Inheriting someone else’s child probably wasn’t in your picture-perfect family of the future, right?
When you think of your picture perfect family, you might not have imagined that you’d be seeking advice on step parenting, but if your significant other has a child – or children – from a previous relationship, you might be trying to find some step parenting advice to help you with your new role. How do you deal with this transition, develop a relationship with the child and keep it cool with his other parent? Nikki Sulaica, a psychologist with Henry Ford Health System’s Behavioral Health Services, offers her top 10 step parenting tips on how to develop a positive relationship with your new stepchild.
Have realistic expectations. For her first bit of advice for step parents, Sulaica recommends that new stepparents head into the relationship with their stepkids with an open mind. Realize that the kid may not be your best friend at first.
“You have to keep it realistic,” she says. “It might not be rainbows and sunshine. Don’t go into it just assuming the child has to see (you) as a parent figure and that they have to like (you).”
Keep it low pressure. “If the child can see you as someone who has their best interest in mind, it is more likely that they will see you as positive,” she says. Stepparents can’t expect an instant relationship, nor can they force one, so be sure to keep the pressure off and in time, the child might warm up.
Take away their ammunition. Sulaica stresses to take away all reasons a child may not want to have a connection with their stepparent. Promoting a relationship with a child, keeping a positive outlook on their parents and having tons of patience are key pieces of advice for step parents.
“Kids can pick up on where your intention is at, so if a kids sees a stepparent treating their parents well, they pick up on it,” she says.
Don’t take things personally. Just because your stepchild isn’t into this whole “stepchild” label doesn’t mean that he doesn’t like you. He might have some unresolved issues to work out before he opens up. “A lot of kids are initially resistant, not because their stepparents are bad, but because they are still healing from the divorce of their parents,” Sulaica says.
Acknowledge the loss of a lost parent. If you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of coming into a family that lost a parent, remember this key piece of step parenting advice: acknowledge the child’s loss and give honor to that family member.
“You are not replacing the family member,” Sulaica explains. “You are really redefining the family unit. It’s key to do new things so that the family structure is new and different – so that it’s created together.”
Make time for the kids. It’s a unique relationship and making time for it is important. “The grass is greenest when you water it,” Sulaica says. Once you have earned the relationship with the child, you must make the time to spend with the child and talk about things going on in the family if you want the relationship to continue to grow, she adds.
Avoid creating competition with the other parent. It’s true, you aren’t their parent and that might come up at some point. Sulaica offers this as one of her step parenting tips: Get that conversation out of the way early by explaining that you care about them, but are not trying to take the place of their mom or dad. She also adds that a stepparent should avoid speaking ill of the other parent, especially in front of older kids.
“They’ve got alliances with both parents and that can get messy,” she says. “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
Keep meeting the other parent low stress. Avoid inviting your stepson’s mom or dad over to the house. Instead, invite them out for a fun family activity on neutral ground. It prevents the awkward interactions and keeps it low pressure for the parent.
“(This way), it’s not all about meeting the other person, it’s about doing something together,” Sulaica explains. “A side-effect of the activity is that you get to connect with one another.”
Work as a team when it comes to discipline. Should step parents discipline a child? That’s a common question and concern. Even if you’re taking on a type of parenting role, they shouldn’t be providing the primary discipline. That should come from mom and dad and the step parent should follow suit, Sulaica explains. If you are at the point in the relationship when the child approaches you with sensitive information, it’s important to thank them for coming to you, but explain you must tell mom and dad because you are part of their team.
If you can’t get along with the other parent, keep if short. It’s the final piece of step parenting advice. If you have tried everything, but still can’t get along with the other parent, don’t force it. Keep time with that parent short and sweet. “Try to mend as much as possible, but if you can’t have any positive interaction, and that totally happens, you really need to minimize interactions,” Sulaica says.
Photo courtesy Disney