Entering into any firmly established social dynamic — be it a close-knit bunch of neighbors or a seasoned squad of office mates — brings its own share of hurdles. But entering into a family as the new stepdad and trying to engage with your new stepkids is particularly difficult. The reasons are obvious: here you are, the new guy, trying to establish yourself. You want to be respected but also loved; you want to have fun with your new stepchildren but also set boundaries.
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Building a relationship with your stepchildren takes many qualities. The foremost is patience, as success isn’t measured in calendar pages, but entire calendars. “It takes two years to accept you at all,” says Dr. Jeff Bostic, psychiatrist at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. That’s because your goal is to fit into their world, not the other way around. “To do that, you need to watch and listen,” he says. “Regardless of your intent, you can’t accelerate the process.” Here, however, are some tips that can ease the transition.
Act like you’re 25 and dating
Back then, you went to plays and book readings. Why? Because she liked those things. Even though you have definitive tastes, go to the movie or concert that your partner wants. It’s sweet and kind, but it also lets everyone know you’re not interested in changing anyone, and kids fear that mom will dive into this new life and take on an unrecognizable form, says Dr. Carl Hindy, clinical psychologist and author of If This Is Love, Why Do I Feel So Insecure? They want to see that you’re an unselfish guy, who cares about their parent, and by extension, and about them.
Respect alone time
Kids hold out hope that their divorced parents will get back together. Your presence is proof that it’s not happening. And along with the worry about losing their mother, they worry that there will be a dismissal of their previous life, of what produced them. The kids need time just with their parent to feel that’s not the case. You being unthreatened by the closeness gives the kids space to accept what’s new, says Dr. Dana Dorfman, psychotherapist in New York City.
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Be a Non-Change Agent
With a remarriage, kids primarily worry about themselves. Will they go to the same school? Be able to see their friends? Stay on the basketball team? Your job as a stepdad is to be a positive addition to their lives. If you’re good at math, help them with math. If the stepkids need a ride to see their friends or to get to basketball practice, grab your keys because there’s no clearer way to support the status quo, Hindy says. The car is also a chance to have your own alone time with them. Make sure it’s a trip they want —your errands or a town dump-run don’t count. When you’re in such situations: Ask benign questions and expect silence and disinterest. Just smile, drive, don’t turn up the radio, and be patient. It’ll take five times at minimum for them to recognize your commitment, and then they may look up from their devices and engage. “If you put two people in a space together, eventually they’ll connect,” Bostic says.
Know when to stay quiet
Kids might have little interest in talking, and then without warning, they share. They could be feeling more comfortable and/or they could be testing you. Either way, don’t report everything to your partner. There’s no formula, but a decent guideline is if there’s a chance she could find out from someone else, or it involves police or school officials, she needs to know. “Mom cannot look dumb, or your life will be miserable,” Bostic says. If you decide that you can’t stay silent, ask, “How do we tell Mom about the car?” You may temporarily no longer be a confidant, but you’re now co-conspirators and you can play the equally valuable role of buffer.
Enhance the ritual
As a stepfather, you’ll be walking into established traditions. Say the family does Taco Tuesdays. If salsa isn’t strongly tied to a family recipe, or with their father, bring in three new kinds and have a taste test. It’s a small, fun, non-competitive experiment, with the clear message that if something isn’t liked, it’s not coming back. It’s a way of finding your place and building some new history and reference points, without pushing anyone out. “It morphs the ritual without too much change or threatening them,” Bostic says.
Be okay with “No”
Resist the urge to make your favorite meal or plan some activity. They’re well-intended, and they might work at some point, but not in the beginning. The stepkids have allegiance to their parents, and accepting anything from you, even if it sounds good, can feel like the ultimate betrayal, Dorfman says. Find out what they like and ask if they’d like to do it. Expect rejection – it’s symbolic – while letting them know that you’re always available. Then make the offer again and again and again. They need to see you’re not in any rush, and they need time to devise their own definition of what a relationship with you looks like and how it can feel comfortable.
This isn’t something to do so much as to remember. While the situation may be rough and tense at the beginning, stay away from labels like, “Bad Relationship”. It’s too extreme, Dorfman says. You just have remain consistently well-intended, because it’s a long-haul proposition. You also have to keep talking with your partner. You can have a plan or a message, but prepare to constantly revise, because, whether they’re biological or step, children change all the time. Their feelings do as well for any number of reasons, many of which can’t be predicted. “Flexibility is the arc of success,” Bostic says.