It can be so painful, and so disconcerting, when your stepson or stepdaughter starts being mean to you. It’s especially hard when things were going well, and you thought things were good. It’s tough not to react negatively – but you know if you do, things will start spiraling downward. Then not only will that relationship will be affected, but your relationship with your husband as well. Get a little space for yourself, and consider some of these possibilities that might help you get to the bottom of their mean behavior:
• Has there been a recent change in the family? If you’ve just moved in together, or gotten married recently (or if there’s a change on the other side of the family, with the ex), then you need to give your stepchild a little slack, and allow some time for them to adjust. We often expect too much of kids, thinking that if the change in life is good (by our standards, anyway) that they should “jump aboard”. They might even be testing you, to see how you react when their behavior is not perfect.
• Has he or she entered a new phase of life? Adolescents and teens are going through major internal adjustments and emotional upheaval. Don’t take personally what may simply be a reflection of their internal state of mind. Many a parent of a teenager has been taken aback when a monster seems to take over their little darling’s body. If you’re in the unfortunate position of just getting close to the child who is going through this difficult phase of life, strap on your seatbelt for what could be a long ride!
• Consider whether you’ve been asking too many questions, especially prying about what happens in the “other household”, or expecting your stepson or stepdaughter to share their innermost feelings with you. Realize that they may be highly sensitive to the slightest intimation of judgment against their other parent. Give him or her some space, and focus instead on listening to whatever is shared freely (even the smallest things).
• Any child who has gone through parents’ divorce has much to process regarding the breakup of their primary family. It ranks as one of the defining events of their lives, and it’s too much to expect that they can articulate what’s going on with them about it, or that they will be willing to share with you. And if there is conflict among their parents/stepparents, then you can assume that there’s a lot of turmoil inside them, which may very well come out in mean comments towards you, as the “disposable” parent.
• Take a look at the relationship between your stepchild and your spouse. It’s possible that your stepchild is not getting the closeness or attention that they feel they need, and you get to be the scapegoat. Rather than trying to be there all the time, you might find that your relationship with your stepchild (and your spouse!) is improved by giving the two of them some space to have their own time together. Then when you come back into the scene, you’re not seen as “in the way”. No matter how long you’re in the family picture, the parent/child relationship needs to be nurtured on its own as well.
• Be as friendly as you can, without being overbearing (maybe you’re falling into the trap that many stepparents do, trying to be the super stepparent). Prepare yourself emotionally before you see them, so that you can be relaxed and friendly, rather than being controlling or expecting of closeness. If they were mean to you last time, you may draw a clear line about expecting respectful behavior, but then let go of any grudges!
• Try encouragement. Write down at least one positive thing every day this week about your stepson or stepdaughter, and let them know what you appreciate about them – name the virtue or characteristic you appreciate, and describe the behavior you’ve seen. Notice the small positive interactions, and build on those.
You’ll have to connect with your stepchild on his or her terms, until enough trust is developed. It takes patience – the process of building a successful stepfamily takes a long time – years, in fact. And it takes maturity on your part. You’ll need to learn that fine balance between “holding the line” so that your stepchild doesn’t get away with rude behavior, and “letting it go” while you build a positive connection. Remember that they are watching to see if you will really be there for them and accept them for who they are, while at the same time requiring the respect that they want for themselves.