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How to Connect With a Stepchild of Any Age

The stepparent/stepchild relationship can take time to build. Here are tips to get things off on the right foot


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Jon Krause

Are you about to marry someone who has children? Dating a divorced, single or separated parent? Are you recently married and have combined families to start your own Brady Bunch situation?

Or maybe you're just looking to make Thanksgiving with your new partner’s grown kids less awkward.

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As the years go by, stepfamilies are becoming increasingly more common. Research published in the Journals of Gerontology Series B says that roughly 40 percent of middle-aged and older couples with children are in stepfamilies, meaning they have kids from previous relationships. Blending families isn’t always as smooth as Mike and Carol Brady made it appear — whether kids are suffering from teen angst or grown with their own families.

A tense stepparent/stepchild relationship is common, says Maria Natapov, a stepparent coach with Synergistic Stepparenting. “And oftentimes, it becomes a major point of contention in the romantic relationship,” she says.

Lacking an initial bond with your stepchild, however, doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed. Here are some expert-backed tips on ways to find common ground.

Go slow

You might be eager to form a bond with your new stepchild, but coming on too fast and too strong is not going to do you any favors. “I know it sounds so obvious, but truly, it takes time to build the relationship. It takes time for the child to come around,” Natapov says. Baby steps are key, and it’s best to let the relationship naturally evolve. This, Natapov says, will help the child adapt to having a new parental figure in the home.

A good place to start is to let the stepchild take the reins. “Give your stepchild the space they need, and focus on gradually building positive relationships with them. Let go of control. You do not want them to feel pressured, so allow the child to lead and set the pacing,” says Aurisha Smolarski, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles and author of Cooperative Co-Parenting for Secure Kids: The Attachment Theory Guide to Raising Kids in Two Homes.

Don’t badmouth their biological parent

Your stepchild’s parents may be separated, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have to co-parent. After exchanging emails or phone calls with an ex-partner about the child, your spouse may be tempted to vent. And you may have some frustrations yourself when dealing with this ex. But don’t badmouth a child’s parent to that child; it’s never productive.

“They are half of their biological parents, and instead of bringing them closer to that person, it pushes them away because internally, they start to feel that they need to defend that other parent, because they have a huge close bond with them,” Natapov says.

Bonus points if you can be “a supporter, not a divider,” Smolarski says. “When a child can feel that their stepparent is not creating division or conflict between their biological parents or in the co-parenting system, it will decrease stress, allowing them to feel more at ease, which will help create trust,” she explains.

Make a parenting plan with your spouse

If you become a stepparent, you may be confused about what your role is — especially for kids who need rules and boundaries. Will you share discipline and childcare decisions? What are the boundaries for older kids living at home while they save up/look for a job, or if they have their own families, are they allowed to drop the grandkids off at a moment’s notice? A couple should work out these kinds of things when the relationship is starting to get serious and ideally before the new partner meets the kids, Natapov says. She suggests sitting down with your partner and talking about how they envision your role in parenting their child, to come up with a plan together. You should do some soul searching to see what you feel comfortable with, she says, and communicate that to your partner. Then, do your best to stick with that. It’s natural that your relationship dynamic may change, and you can periodically reevaluate this with your spouse. But setting these parameters can help you to not over- or understep.

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It’s important that you don’t come across as trying to take the place of the biological parent. “Make it clear from the beginning: ‘I am not your mom or your dad. You have those. I only hope to be another adult in your life that you can count on,’ ” says Nancy Landrum, a relationship coach at MillionaireMarriageClub.com and author of Stepping TwoGether: Building a Strong Stepfamily.

Don’t try to buy their affection

Tickets to amusement parks, junk food and expensive gifts may be well received by stepkids, but these things aren’t going to strengthen your relationship.

“You can’t buy their affection,” Natapov says. “That’s not going to be genuine. It’s not an authentic connection.” 

She says children will say yes to these gestures because who wouldn’t want to be pulled out of school to go to a water park for the day or to be treated to lavish shopping trips on their stepparent’s watch? But they will see through this, and it won’t make the relationship thrive, Natapov stresses.

Seek common ground

Do you notice that your stepchild is into a particular hobby? Is there a common interest you share? Finding something fun to do together can be a win.

“What is it that they enjoy?” Natapov says. “What do they like to talk about? Or what do they like to do?” She shares that one of her clients noticed that his stepchild was into a game that was the premise of a movie, so she suggested he take his stepchild to see the movie at a theater. Even if you don’t have a common interest, try to show that it matters to you what the child likes. Ask them about a band they listen to. See if you can get them talking about one of their hobbies or passions.

Find the positives

Although there can be a lot of frustrating parts in trying to create a bond, it’s important to appreciate or praise anything positive you see in your stepchild, Landrum says.

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She suggests showing appreciation when they help clear the table, or letting the child know “I notice how patient you are with your brother” or “I see how hard you are training for the track event. I admire your will to do your best.” Focusing on what’s going well with the stepchild will help them feel you care, and it will go a lot further than pointing out what’s not going well.

Refrain from any type of action or statement that can make your stepchild feel like they are to blame if there is a lack of bonding, Smolarski says: “If you make it all about your expectations or if you fault your stepchild, this will push them even further away.”

Be a good listener

“If you only develop one skill, I hope it is the skill of listening without advice,” says Landrum says. If you do have advice for your stepchild, ask for permission to give it, she advises. If they say, “No thanks,” respect their answer.

Practice active listening, she says, which includes repeating back what you see or hear. Attempt conversation as an invitation and not a demand. “For instance, a child walks in from school looking upset. You say, ‘You look upset. Do you want to talk about it?’ If they say no, then kindly say, ‘I’m happy to listen if you want to talk about it later,’ ” Landrum explains.

Ask for help

If you’ve tried to forge a connection and it doesn’t seem to be working, seek the help of a professional. Find a stepparent coach in your area, or get in touch with a licensed marriage and family therapist who can outfit you with tips on things you can do to improve your relationship with your stepchild. There are also online courses you can take and books you can read on the topic.

Even if you think things are going well, Natapov says it can be a good idea to identify potential resources and have them in your back pocket to call upon if needed: “Life is unpredictable. Sometimes challenging things happen, and suddenly you go from the frying pan into the fire. So I always suggest that while things are great and you don’t need any support, identify your resources.” The last thing you want to do when things get tough, she says, is to spend energy hunting for help. “So I strongly urge everybody to just identify who are your people? And even if you don’t need them, great, then you never need them. No problem. But if you do, you already know who to contact.”

Don’t take it personal

Accepting that a parent has moved on and is welcoming a stepparent can be difficult for a stepchild of any age. It’s not about you, Natapov says; the child is “just in pain.”

If you’re feeling down about the child not instantly taking to you, try your best to remember what they’re dealing with and know that it naturally will take a while for them to recover.

“It’s not that they don’t like you; they’re dealing with a lot,” Natapov says. “It’s not personal. They’re just really trying to process a lot of painful emotions all at once and a lot of change and are trying to adjust.” She adds that younger children often lack the skills to identify these emotions and challenges, much less talk about them. Those things, she says, come with time.

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