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7 Ways to Have a Healthy Relationship with Stepchildren

Few literary characters elicit more fear and loathing than the wicked stepmother or the cruel stepfather. Stepchildren are no picnic either, judging from the stories we tell ourselves. So if you’ve embarked on a relationship with someone who has children, you may be feeling anxious about what comes next.

Never fear. The truth is, your relationship with your partner’s children will depend on the same qualities that govern all relationships: compassion, communication, patience, and understanding. Throw out the stepfamily stereotypes and start with a clean slate. Here are seven tips to help you succeed:

Be realistic.

While making room in your life for stepchildren is not as scary as books and films make it out to be, it’s also unlikely to be a steady stream of feel-good Hallmark moments. The trick is to ground your expectations in the reality of your family’s unique circumstances. Then you’ll be ready to respond compassionately to what each new day brings.

Give it time.

Remember that kids who are faced with becoming stepkids have suffered a painful and frightening loss — either through divorce or the death of a parent. They need plenty of time and space to grieve and, eventually, to heal. It’s not possible to rush that process; but you can nurture it with a patient willingness to be there for them as they navigate new and turbulent emotions.

Be yourself.

Kids can smell pretense a mile away — and they don’t often reward someone they feel is trying too hard to impress them. Your job is to invite them to get to know the real you, not a version you think they might need or want.

Let your partner handle discipline.

Behind closed doors, you and your partner can agree upon family rules and standards, but in the early days of integration it’s best to let him or her be the face of enforcement.

Never criticize the child’s absent parent.

After a painful divorce, your new stepchildren will certainly struggle with divided loyalties. Avoid giving them extra reason to resent you — by guarding what you say about the other parent. Balance your desire to offer your partner verbal support against the danger of appearing hostile to someone the kids love.

Treat the kids like family, not guests.

Chances are, your stepkids are splitting time between your household and the other parent’s. A common parenting pitfall is trying to make their days and weeks with you “special.” That creates unrealistic expectations in the kids and is hard to sustain as time goes on. What they need most is routine roles and responsibilities within which they can feel secure.

Get lost from time to time.

One thing your stepkids crave— especially in the beginning — is time alone with your partner. They’re more likely to let down their guard in such moments, to share their real feelings, and to receive comforting reassurances. Resist the temptation to take it personally when it becomes clear you should clear out for a while.