Bonding With Your Stepkids

22 06 2010

Once upon a time there was a guy who had kids with somebody else. Maybe you did, too. And now that you’ve met and fallen in love, you’ve got to figure out how you’re going to relate to his kids. But what if you’re not a kid person? What if you love kids but his are hostile and cold? How do you set about getting to know your stepchildren in a way that fosters positive feelings between you and the kids. Here are a few tips to help you get to know your stepchildren better than you do now.

Find Common Ground. Investigate your stepchild’s likes and dislikes and see if there is anything you both like to do. My stepkids and I love to read so we will sit in companionable silence reading on the couch. Then we discuss the books we’re reading. When I finished a young adult novel I was working on, I asked if they would be editors for me. I treasure the notes they wrote me with their comments about the book. And they still make comments about how they liked to help me.

Interview Your Stepkids. I interview people as part of my job. When I was first getting to know my stepchildren, I asked them a lot of questions. And every time they shared something with me, I made sure to reciprocate by telling them something about me. Be curious. Find out what makes them tick. Learn about what kind of human beings they are.

Back Off. When you’re new to a stepfamily situation, it is crucial that you do not come on too strong with trying to get the kids to do what you want. As a stepparent, the more you back off and let your relationship grow, the more successful you’re going to be.  Your job is to sit back and observe for a while until you can figure out your place in the family.  make it your goal to get to know the kids, to have fun with them. Let dad tell them to put their stuff away or pick up their rooms.

Spend Time Together. Spend time together one-on-one so you can build your relationship away from dad. The dynamics that happen when a family is all together shift significantly when people head off in twos. When my stepdaughters are together, for instance, it’s hard to get a word in edgewise. But if I get them each alone, on a trip to the grocery store or a walk around the block with the dog, then suddenly I can have a real conversation.

Clearly Set Your Boundaries. Sometimes stepchildren feel more comfortable talking to their stepparents about sensitive topics than they do their parents. Occasionally a kid will test out a hot topic with a stepparent before they spring it on a parent. You and your spouse need to have a conversation about what things you will keep a secret for your stepchild when they ask, and what things you will not. And you need to be clear with both your stepchildren and your spouse about your feelings so no one is ever surprised.

Be Yourself. The best thing I ever did as a stepmother was have a bad day in front of my stepkids. I got the opportunity to say, “Hey guys, I’m having a crappy day, but it’s nothing you did. We all have bad days, don’t we? So I need a little space today. I’ll feel better tomorrow.” Suddenly, I became more human to them in a way that they didn’t take personally. And I got to feel like I didn’t have to be on stage all the time in my own home. Be yourself. It’s the best gift you can give your stepchildren.

Acknowledge Your Feelings. How do you build a successful stepfamily when feelings of resentment are building in your heart? Admit to yourself that you’re having a tough time. Go cry in the shower if you need to. Scream at the top of your lungs and beat on a pillow if no one is home to get some of the frustration out. Then promise to yourself that you will take one action every day to make yourself feel better. Something that will make you feel like you’re making progress.

Say ‘I Do’ To The Kids. Say “Yes” to what your stepchildren have to teach you about yourself, about your partner, and about the world.  Even when stepparenting is not the most fun job in the world, it can still teach you something. You can get something good out of it. I encourage you, as Pollyannaish as this sounds, to commit to getting something good. Say Yes. Say I Do. Say I will.

Give Experiential Gifts. This might be more difficult of your stepchild is at the age at which they want nothing to do with any adults in their family, but giving experiential gifts is a great way to bond.


Exercise: Play Time

Make a list of fifty activities you can do with your stepkids for one-on-one time. The list should include things that cater to the personalities of both you and your stepchild. Your next assignment is to do one of the activities with a stepchild. Do it this week if you can. Or schedule it on the calendar if you have to go into next week. Examples: Plant a tree together. Go for a picnic. Go out for food your stepchild has never tried before. Head to a gallery to see work by local artists. See a play.

Stepmothers: The Myths, The Reality

28 10 2008

Better a serpent than a stepmother!” Euripides was a Greek dramatist who wrote that between 480 and 406 B.C.E. Ouch.
There is a cultural assumption that comes from literally thousands of years of stories and movies that stepmothers are bad, evil women who want nothing but sex and money from men. And they will do everything in their power to get rid of their new husband’s children. When that is the image we’re up against, it’s no wonder feeling positive is difficult!
But you don’t have to be a victim to the assumptions about stepmothers. You get to choose to make your own story. Here’s an exercise to try. Write down all of the negative words you associate with stepmothers. Make a list of the bad things you’ve heard about stepmoms. And write down some key words that remind you of negative stories you’ve heard about real stepmothers.
When you focus the power of your attention and intention on something, it gets done. When you decide to act, you do. For instance, you chose to get married. Maybe you worked hard to get your degree. Maybe you wanted out of a job and you set your intention on getting a new one. And you did.
I want you to set an intention right now. I want you to decide right this minute that you will not listen to, speak of, or believe any unflattering stories about stepmothers. Does this mean there are no stepmothers who screw up? Absolutely not. Does this mean there no women out there who harm their stepchildren with harsh words and deeds? Of course not. But we are here together, to help you become a stepmother who is at peace, who has a positive influence in the lives of your stepchildren. I, for one, am going to assume that you are not evil. You are not wicked. You are a woman in a challenging situation who is as human as the rest of the people in your family.
So for now, I want you to work on clearing out those negative associations. I want you to practice cleaning up your vocabulary. I want you to banish self-defeating thoughts and beliefs. That piece of paper you wrote on? I want you to burn it up, rip it up, destroy it in some way. Get rid of it, physically and while you’re doing that, see it as a symbolic gesture. See it as the intention to guard your heart and mind from negativity. Do it now.
I hope that felt good! Now that you’ve cleared some space for positive things, let’s come up with some positive stories about stepmothers. Do you know anyone who developed a close relationship with their stepmother? I do. Sometimes it takes years for stepmothers and stepchildren to develop close bonds, but it happens all the time.
One grown stepdaughter I spoke with told me that when she was growing up her stepmother was a very serious woman who had never wanted kids. She wasn’t a very maternal woman and in fact, never did have any children of her own. As a child, all this girl wanted was warmth from her stepmother, but instead, she received lessons. And for years, this girl kept her distance, had a cool relationship with her stepmother.
But then in her early twenties, her stepmother’s father died. Here’s what this grown stepdaughter had to say: “My stepmom and I have really started to improve our relationship since her dad died and I think she’s starting to realize that she really is my parent, whether or not she ever intended to be.” Though it took this stepmother-stepdaughter pair many years to find a positive relationship, they did create one.
Lynn is a stepmom of three who remembers her stepson’s asthma attack. She rushed across town to be with him and on the way she realized just how much she truly loved him. When she arrived he said to her, “They called you and all of a sudden you were there.” That event became a defining moment of their relationship and one Lynn remembers often “When I got to him so quickly, it impacted him. He really felt like he meant something to me. I will always cherish that memory.”
And then there’s Abraham Lincoln! After his mother died when he was young, Lincoln’s father married Sarah, a woman with three children so Lincoln and his sister lived in a blended family. Lincoln’s relationship with his stepmother blossomed after she gave him three books. There are many accounts of how Lincoln cherished his stepmother and was in fact closer to her than he was to his father.
So now, take a moment to write down any upbeat stories you know about stepmothers. Then write down a list of positive words that you would like to use to describe you as a stepmother. I’ll help you get started. Here are some of the words on my list: at peace, calm, positive influence, friend, trusted, smiling, honest connections. Now it’s your turn!