We received and answered a question from a mother with two young children who were having difficulty accepting their step-dad. Although the answer was about a specific situation, we believe that our advice will also be helpful for families in similar situations.
Question: I am a divorced mother with a 4-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter. I am about to become married to a wonderful man. My daughter is fond of Jim, but my son has not warmed up and is even a bit defiant around him. How can I help them accept him as their stepfather?
Answer: Accepting a stepfather involves respecting his authority and guidance. This is the easier part of the task. The more complicated and important part involves growing in this new relationship. Our guidance is based on an understanding of how children use experience to grow emotionally.
How children grow emotionally
Children grow by facing and working through challenges; the challenges presented by divorce and remarriage present opportunities for growth. However, children are only able to grow from challenges if they are in a manageable range — not so easy that children do not have to stretch to meet them, not so hard that they cannot stretch enough. The younger the child, the more parents must help to bring a conflict into this manageable range.
The challenges of a new family
The challenges of a new family are multi-faceted and different for each child. Your children are at different developmental points with different needs, resulting in very particular meanings that a stepfather might have at this point.
For example, if their dad is alive, children may maintain hope that you and he will remarry. In their minds, their stepdad may interfere with that scenario. Jim will occupy much of your attention, perhaps a special issue if there are times that they are at their dad's home longing for you. They may feel disloyal if they are too affectionate with Jim. Also, Jim may parent differently than their dad, perhaps in ways that they prefer, thus adding to these feelings of disloyalty. They may have sibling rivalries for Jim or for you, and other comp licated issues arise if there are step-siblings.
Add to the mix that Jim has his own adjustments to make and the fact that your relationship with their dad will have its difficulties as well. And this is only a partial list.
Address inappropriate behavior
For any child, this situation is not only complex, but highly individualized. This is the reason a generic, one-size-fits-all approach does not exist. But there are various general approaches and attitudes that you can use that can help your children.
First, require your children to behave well and respectfully with Jim. However, restrict your approval or disapproval to their actions rather than their thoughts and feelings. For instance, deal with your son's defiance with the same disapproval and consequences you would use for his actions in any situation. But don't try to talk him out of his feelings. You might say, "You may not like it when Jim tells you to clean up, and it is OK to feel that way, but you still must obey him." We would not recommend saying things such as, "You should love Jim."
Provide support and understanding
Your children will grow emotionally and will develop the strongest relationship with Jim if you help them accept and understand their situation in all its complexity. Some challenges they face may remain unresolved. For example, biological fathers sometimes are jealous of their children's (and former spouse's) relationship with the new parent. If that is the case in your situation, your children's growing love for Jim will affect their father. Ignoring this reality in the hopes that the children don't notice or think about it could negatively affect their relationship with their dad, stepfather and even you. Do not burden them with a heavy discussion about matters that they have not really taken in or are not ready to discuss, however.
You can find your way by remaining available and nonjudgmental. Imagine your daughter telling you that her daddy says that he doesn't like Jim. You could ask how she felt hearing that. Imagine her saying that she worries about Daddy. You might ask the very logical question, "Do you worry that Daddy would be upset if you and Jim had fun together?" If she agreed, you could simply let her know that you understand how hard this would be. You might add that her daddy also wants her to have fun.
It is her father's job to work out his mixed-up feelings; it is her job to feel good with the important people in her life. In this way you provide understanding and encouragement while not trying to cover the situation or artificially resolve it. Your children will have many years ahead during which they will face changes in their environment and in their feelings. If you maintain the distinction between behavior and their inner world, and continually offer an open, affirming and guiding approach to their struggles, in all likelihood, their relationship with Jim will evolve into a meaningful and sustaining one.
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