Build a Bridge to Stepkids

Sometimes it takes a while for children to warm up to new stepparents.

Q: I'm a newly married stepmom. I have to admit, my husband and I jumped into this pretty quickly, only knowing each other a little under a year before getting married. Our marriage is solid, but his children are just not warming up to me. I knew it would take time, but we just don't seem to be making any progress. Help!

A: One of the reasons new stepparents are such a touchy subject in blended families is because a stranger, or strangers, have entered into the family and, while the children's parent is comfortable with this new adult, the children have no reference point. They did not choose this new adult in their lives. They've been conditioned in our society to not trust strangers, to be wary, and to create barriers when connecting with others outside their immediate family.

Children determine who is safe and who isn't by seeing how their parents respond to strangers that enter their lives. This method of learning discernment is shattered when parents divorce. Suddenly someone who was good to live with is no longer held in the same position. Parents fall in love again, add someone new to the mix, and expect their children to embrace them as their new parent. The children want to believe that this new person is safe, but they need to determine this for themselves.

As a stepparent, it is critical that you do not expect or demand immediate respect and affection from your stepchildren. When stepparents pick up on the resistance of their stepchildren, they often take it personally and react by getting angry and frustrated; by withdrawing and only minimally interacting with the children; or by giving the children everything they want in order to win their love, acceptance, and approval.

New strategy: Get curious

There is another option that seems to have the most lasting, positive effect for stepparents and stepchildren. Try accepting your stepchildren as they are. Be genuinely curious about them and inquire about what's going on in their lives.

If you reach out and are met with a cold shoulder, address it from a place of curiosity rather than from a hurt or defensive position.
The beauty of this strategy is that, by not reacting to the responses of your stepchildren, you give them nothing to fight against. By meeting them with love, compassion, curiosity, and empathy, you connect with them and whatever they are wrestling with at the moment. The key is to not take their behaviors, reactions, or responses personally. Simple concept, yet not easy to do.

Let your emotional reactions be a reminder to not take their words personally, and to get curious about who they are and what they are feeling. By the way, this works well in your relationship with your partner or spouse, too!

— Emily Bouchard

My husband and I have been together for two years and married for one year. I have yet to meet his children from his previous relationship. His ex is still in love with him and seems to be upset about him marrying me and won't allow their kids to come over. My husband and I came up with a rule in the beginning he was not allowed to go to her house to visit the kids. He only talks to them over the phone and sees them when she brings them to his job occasionally. I'm just wondering when she will get over the lost of her relationship and realize that she is hurting their kids. I don't feel comfortable with my husband going over to her house because I know she still has feelings for him and I feel it's inappropiate. This is causing a strain on our relationship and I feel our marriage is in trouble. I feel like he's so focused on keeping the peace with her and forgets about me and my feelings. I have a son and he has bonded with my husband pretty well. I don't even know if his kids know that we are married and I'm concerned about what effects this news will have on them. His daughter was ill recently and we drove over there to drop her school supplies off; I wait in the car of course. He comes out upset because his daughter was crying for him to stay. That's because she does not get to see him because of their mother hating our marriage and wanting him back so they can have their family intact. I have not spoken to my husband in over a week because he told me the next time his child is sick he is going to her home. This hurt because we set an agreement early on that we were not going to conform to his child's mother and he would not go to the home. If his children are sick;I feel they should be visited at the hospital and I have no problem with that. I feel he feels guilty but he needs to realize that is not a good enough reason to break our agreement. He needs to realize I'm his wife and I already dealt with his ex's jealousy but she uses those kids. When will it end!! We've been married for over a year now! Is this healthy? Will our marriage end in a divorce? Should his ex seek couseling because what she is doing is hurting their kids. I am the sole reason my husband does not have access to his kids.