Cultivating deep and affectionate relationships with stepchildren is tough. The term "blended family" makes it sound as if we can drop two family cultures into a blender and produce a new family as easily and enjoyably as we'd make a milkshake. But the reality of blending families takes time and persistence, pushing past assumptions and expectations, persevering through fears and challenges, developing into a grace-filled community that can be a blessing to others.
Pain that is ignored and never acknowledged does not get the opportunity to heal. A listening ear helps carry the burden by acknowledging the hurts. It is helpful to allow children to express the pain they experience. A new relationship may mean joy for the new parent, but for a child it may be the end of the dream of parents reconciling and getting back together. Or, if a parent has died, a remarriage can feel like a betrayal of the deceased parent. Most often, the child has unformed fears about losing attention from the remaining parent. Honor the feelings by acknowledging the hurt and listening to the pain. Name and discuss fears clearly and openly. Everyone values someone who will listen well to their struggles.
Relationships can't be forced; they need time to develop. Relationships develop as we discover that we can count on each other through challenges over time. We live in a culture which provides immediate satisfaction of our wants. Too often we carry those unrealistic expectations into relationships. When remarriage happens we envision one happy family, but families are a web of relationships. All families are complicated, and a blended family is both established out of past losses and lacking a long history of established trust. Be intentional about growing relationships so your time is well-spent. Allow time for acceptance and friendship to develop.
It is only human to compare our relationships to others around us, but it is not healthy. Don't compare a stepchild relationship with his or her connection to biological parents. It's not the same, it's not a replacement, and a new relationship will have to grow it's own history and depth. Jealousy will not help in creating a healthy relationship with a stepchild. Badmouthing a parent they love will only build barriers. Anytime you interfere with an established relationship, it undermines your credibility for establishing a relationship yourself. It is difficult to feel outside of the closeness that you see experienced with other relationships, but know that this can develop for you too in time if you are patient.
God gives us the wisdom that we seek and all we have to do is ask. James 1:5 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” Let God guide the cultivation of your relationship. It is God’s delight that his children live together in unison and he will give the strength to persevere through challenges.
Children love their biological parent even when that parent is broken and hurts them. Don’t try to assert yourself into the role of replacement parent as that will only cause resentment. Be yourself and allow your relationship with stepchildren to evolve into its own unique connection. Follow your own passions and find ways of bridging your relationship without stepping in with the expectation of a close friendship. Blended families are busy, seize the moments you get to have fun together.
Discipline is best received in the context of relationship, so it is best for the biological parent to take the lead. Set boundaries as a couple and keep a united front, but let the parent who has the long term relationship enforce the limits. Not only does the biological parent have the history to sustain confrontation, their lead protects the stepparent from being painted as the interloping bad guy, just as they are beginning a relationship. A complication here is often biological parent laxity. Sometimes a parent feels guilty for the pain the children have been through, and so are reluctant to enforce discipline at all. As an outsider, sometimes the stepparent sees a need for greater discipline, and is tempted to "get things on track" and enforce it alone. Again, it is very important that you as a married couple discuss and agree on boundaries in your home together, even if the biological parent takes the lead in enforcement. Disciplining children is as much about a couple working together as it is about redirecting a child's behavior.
Demonstrating love is the best way to cultivate a relationship. Showing love even when children are defiant is a visual demonstration of God’s unconditional love. It will speak volumes about our character if we refuse to respond to anger with anger. It will not be easy to show love when you are not feeling it reciprocated, but don’t let that dampen your compassion. Recognize that God loved you too in your defiance and choose to model his sacrificial love for others. Don’t hesitate to mail a kind note or send an encouraging text. Love will ultimately triumph.
Blended families are extra busy as they maintain relationships from previous families on top of already busy family life. It can feel like you have little time for cultivating a relationship or you may feel like your stepchild does not need your relationship as they have enough parents vying for their time. Remember that God has a role for you to play in every relationship in which he places you. Take advantage of the time you do get together instead of grieving over how brief it is. Have fun making dinner together or grab a milkshake to hear about their day. Don’t miss out on the moments you get with one another.
Relationships cannot be blended instantly, but they can over time develop into a rich blessing. You can require courtesy and respect, but friendships cannot be forced. Relationships develop as you care for each other and support each other through life’s challenges. Choose to love with God’s sacrificial love and watch to see the blessings that develop.
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra