The relationship between step-parent and stepchild is a unique and often tricky one, though one that can also prove rich and rewarding. And it is more common than most people realize. In 2014, for example, the U.K.’s Daily Mail newspaper reported that nearly one in three British families now include a child from a previous relationship.
A Good Start
First impressions can make a big difference, so be careful how you handle the initial meeting. In general, it is best to keep it relaxed and casual. Many people, protective of their children, will keep a new partner away until things become serious. Unfortunately, this can make that first meeting pressured and intense. It may also lead to an excess of effort from the adult. And, as most people know from experience, the harder you try with a new acquaintance, the more likely you are to make a fool of yourself.
If your new partner’s children are young, it may be best to arrange things so that you appear to bump into your partner somewhere – maybe a local park or cafe. Just try not to make it too obvious. No one likes to be manipulated, and children should never be underestimated. Still, it’s best to ease into their life slowly and gracefully.
Getting to Know Them
When you do meet them for the first time, do not try too hard. No matter what the circumstances, most people find an eagerness to please annoying and pathetic. Instead, be open and friendly. And never make them feel like an irritation. Older children may assume you view them as an obstacle, and they will look for signs of this when you first meet. Instead, be pleased to meet them and curious to know more. But do not ask too many silly questions, especially not personal ones. This will seem unbearably intrusive, especially if they are teenagers. Think back to when you were a spotty, self-conscious teen! Now imagine a complete stranger, about to take the place of your mother or father, asking you about boyfriends and exam results.
Talk about their passions and hobbies instead. Let’s say your new girlfriend’s son is a fan of the band Radiohead. Listen to some of their music and read some articles and interviews. If you really don’t like them or their music, then don’t fake it (teenagers are masters at spotting fake enthusiasm), but if you do like them, drop it into the conversation.
Again, don’t try to manipulate the child. Be honest. Say something like, “your mum was telling me you like Radiohead…I was listening to some of their stuff just last week. I kind of like them…not so keen on the latest album though – I preferred their earlier stuff. What about you?” Keep things friendly, but casual and relaxed. Don’t sit bolt upright, staring into the child’s eyes like this is some kind of interrogation! Talk to them as you would an interesting new friend at work. Remember, teenagers hate being patronized.
Giving the Child Space and Time
Older children, especially those whose parents have only just separated, may secretly hope that they will reunite. If they do, you will inevitably be seen as the enemy. Others may reject you out of a sense of loyalty. This is especially common when a parent has died. Then there is simple jealousy. You don’t need to have read Freud to know that boys resent their mother loving another man, or that girls see their father’s lover as a rival.
Even children who are open to the idea of a step-parent may still need time and space. Resist the urge to make them like you or, even worse, to suggest that if they’ve got a problem then that’s too bad. Those who do not themselves have children often underestimate their maturity and intelligence. Obviously, you must take each child as you find them, and it needs to be stressed that children differ in character and personality just as much as adults. But many will be won over if you treat them with respect.
Allow them to see your vulnerability and fear as well. Again, only you know the child involved, but it may help to let them see you as flawed and vulnerable. Be honest. If you sense that it may go well, try opening up a bit and explaining how lonely and unhappy you were before you met their mother or father. Suddenly, you will cease to be the inscrutable enemy and will become a real, flesh and blood human being.
But you must never force the relationship. Some people will blunder into a child’s life, declaring from the start “I hope we can be really close friends.” The child will (quite rightly) find this both arrogant and presumptive and will be thinking “I don’t even know you!” Allow the relationship to evolve naturally. Don’t tell the child how the two of you are going to get along. And don’t say things like “I will be here for you” or, worst of all, “maybe we can grow to love one another.”
Hobbies and Interests
As with any relationship, shared hobbies and interests are a great way to bond. Again, be careful. Do not try to force your way into the child’s world. For example, turning up at their football game or ballet class may not be appreciated, especially not if their mother or father used to do so. Obviously, every child is different, and their reaction will depend on the relationship you have with them. But even if they do accept you taking an interest, you are still joining in with their old life, with something they did before you even arrived. And taking them along to your bowling club is no better – this time they are entering your old life.
Instead, try something new together, something neither you nor your stepchild have ever tried before. And be honest with them about this. Remember, adolescents love to be treated as equals. If the two of you take up Karate or Spanish together, tell them you feel nervous, or that you fear making an idiot of yourself, and let them reassure or support you. Ideally, find something only the two of you share, something not even their mother or father or friends have ever done with them. It doesn’t matter what it is – a love of trashy martial arts movies, for example. Whatever it may be, make it fun.
Different Sorts of Relationships
There is no such thing as a typical relationship with a stepchild. You may get lucky and find you just click, or you may end up gritting your teeth and yearning for the day they leave. Some children are astonishingly mature, sensitive and thoughtful, more so than many adults. Others can be monsters, and you may even find that, no matter what you do, life under the same roof is intolerable. Never ask your partner to choose. No responsible parent, however angry or devastated they may be, is going to choose you over their sulky 12-year-old daughter!
Like all relationships, the one between step-parent and stepchild evolves and changes. It may begin well and then deteriorate when they reach puberty. Or it may begin in tears and arguments only to morph into something wonderful. Above all, do not try to be their new mum or dad. This is a different kind of relationship to that between biological parent and child. It isn’t a question of inferiority, simply of difference. There are even advantages. Just as children often have a happier and less troubled relationship with a grandparent than a parent, so they may grow to like a step-parent more than a real parent. Indeed, it is not unknown for a child to decide to live with a step-parent following a separation! Lastly, and perhaps most important of all, treat the child with respect.