My parents divorced when I was nine years old. My father took custody of me. Before long we were joined by his second wife, so I had first-hand experience of the confusing emotions that young children feel when their parents’ relationships fail. I remember how my dreams of my parents getting back together were shattered when I realized that my father was developing a fondness for another woman. I think I still clung to the hope that my parents might re-unite until the day that my father told me that he planned to marry Sue.
Now I am a stepfather and I know that I tread a minefield when it comes to building relationships with my stepchildren. I know that my relationship with them will never be the same as the one that I share with my biological children. My own children expect me to direct them, give them instructions and discipline them, not so my stepchildren. This is difficult territory but I want to take an active part in their lives.
All close relationships are built on a foundation of trust. The stepparent has to build up trust and respect between themselves and the children. This takes time and work. The stepparent has to let the children take the lead in the relationship. The children will decide when they trust you enough to invite you into their space.
Based on my own experience and parenting classes that I attended I am building a trusting relationship with my stepchildren using some simple guidelines.
As a stepfather, I had positional power in my relationship with my stepchildren. This is much the same sort of power relationship that children would have with a teacher. I had gained this power through my relationship with their mother. What I really need to develop over time is relational power. This I know will happen when the children start to trust me, when they care about what I think, want me to be proud of them, and know that I care about them.
Until I have developed relational power, I am using the power vested in my wife. Together we have established our family values and expectations. We’ve set the household boundaries. She communicates the information to the children and is the parent who disciplines them.
My stepchildren know that I am committed to my relationship with their mother. I’ve told them this on more than one occasion. As I recall, this may not fill them with joy, as they may have hoped that their parents would reunite. Nonetheless, it is important that they understand that I am in this for the long run.
I have told them that I have no intention of taking their father’s place. I have also had this discussion with their father as I wanted him to know that he has nothing to fear from me. His response has been nothing but cooperative and is he helping me to build trust with the children. My stepchildren know that I plan to build a caring relationship with them that won’t in any way threaten their relationship with their father.
I hope that over time my stepchildren will respect me and want to emulate my actions and so I find opportunities to share my values, morals and spiritual beliefs.
Stepchildren can be difficult, but I know from my own experience as a stepchild that the little barbs and nasty actions are less to do with the stepparent than with processing their own emotions and dealing with their own pain. I try not to take offence. I know that this is a test of my character and that over time my own self-control will lead to their trust.
I know the value of appreciation. I hope to build up the children’s self-esteem so I praise them frequently and hold back on the criticism.
If you really mean to build a relationship of trust you have to spend time together. I manage to find time for my stepchildren that fits in with how close they want to get. I am not inviting myself into their lives in a way that would make them uncomfortable. I follow their sport, take them to functions and ask them general but unobtrusive questions about their lives. I also try to make helpful suggestions that show that I care.
As our relationship grows I am sure that they will allow me deeper involvement in their activities and will more readily share their emotions with me.
Already my stepchildren are becoming more accommodating and allowing me in. The actions that I have taken have shown them that I respect their emotions. They are starting to trust me and I am confident that we will develop a warm and trusting relationship in due course. I am very happy that I chose to work on the relationship rather than step aside and disconnect as many hurts and confused stepfathers do.