The stepparent stigma is a strong one, especially because many of us automatically think of wicked stepparents and devilish stepchildren as portrayed in the media. Stereotypes aside, the stepparent-stepchild relationship is critical for the happiness and security of a family because, according to U.S. Census reports, 50 percent of first marriages and 67 percent of second marriages fail. I'm a new stepparent myself, and my stepdaughter and I recognize that if we didn't get along, my marriage to her father would never have happened. A stepparent can be an advocate for her stepchild, an extra adult who cares, and a critical resource for a child as she grows and matures. As much as I adore my husband, a positive relationship with all family members is essential for a harmonious household. Here are my suggestions, from one stepparent to another, on how to connect with stepchildren as a parent and friend.
To take the pressure off the initial meeting, make it a quick hello and avoid long dinners or giving expensive gifts. "Keep your initial expectations limited. Plan a short meeting -- you don't want an all-day affair," say Stan Wenck and Connie J. Hansen, authors of Love Him, Love His Kids. Anything that puts pressure on the child or that comes across as excessive may backfire and cause the potential stepparent to be rejected; no one wins in a meeting laden with expectations. Over time, let the child set the pace of the relationship; when she's ready for a closer relationship, she'll let you know. That's far better than rejection, for everyone.
If you're a stepparent entering into a marriage that was preceded by divorce between two living parents, give the stepchild time and space. "Remarriage shatters a child's hope of [his parents'] reunion. As their hope slips away, children often begin a natural grieving process, one they could postpone when there was still a possibility that their parents would reunite," says Sue Patton Thoele, author of The Courage to Be a Stepmom. Thoele continues, "It's important to note that their grieving process sometimes includes trying to destroy a new marriage with the hope that Daddy will see the light and return to Mommy." With this in mind, give the situation time and space. If a parent has passed away, help the child find ways to remember his parent by listening to stories, displaying photos of the parent in his room, or planning a memorial activity on the parent's birthday. If you feel it's necessary, suggest therapy as a way to give a child an outlet and support from an objective person.
If the stepkids are traveling between two parents, they probably don't live with you 100 percent of the time. You might think that making a big fuss when they're around helps them feel special. In reality, if you treat them like special guests, they won't feel like part of the family. Instead, include them in the family by giving them chores, asking them to share responsibilities, reviewing their homework, and attending parent-teacher conferences. Listen to and respect their opinions and praise them when the occasion calls for it. "Children feel better about themselves and closer to their families when they are taught to accept certain duties and obligations for the family as a whole," Thoele says. "These obligations include respect, kindness, and helping out."
As you already have time alone with one biological parent, make sure the kids have one-on-one time together too. This will help them feel more secure about one relationship, amidst changes in their lives. Christie Hartman, author of Dating the Divorced Man, says, "Don't always be glued to his side when you're out with him and his kids, and make sure they have plenty of time alone." After the kids have solo time with their biological parent, they might be more excited to spend time with you.
Wondering if (and when) you'll love your stepchildren or if they'll love you back can be awkward. But don't rush it. Thoele says, "We may grow to unconditionally love and support our stepchildren as well as our own, but a more realistic goal -- at least for the first few years -- is simply to befriend our stepkids. We can choose to befriend them and to act in loving ways, but experiencing the feelings of love itself is a mystery that's not ours to command or control." Decide how you want to refer to each other: stepdaughter or daughter, stepmother or mom? Will they call you by your first name, Mom, Dad or some special made-up nickname? It can be whatever the two of want it to be, ranging from more traditional parent to friend.
Trust is a key component in any relationship and it can take time to build as a child observes how you handle different situations. Do you listen, actively? Do you keep private information private? Do you take an interest in what is important to your stepchild? Children can sense dishonesty and insincerity. Wenck and Hansen say, "Demonstrate honesty, confidence, making good choices and being 'real'...Kids will know, one way or the other." If you're able earn their trust, over time, you may become an important confidante. In their survey of 60 stepmoms, Wenck and Hansen say the women reported that "stepchildren shared information and sought advice from them about issues that they were reluctant to share with either biological parent."
Be open to your stepchildren's interests -- you never know what new activity you'll enjoy together. My stepdaughter and I play Just Dance on the Wii, something I may never have tried without her. She loves fashion and I find it fun to browse in stores when I'm looking through her eyes. And remember that curiosity goes both ways. If you're an avid tennis player or horseback rider, and they show an interest, give it a shot! You might find yourself with a new hobby buddy. Also, have some rituals that you share. Because of our work schedules, my stepdaughter and I usually have breakfast together. It gives us time to catch up, and morning is usually the time when she's talkative and asking for all kinds of advice. Remember that a step-relationship is created, and maintained, by the two people within it: parent and child.
Allison Fishman is a food and lifestyle writer, author of You Can Trust A Skinny Cook and host of Yahoo's Blue Ribbon Hunter. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and stepdaughter.