Realistic Step-Family Expectations For Successful Blending

After reading the two previous blogs, this last one will help you have realistic expectations for the blending of your two families.  Years ago I read article in a step-family magazine that said step-parents should expect the age of the child who has entered into a step-family to double before the children will truly feel comfortable with you as a parent.  For example, a parent who marries and has a two year old child, the child will likely feel bonded with the step parent by age 4!  What was most disturbing was the idea that a ten year old would be twenty before they really saw the step-parent as a real parenting figure!  Heavens it would never happen if the parents have an adolescent!  However, over time I have come to understand the point. The most important lesson is that we need to slow way- way down and not expect a connection as quickly as we would like.   The exception to this delay would be a very young child, a child that does not see their biological parent, or the child has a parent living out of state.  These factors can speed up the bonding experience assuming all other pieces are lined up such as over-all adjustment and no negative interference from the biological parent creating loyalty binds.  This does not mean that your hands are tied during this waiting period. In fact here are some things that you can do, including

  1. Don’t expect your investment in both time and energy to pay off with your step-child quickly. Other than respect, do not expect much more.  Patience is the name of the game.
  2. Do view yourself initially as an adult “friend” rather than a parent. This will help with the slow transition into a parent figure and hopefully it will not take as long as the recommendation above!
  3. Don’t discipline your step-child with major consequences. Allow your partner to implement the consequences.
  4. Do give your child (and step-child if they are receptive) at least 10 minutes of uninterrupted time with you daily.
  5. Do spend time doing what your step-child enjoys or invite them to join you in something you enjoy. Also find activities that can be done alone or with the whole family.
  6. Do not compare or idealize the children. Avoid favoritism.  Look for the positive in all the children and respect their differences.  Appreciate each child and let them know when you are proud or pleased with their behaviors.  Avoid always taking your child’s position in a sibling conflict.  Be fair.
  7. Do encourage your step-child and show your affection in verbal ways which all children appreciate. Not all children are comfortable with physical affection.  So be generous with positive verbal comments and go slowly with physical contact.  Let your step-child take the lead.  Never tell a child they have to hug or kiss you or anyone else.
  8. Don’t criticize your partner’s parenting (when their child is present) especially for being too easy on their child. Although you will need to support your partner you can find times to support their child.  This will go a long way in helping them value your involvement.
  9. Do consider staggering the children’s bedtimes based upon age. This shows respect for the older child even if it is only 10-15 minutes later bedtime. It also gives you time alone with different children when their bedtimes are at different times.
  10. Do create special routines or rituals to assist with the bonding. Take your step-child to the library to find a chapter book that interests them.  Use the book to read to the young child or take turns with the older child if they want.  This special time is very helpful in bonding.  The other parent does not read this book and it becomes something special between just the two of you. Even if your step-child does not seem to value this time together they may appreciate your consistent effort.
  11. Don’t expect to love your partner’s child right away. Like all relationships, it takes time to develop.  Remember that any changes your partner makes in managing their child (that their child does not like) will be blamed on you especially if implemented when you move in together.  Encourage your partner to set up these changes weeks prior to the wedding to minimize you -becoming the easy scapegoat.
  12. Don’t panic when your step-child says the dreaded, “You’re not my parent so I don’t need to listen to you!” retort. Respond empathically but without backing off. “I know it is difficult having so many adults in your life telling you what to do.  However, when I am left in charge you are expected to listen to me.  Now let’s get this done so we can play Uno together like we planned.”
  13. When children think we prefer their sibling it is important to make a conscious effort to address this belief. I often advise parents to intentionally try to swing the other way.  Find times to take one child’s position more or encourage their parent to go easier on them.  Over time this will begin to counter their perspective of you.
  14. Do recognize that the younger step-child will be more likely to accept your position but they will also have more day-to-day needs to address. The child over ten will be more resistant and will need more time to bond.  It is important to accept this reality while not taking it personally.  The teenager is likely not to want to even try to blend. Many teens will just increase their movement towards leaving home and disconnecting.  Don’t encourage nor resist their withdrawal. Try not to be “so cool” you are an easy target for manipulation or rejection.  With teens avoid any sexual comments or physical contact with sexual overtones when they are around.
  15. Do understand that research shows that girls are more comfortable with affection from a step-mother than with a step-father. Boys are more accepting of a step-father and may enjoy having a male role model particular if there are no other males in the family.
  16. Do show respect towards the co-parent no matter how you feel about them. Hopefully they will not be threatened by you and they will support your efforts to connect with their child.  Being friendly or at least civil will help minimize outside stress on your new family. Reassure the step-child that you are not trying to replace their other parent.  Reinforce the fact that they will always have a mom and a dad.  Let them know it is not your intent to interfere but rather to assist.
  17. Don’t try to interject yourself when your spouse and step-child are doing something together.  Give them space to have a separate relationship.  There will be time for family activities too.
  18. Do watch for signs that one of the children may feel neglected or intentionally avoiding you.  Bedtime is often an opportunity for children to really share what they are feeling.   The younger child will expect to be tucked in by their parent but having you come in afterwards shows a personal interest in them.  As children get older they will claim they do not need anyone to tuck them in.  Respect this, but do not withdraw from the concept completely.   Check on the older child as opposed to tucking them in.  If they are already in bed ask if you can come in to see them.  If permission is granted ask if you can sit on the bed.  Let them know you care by reaching out to them in a simple manner, for example, “I just wanted to stop in and see how you are doing.  Is there anything on your mind?”  It is amazing how much you can learn during this vulnerable time.  If they don’t want to talk with you that is ok just respond in a positive manner, “Ok well I just wanted to say goodnight.  See you in the morning.”

It is said that the greater our expectations the greater the opportunity for resentment.  So expect respect from your step-child but not their affection until they are ready.  Be patient and don’t expect the blending to occur quickly or smoothly.  Step-families are complicated because of all the different relationships and the need to nurture each one of them. Find step-family support resources and be open to family counselling to help with the predictable and natural challenges that come with all relationships.

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