Stepparents and their stepkids are often known to butt heads or be in conflict with one another. To many stepparents, the rejection or negative attitude directed at them by their partner’s children is perplexing and hurtful because they labor, to no avail, an effort to build an amicable relationship.
What many of these well-meaning stepparents fail to recognize is that they are often perceived as a threat to these children. Even if the child wants to like and accept their stepparent, fear may hold them back from becoming too close. The child may, at times, let down their guard and soften their approach toward stepmom or stepdad only to retract out of guilt, resentment, or a perceived threat.
Getting inside the mind of a child of divorce helps to understand the motivations for often cold or defiant behavior. Sometimes there are things, we as parents and stepparents should be doing from the beginning of the relationship to alleviate these tensions. Otherwise, awareness of what the child may be thinking can help us be more patient and compassionate during the difficult times.
1. They fear they will be replaced
My ex recently became seriously involved with a woman who has two sons the same age as our two children. Upon coming home from his house, they disgustedly reported that he hung his girlfriend’s children’s pictures on the refrigerator above theirs. They were also quick to tell me that he spent their Saturday together alone with her boys on a hunting trip.
Never mind that our son has no interest in hunting, and my ex was probably eager to enjoy his hobby with two willing participants. The act made our kids feel slighted and fearful that these two new kids were in the midst of erasing them from their dad’s life. I also doubt that the placement of the photos on the refrigerator was purposeful, more likely the spot he chose was whatever was quick and convenient at the moment.
What my children communicated to me is how easily children feel they may be forgotten or replaced by new partners and their children. Simple little gestures may be completely misconstrued. This concern can be reduced by taking the time to talk to kids about changes and how they may affect the life we know. It never hurts to remind our loved ones that they will always be loved, or to make up a loss of time together with a shared favorite activity at another time.
2. They fear we will replace others they love
I struggled for years not understanding why my stepdaughter was often hostile toward me. It seemed that no matter how generous, involved, and loving I was, she would push me away. It took me a while to recognize that she was wounded by the absence of her own mother. The naïve and well-intended me thought that filling in as a motherly figure when her mom wasn’t available or in ways that she was not typically involved would be welcomed, but it wasn’t!
I had to recognize that, in her eyes, my maternal acts were painful reminders that her mother was not present or the one doing these things for her. Now, of course, she did not consciously comprehend why she felt the way she did, so she “told” me in the most unkind ways. Now that I know, I am able to gently re-approach our relationship, and I am more aware to watch for cues from her that alert me that she is either receptive to my interaction or needing space.
I have also verbally told my stepchildren, several times, that I am in no way trying to replace their mom. I respect the fact that they already have a mother that they love, and I support them in having a healthy relationship with her. Although I am there every day doing all the things any parent does for a child, my official stance is that I am in their lives as a loving member of their family team.
3. They fear we will interfere with their relationships and routines
I remember when my husband and I started to become seriously-involved. His oldest son was eleven at the time, and he and my husband were very close. They shared a special bond that included watching 007 movies together after the other kids went to bed and cheering for their favorite football team together each week. I entered the picture, and their dad had to spread his time between the woman he was dating and his children, who were there first.
My stepson appreciated many of the things that I brought to his home, but he was also terrified that the quality of his relationship with his dad would suffer because of me. This is a variation of the fear of being replaced. The child may understand that the stepparent isn’t actually taking anyone’s place, but there is a legitimate concern that he or she will disrupt favorite routines and activities and use up all of their parent’s time.
My husband had to establish a balance so that he nurtured both sets of relationships, and I had to respect the boundaries and established rituals that still had every right to exist. We always make time for us, but I lovingly show my support for their activities by making movie treats or letting them take over the living room to watch the big game.
4. They fear we will change everything about their life
Divorce, remarriage, and change can be scary-especially for kids. The arrival of a stepparent on the scene will raise many alarms in a child’s mind, including concerns about what the structure of the home and family relationships will be like, whether or not they will have to move, change schools or share a room etc.
My stepkids even worried that the addition of me and my kids to their lives would mean less of everything to go around. Naturally, kids don’t take too kindly to the idea of fewer opportunities, presents on special occasions, and so on. They may not vocalize the fear or even fully recognize that this is why they are apprehensive; but, the threat may show in their behavior, and is something to talk about.
Be conscious of the age of the children and their ability to understand the events. I recommend being as upfront and honest as possible, and as appropriate to their ages and the situation. Most often, we fear what we do not understand or have not experienced; so, we can do a lot to calm fears by informing kids about what changes can be expected and what things will remain the same. Help them to feel heard and understood by allowing them to voice questions and concerns, then try to address those with sensitivity.
5. They fear we will take over
Near the top of most every child’s list of dislikes is parents telling them what to do. They already have parents who administer discipline and lectures, so a common fear is that a new stepparent is going to be one more adult inserting themselves into their business and making life miserable. Discipline is one of the major areas of conflict for stepfamilies because stepparents are often expected to act as parents in almost every daily situation imaginable, yet as soon as stepmom or stepdad points out a wrongful deed or lays down punishment kids, spouses, and even other parents take offense!
This fear can be dealt with by setting clear expectations for the stepparenting role, as well as communicating about how to handle a variety of situations. I always leave major disciplinary decisions to my husband, and he tries very hard not to put me in precarious situations when kids are more likely to act up, or I may be forced to respond. As a couple, we share with the kids that we are a united front and the rules of our home (as well as consequences) are common knowledge.
Communication, boundaries, and allowing kids to express their fears are all keys to helping kids feel less threatened by the presence of a stepparent. Many of their fears are likely unjustified and can be eased through transparency and compassion. Other fears may not be recognized as fear because the emotions of the situation cleverly disguise them in a multitude of ways that feel very justified to the child who feels them.
As with anything involving stepparenting, abundant patience, forgiveness, humor, and flexibility are indispensable tools to have at our disposal. There will always be many trials and errors; but, with persistence, commitment, and the backing of our spouse, we can overcome most of the more challenging aspects of stepparenting, and threats can be turned to trust.