We live in a time where second marriages, unmarried parents, and blended families are only becoming more and more common. Unfortunately though, sometimes combining families can cause problems, resentment, unspoken disagreements, and actually drive the would-be family further and further apart.
This particularly true among stepparents and younger/preteen children. Initially, it can be very difficult to form any kind of meaningful connection – largely because the kids are skeptical of the new adult in their lives, and because a new stepparent doesn’t quite know how to form a connection. This shortcoming on the stepparent’s part can happen for a few different reasons, but we’ll get to those in a moment.
In terms of “symptoms,” recognizing a problem is pretty easy. The child and the stepparent argue constantly, the stepparent talks down to the child or is overly critical, the child doesn’t recognize any authority from the stepparent (the classic, “you’re not my real mom”), and/or they do their best to avoid communicating altogether.
If this is happening in your newly blended family, it simply has to be addressed right away!
Children are impressionable, and will often reflect the messages that are presented to them. If a child is constantly told that they are a problem, a bad kid, bound for jail for drug addiction, they will start to reflect that judgment and “live down to expectations” as it infects their sense of self worth.
Additionally, young teens are in a state of transition – they don’t necessarily know where to turn for advice – their parents or their peer group. If they are having these kinds of problems at home, they are much more likely to seek the help, advice, and support of their peer group, which isn’t always a good thing.
To some degree, we can chalk the child’s behavior up to, well, childhood. Teens are going through major life changes, small children can be finicky or not fully understand the situation, and regardless of age, navigating a new “parental figure” is going to be a difficult transition.
But what causes new stepparents to contribute to the problems (or cause them)?
The primary problem is underlying insecurity of one form or another. It may be a lack of familiarity with being around kids, and feeling like they have to put on an authoritative face to maintain some kind of power. It may be because they feel out of place, like an “outsider” to the rest of the family, and are simply lashing out at the easiest target.
Whatever the specific reasons might be, the conflict between children and their new stepparents often comes from a place of fear – fear of opening up, fear of being ignored or minimized in some way, fear of being disrespected, etc.
The point is this: if your marriage, and your family as a whole, is going to operate in a healthy way, you simply HAVE to get past this animosity.
Start by addressing the problem with your spouse, and make sure they understand the potential damage they are doing to the child. Once you’re on the same page about how important it is to get along, you can start taking small steps toward building that relationship. Like anything else, it will take time.
You can also talk to your child about their stepparent’s efforts to make the relationship better, and ask for their patience as they try to grow the relationship.
Now, it’s also important to understand that not all of these problems are just between the stepparent and the child (or children). Some of those insecurities or issues can be tied directly to problems in the marriage as well – feeling neglected and seeking power over a child, taking out frustrations, or even just other stresses that are finding their way into the dynamic between your spouse and the kids.
With this in mind, don’t just focus on the relationship between stepparent and child, but on the strength of the marriage as well.