Getting to know your step children

As a step-parent, you may be conscious that you want, and need, to get to know your step children, in order to build a relationship with them and to create a positive family dynamic. You will increase the chances of achieving this by acknowledging and accommodating the fact that each child is completely individual and approach getting to know them with this in mind 

Firstly, try and really understand/appreciate what your step children have been through, and where they are in terms of dealing with the changes in their lives. If they have experienced the breakdown of their parents’ relationship, then it can affect them in the same way that grief of a bereavement would affect someone – indeed they are grieving for the loss of the life they knew, and are likely to still be nursing emotional wounds. Having some appreciation of this may help you understand some of their behaviours or any potential difficulties in adjusting to their new life as part of your step family.

Part of getting to know your children, is also understanding how you can best support them to get to know you. Recognise the pace that the children need you to go at, as building trust can only be done by their timescales, not yours. Every child is different, some may be more relaxed and open, while others may be more shy or introverted – if you watch their signals, they will show you, at what pace and how, they are comfortable getting to know you. 

Stability and consistency

Be aware that your step children may feel like their lives have been subject to a lot of change and turbulence which they have not had any control over. This means in order to now be able to build a relationship with them, you need to provide the opposite of this – stability and consistency. So if you promise them something, or say you will do something together, make it happen. Nothing will hinder the cultivation of trust, like letting your step children down before you have even really begun.

Remember that all you can do is create possibilities and opportunities to build the relationship and bond with your step child/step children. It will take time, and trying to force it, or make it happen quicker, is only likely to have the converse effect. Children have to genuinely feel it – if they feel they are being manipulated or forced into something, they may actively try to resist it, or even just fake it so that you leave them alone – which is beneficial for no one. Try and be patient. Many experts advocate taking things slowly, and recommend taking all the time which is needed – which could even be as long as two years or more.

Remember that the age of your step children can affect the pace at which they feel comfortable with you, and the pace at which you can get to know them. In general, the younger the child, the easier it will be, but of course this will still vary depending on their individual experiences.

Read more about this here: How your/their children might feel and how to help them adjust

One to one time, or family time?

In reality, there are two key ways to build a relationship with your step children, you can do so as part of family activities and family time together, or you can do so through individual one to one time spent with them.

A good starting point, is getting to know your step child/children through all spending time together as a family. This is a great way to start building a relationship within a low-key and less pressured way. Whether it is chatting to them as you take a family walk together, pushing them on the swings on a family outing at the playground, having a family game of football, popping marshmallows on a stick for them to toast on the campfire on a family camping trip – there are lots of ways to interact with your step child while in a family setting. As you just all spend enjoyable time together, you are building that relationship and getting to know each other.

When the time feels right, the next step is making sure you have one to one time together. At first, keep it simple – maybe you help them out with their homework, or you get them to help you with a simple DIY job in the house or garden, or wash the car together. Have movie afternoon, and ask them to choose their favourite film and watch it with them. Nothing too pressured, just a simple activity where you are together on your own. Use it to gently take the opportunity to find out more about them, ask them what they did today at school.

Then you can take the one to one time a little further, so you also have the opportunity to get to know each other outside of the hustle and bustle of the family home. Maybe a trip bowling, to a football match, the cinema, or maybe you volunteer to help out with something at their school (checking they are happy for you to do this first). It is important, when the time is right, to make sure that you don’t avoid spending this kind of time with them if you really want to get to know them, but it’s also important to make sure that it is something that you both feel comfortable doing.

Remember too, that if you have more than one step child, that you need to try and give them all equal opportunities, so it doesn’t come across as favouritism.

Dinner Table Chats

If you can, make sure that as a family, you all get to sit down together for dinner at least a couple of times during the week, as this is a great opportunity for you all to come together and informally get to know each other, by just talking to each other about your day, or indeed anything topical in the news.  

Make sure that you talk about yourself too – that you don’t just ask questions. Getting to know others also involves being willing to talk about ourselves – it’s an important part of building trust. Also, its only by sharing things about yourself that you will be able to find things in common with your step children – don’t expect them to do all the sharing first!

Really be aware of how you talk to your step children – make sure you listen to what they say,  sometimes they will just want you to listen and empathise, not necessarily to fix something or give your opinion on it.

When the going gets tough, don’t give up!

Everything might seem as it is going well, when suddenly you feel your step child drawing away from you, or becoming less friendly than usual. If something has happened between you, then perhaps you need to address it, but don’t always assume that you will be the cause, even if you do become the punch bag. Sometimes you just have to be there, ready to support them if and when they feel about to talk about what is happening. It is also possible that they do not realise their behaviour, especially if it is not caused by you.

Remember too, that as a child becomes more comfortable with you, they are more able to show how they are feeling, or even act out, rather than feeling pressure to be on ‘best behaviour’. So bizarrely, it can be a complement when your step children feel relaxed enough to really show how they are feeling, by being moody and rude around you!

Remember that your step children may have complicated lives and complicated relationships which they are trying to navigate. There may be things going on which you do not know about – changes or incidents with their other family which they have not mentioned, can be the source of worry or stress which is displayed through their behaviour around you and other members of your family. It won’t be as simple as issues or changes which take place in their other home, stay in their other home. It also is not always as simple as something must be ‘wrong’ – an event in their other family's life which is seen as a positive thing by those resident there, might not be received as such by the child who moves between two homes – sometimes what adults see as an exciting fresh beginning, children experience as a traumatic loss. Keeping the lines of communication open, and learning to listen to what a child doesn’t say as well as what they do, is an important part of getting to know them.

The fact that you are keen to build a relationship and get to know your step child is a great first step. Many step dads do build important relationships with their step children – in fact, there are many instances of the step dad/child relationship lasting, even after the relationship that brought them together originally, sadly ends.

It is important to remember that building this relationship between yourself and a step child is not a quick task. Be prepared to have patience, to be flexible and realistic about what your relationship with them might look like, to be prepared to get to know who they are and accept them for it, and to encounter some bumps in the road. 

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Guest Thursday, 22 August 2019

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