Living in blended families can bring a lot of challenges, including painful feelings that children may not know how to express. Luckily, there are ways to work together when they act out.

By Emily Edlynn, Ph.D.
December 09, 2020
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Credit: Yeji Kim

Dear Hurt Stepmom,

First, I want to validate your feelings that being ignored is hurtful, even when children are doing it likely without a good awareness of how it affects an adult. In the parenting world we can become so focused on empathizing with our children and understanding their behaviors, that we overlook our own emotional responses as important. Of course, as adults we are better in charge of our emotions (hopefully) but it does not make them any less real.

Living as part of a blended family brings all kinds of challenges and opportunities for children, including navigating a mess of emotions, and figuring out multiple parent-child relationships. It's a lot! But with time and committed adults, it's possible for everyone to change and grow (even the grown-ups).

Dad's Role

Clearly, patterns have developed in your family that need to change. The most critical ingredient for moving forward? Your husband. As their present parent since birth, he sets the tone and expectations for his children. You don't mention him, so I don't know what he is or isn't doing, but he needs to support your authority as a stepparent. This means you and he have the same rules and expectations (this is key in all families!), and he does not, even unintentionally, reinforce them ignoring you. This could look like him redirecting them to respond to you instead of interacting normally with them right after they have ignored your requests.

Hopefully there has already been dialogue about coping with changes in their family, but I know from my own work as a therapist that talking things out doesn't always happen naturally. It is possible that their behaviors of not listening and ignoring you are rooted in difficulties accepting the reality that their parents are no longer together. It's not rational, but they may feel like if they act like you're not there, maybe their fantasy of their parents coming back together could actually happen.

It is likely that their father needs to have direct conversations with them about how they treat you. This should not be disciplinary, but focused on supporting them emotionally, and exploring their current behaviors as not the most helpful way to act out these emotions. He can point out that he sees them ignoring you, and ask them what they think is going on. It's important he encourages them to express how they feel and validate these emotions first. Then, he can address how their behaviors with you need to change, while helping them find other ways to manage their difficult emotions.

Mom's Role

The other part I note in your question: they now live with you full-time. It sounds like this is a change, and implies there has been some degree of loss with their mother. I know from experience that a wide range of reasons could explain the need for this, but ultimately for children what matters most is their mother by birth is no longer caring for them. This is really big emotionally. And you represent a mother figure who quite simply is not their mother and never can be a replacement.

Along these lines, unfortunately parents can inappropriately work through their own anger and resentments toward their exes via their children. It's important to keep in mind that your stepchildren may have been hearing unhelpful messages about you from their mother, and there's no way for this to not affect them. Even if this didn't happen, it's possible your stepchildren feel that if they like and respect you, they are betraying their mother. Did I mention it's complicated?

Professional Support

If your husband's active support of you as an authority figure in the home and emotional support of his children in coping with having a stepmother does not change the problematic patterns, I highly recommend family therapy and/or therapy for the kids. Having a neutral professional involved gives the children a place to express what they may feel like they can't talk about in their family, and can help all of you find healthier ways to communicate and get along. This includes setting up boundaries around behaviors, and laying out clear expectations for how family members treat each other.

Back to how painful this is for you, I hope you have your own sources of support where you can express your hurt and struggle. Whether this happens with your own therapist, and/or your own network of family and friends, this emotional safety net can help you carry empathy into your interactions with your stepchildren, even when they are hurtful. Building relationships at all ages takes time, patience, and trust, and you can do your part by continuing to show you love and respect them even as you may need to wait on them to be able to show it back.

The Bottom Line

At ages 8 and 10, your stepchildren fall in a phase of development where they are both vulnerable to outside influences and still developing the parts of the brain that process strong emotion. They have been through significant family changes that may have left you as the easiest target for their anger, sadness, and loss. It's not fair to you, but with the right resources and support, you can show them what trust, love, and respect look like. Even though there's never a replacement for a child's mother, this does not take away from how much a nurturing and dedicated stepmother can matter. Even if it takes time for the kids to realize it.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

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