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By Ron L. Deal, President, Smart Stepfamilies

Where do I start? What can I do to nurture a relationship with my stepchildren? These are excellent questions that every stepparent should ask. Before I offer some strategies let me remind the biological parent that you hold vital keys to the stepparent’s success. Unless you declare in front of your children, for example, that your spouse is your life-long partner, your children probably won’t open themselves to the stepparent’s presence. In addition, if you don’t insist in word and action that your children respect their stepparent, it might not happen on its own (to learn more about these and other keys, see the revised chapter on parenting in The Smart Stepfamily paperback edition, pp. 144-145).

Having said that, let me also say that much of a stepparent’s ability to bond with stepchildren is up to the kids. It’s hard for adults to accept, but the reality of stepfamily living is that the pace of integration (family identity development and relationship bonds) is determined by the children. They have the power to withhold themselves from a stepparent, even if their parent sets a good example and the stepparent does all the right things. Much of a child’s openness is based on their previous losses and fears of more loss, their loyalties to biological parents, and other factors such as age, personality, and time with the stepparent. There is much that is beyond a stepparent’s control, but here are some things you can do.

  1. Become interested in your stepchild’s interests. Find out what they like and see if you can share the experience with them. Carlos’ stepson loved building Lego’s. That wasn’t an interest to Carlos but he saw the wisdom of asking Thomas, “Show me how you built that. I’m not very good at this but you obviously are. I’d like to learn.” That posture put Thomas in the position of “expert” and opened the door to a series of shared experiences.
  2. Share your talents and interests with the child. This is the flip side of the first suggestion. If you play the guitar and the child wants to learn, by all means find time to teach them. If you like watching basketball, find time to do so together. When a child is drawn toward you because of your interests, you have an opportunity you don’t want to miss.
  3. Spend one-on-one time with the child…maybe. Research suggests that spending one-on-one time with a child may allow you to forge a relationship. However, some children find one-on-one time to be too intense and react by pulling away. This creates an awkward situation at best. Try spending one-on-one time with each child; if it goes well, do it again. If it doesn’t, live and learn. Pull back and try again in six months.
  4. Have fun together. I’m amazed at stepparents who frown when the kids walk in the room; who aren’t polite when they ask the kids to set the table for dinner; or who walk unannounced into the child’s bedroom. Grumping around the house and then expecting the kids to take a liking to you just doesn’t make sense. Find ways of having fun together, show them basic respect, and model the considerate attitude you want them to have toward you.

Remember, successful stepparents have one central quality: they continually seek the liking of their stepchildren, i.e., they don’t give up trying. You may have to knock on the door of your stepchild’s heart for a while before they open the door. Don’t submit to defeat easily; keep knocking. Persistence pays off.

Ron L. Deal is Founder & President of Smart Stepfamilies™ and Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®. He is a bestselling author, highly sought-after speaker, and therapist specializing in marriage enrichment and blended family education. Learn more here.