,” whether that’s checking in with them via text from time to time, following them on social media or leaving notes in their lunch box.
When it comes to discipline, if the step-parent and the parent have agreed that it will be a shared task, she says to approach it neutrally and calmly.
“Don’t react to stress instincts. Be emotionally available to them and use non-negotiable phrases like, ‘I don’t like how you’re talking to me’ or ‘I don’t find that behaviour acceptable.’ Establish your boundaries by telling them what’s not OK in your world — a child can’t argue with that.”
Most importantly, if you’re able to correct your stepchild’s behaviour while remaining connected to them and not detaching emotionally, that will show that you are committed to them.
“When a child is in distress and struggling, they’ll misbehave,” Romanowski says. “But you want to show them with your words and actions that you hear them and you understand their struggle.”
If you’re dealing with a teen, it can be more difficult because they can have more legitimate issues about not liking their step-parent, and they have a voice to express it. Maybe they feel they’re being disrespected or boundaries are being crossed. That’s where Wiafe says an objective, third party should come into play to provide an opportunity for discussion and problem-solving.
In the end, she says, always make room for forgiveness.