Though many new stepparents are eager to jump in to "normal" family life with the stepfamily, this is time to take a page from the well-known tale "The Tortoise and the Hare"—slow and steady wins the race.
Just as with a new friend, work colleague, or neighbor, you can't expect a deep bond to develop between your child and the new stepparent overnight. You can, however, take proactive steps to help your child adjust to the new situation and encourage her to give the new stepparent a chance. Our experts tell you how.
Validate the child's feelings.
It's common for children to feel a variety of emotions about a divorce and remarriage. They may feel betrayed that a parent decided to leave the marriage, angry about the divorce, bitter that the stepparent is taking the time and attention of their biological parent, or confused about how to feel about their new stepparents and stepsiblings.
"Kids are often left with opposite feelings," says psychologist Patricia Papernow, Ed.D., a member of the National Stepfamily Resource Center's expert council and author of Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn't. "They may feel relief that an abusive or negative parent is gone, but also feel a vacancy at not having that person in their life. Kids need help processing these feelings."
You can help by giving your child permission to feel whatever emotions he is experiencing, creating a safe place for him to share these feelings, and providing the language to name or explain contradictory or confusing reactions to the new situation.
Spend one-on-one time with your biological child.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, one of the best ways you can help your child adjust to a new stepparent is by spending one-on-one time away from the stepparent. "When a parent falls in love with a new partner, the parent turns away from their kids. And kids experience this as a loss and as a threat," Dr. Papernow says.
A stepchild will not look to bond with someone who they feel is threatening their relationship with their mom or dad. To counteract this, set aside regular time without the new stepparent or other stepsiblings to reaffirm your commitment and connection to your biological child and to reinforce the child's confidence in your love. If your child does not feel secure in your love and attention, he will likely feel resentment toward his new stepparent.
Use family routines to build bonds—if it works.
"The words blended family imply that you come together by spending time all together. If that works for you, great, do it," Dr. Papernow says. Sitting down together for dinner, Friday board game night, special weekend breakfasts—whatever works for your blended family.
Use these opportunities to develop relationships, strengthen bonds, and create shared experiences. But for many stepfamilies, Dr. Papernow says, spending time altogether as a stepfamily can be exactly when the challenges are most intense. "If that's the case, do more one-to-one time so that each relationship gets what it needs."
Communicate, communicate, communicate.
Although you don't want to badger your child with constant check-ins, it's important to give her frequent chances to express her feelings about the new family arrangement. It may be as simple as asking, "How are you feeling about having [the stepparent] living with us now?" or "What's something [the stepparent] or I could do to help make this transition easier for you?"
If conversations are too direct, try e-mailing, texting, or using a shared journal to write back and forth to each other. With younger children, you can try role-playing with dolls or toys, or drawing a story together about how the child is feeling. Be on the lookout for nonverbal clues as well.
"Keep your antenna up at all times," says Rosalind Sedacca, founder of the Child-Centered Divorce Network and author of Embracing a Child-Centered Divorce. "Look, listen, and watch, and you can tell by the way your children act and behaves how they are feeling and whether they need some better tools for handling the transition."
Explain your role.
Very young children may be more willing to readily accept a stepparent, but most children over the age of 5 or 6 may be leery that you are trying to replace one of their parents. "Many times the issue of 'If I love you, then I don't love my real parent' comes up," says Derek Randel, parenting expert and certified stepfamily coach through the Stepfamily Foundation in New York City. "Explain to the child that it is possible to establish new loving relationships. Their love can multiply and does not have to be divided." Ease the child's fears that you are not going to take the place of the biological mom or dad, but instead are expanding the child's family to include another person who wants to be a part of his life.
Plan "shoulder-to-shoulder" activities with your stepchild.
Relationships are built through time together and shared experiences. Whether it's cooking or karate, books or basketball, find activities that you and the stepchild can do together.
Dr. Papernow recommends "shoulder-to-shoulder" type activities that put the spotlight on having fun, spending time together, and sharing a common experience, not getting to know each other directly. Consider looking for activities that neither of the biological parents like to do with the child to avoid feelings of competition, or for skills or activities that you or the stepchild could teach each other.
Fill in the story gaps.
A new stepfamily often lacks the foundation that comes from a common history. Over time, the family will create these shared memories of funny moments, inside jokes, and challenges overcome. In the meantime, consider setting aside time to share pieces of your upbringing.
"I have found [that] children and adolescents who know their stepparent's story tend to have a deeper connection or understanding for this person," says Carrie Krawiec, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Birmingham Maple Clinic in Troy, Michigan, and executive director of the Michigan Association of Marriage and Family Therapy. "Taking time to review baby books, family trees, and major life events help to generate intimacy and understanding."
Stick to age-appropriate stories about your childhood, upbringing, travel adventures, and school, and avoid topics such as your previous marriage and divorce, or how you fell in love with your new spouse. But, says Krawiec, you don't have to just paint a rosy picture of your past. "Parents and stepparents often resist sharing hard times because of fear this will make them look weak, but these stories also have the powerful affect of generating empathy in a family."
Build a positive relationship with the ex-spouses involved.
"Realize that there are no ex-parents, just ex-spouses. Your spouse needs to coparent with [his or her] ex," Randel says. "The more helpful and understanding you are, the easier it will be for the entire family."
Likewise, a divorce divides a child's loyalties. Accepting a stepparent as a member of the family can lead some kids to feel that they're being disloyal to their biological mom or dad. One way stepparents can help to overcome both of these issues is to develop positive, working relationships with the ex-spouses.
"Parents set the tone that lets the children know what is okay and not okay," Sedacca says. "Can the mom and stepmom both come to the soccer game? If you react as though it's normal, kids will follow your lead and feel permission to have an amicable relationship with both as well."
"It's the job of the stepparent to reach out to the child," Sedacca says. As the adult, take the lead in building the relationship, finding ways to connect, and continuing to reach out—even when your attempts are rebuffed. Your future stepparent self will thank you.