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The surprising solution to your step-parenting problems

By Dr Joanna North 5 min read

Let’s start with that fundamental reality—you are not liked and not accepted. How do you deal with that with grace, kindness and respect for the child?

There are few rules on which we can rely in the arena of step-parenting but one of the clear messages to emerge is that it is not necessary for you to love your stepchild.

If, as a starting point, you can accept, understand and respect the unique character of your stepchild and their different style of relating, you are far more likely to succeed as a step-parent. Our expectations are bound to be thwarted if we approach a stepchild with the view that we are a very important and authoritative person in their life. In fact, this is a stance that may cause some resistance from your stepchildren.

If, on the other hand, you approach the "task" with the view that you need time to understand who they are, and they need time to establish who you are and where they want to put you on their map of people in their mind, you stand far more chance of forming an alliance that is helpful, safe, rich in potential and fun, but most of all enduring. This is preferable to making assumptions about how things are going to be, followed by a clash of cultures and a breakdown in communication.

It is much better to be a respected figure who is seen as safe and unimposing than a passionately loved diva who is banished from the child’s kingdom when they don’t meet expectation. A child really does have the right to choose where they are going to put you in their map of people. If you get to be accepted and liked as even a minor figure, you will have done well. Don’t expect to be loved and adored, and try to understand the reasons for that. You may have to get comfortable with coming second on this one.

Lowering your expectations to solve your step-parenting problems

It is far safer to come from a position of lowered expectation than to crash and burn on the first test flight with stepchildren. We must also remember that if we accept that children have the right to make up their own mind about a person, we really do have to accept their position. It is rather painful if a child, for whatever reason, decides that you are a person without status in their life and that they do not want you there. It is rather tough, but it is possible to live with this. It will not necessarily mean that you deserve that position (in fact, far from it) and that child’s decision may be unfair to you.

However, let’s start with that fundamental reality—you are not liked and not accepted. How do you deal with that with grace, kindness and respect for the child and at the same time maintain your integrity, hold onto your sanity, keep your self-esteem and, most of all, not change the dynamics of the loving relationship in which you have chosen to be?

It is going to be a painful love affair if you spend the rest of your relationship moaning about the stepchild who hates you. It will do nothing for your wellbeing and mental health and nothing for your relationship or your levels of happiness. I know there are a lot of step-parents who will have experienced being put in this position.

How to deal with a stepchild who is difficult

The first thing you need to do is absolutely nothing. Do not react to the child who decides you are not for them, do not get into the role that they might like you to be in—that of the wicked step-parent who is up to no good.

There is only one person who should be trying to mediate this situation and that is your partner, who is presumably the parent of the child.

They too need to accept their child’s position and help them to understand more clearly the new situation with the step-parent and to allay any possible fears or anxieties about "him/her taking over from my mum/dad". But they are the most important person to also offer you support for your place in the heart of their child. The one thing you can expect and organise is understanding and reflection on the problems from the parent of the child who has put you in their child’s life.

One family I worked with had a little girl of seven who pointed out to her stepfather rather quickly, "My mum has always dealt with my discipline and I don’t want any from you."

The stepfather, concerned, became instantly sensitive to the fear that this little girl had about being cared for by a stepfather and he acceded to her request, responding, "Of course . . . I see . . . that is absolutely fine."

That same stepfather did not go into a rage at being dismissed. He simply gracefully accepted the child’s mindset and tried to understand why she should have such a strong reaction. On reflection, he found the child had had a rather difficult relationship with her own father and she therefore had to act quickly to keep herself safe. That same family is now an adult stepfamily, with the child now a young woman who has a very close relationship with her stepfather. He has never taken part in her discipline and has only been allowed to be in the position of a supporter to her mother. In this instance that acceptance and understanding worked very beautifully, but things are not always that easy and it took a lot of patience on the part of the stepfather and quite remarkable communication skills from the child.

In a more extreme case, a stepmother with whom I worked was rejected and summarily dismissed by her 16-year-old stepson, who tried to persuade his father to dump his new bride. It was not as if it was a hurried relationship. The father’s wife had died after a prolonged illness and a year later he met his new partner. Two years later they got married, having taken every possible step to consider the feelings of a teenage boy who had lost his mother.

There were many complicated dynamics in this situation, all of which the father and stepmother attempted to consider and take into consideration through family therapy and support. I am sad to say that there was no change whatsoever in the boy’s attitude. By the time he was 19 he continued to not only reject his stepmother but also to be oppositional and abusive to her. Eventually the father threw him out of the house as he would not tolerate this treatment, which he deemed to be unreasonable. The couple continued to try to reflect on the situation. They did not want the boy, now a young man, to feel rejected, but they felt they should not tolerate unreasonable behaviour.

Obviously this is a very extreme story told to me by a capable and reflective woman who had considered every aspect of conflict in relationships, especially with her professional background in law. You cannot fight with people who are already fighting themselves—it’s possible the boy felt that to accept his stepmother meant rejecting his own deceased mother. But it also took much therapy to help this woman withstand the attacks from her stepson.

In both cases, both step-parents behaved with dignity and respect, and lost nothing by stepping down or stepping away. On the other hand, they were able to consider the child’s mind and attitude. In both cases the step-parents did not react to the children concerned, but quietly accepted their position.

In the latter case this made no difference to the stance of the young person. This is probably to do with his age, difficult personality and the sad circumstances of the loss of his parent, as older children have more to think about when it comes to parental relationships. The stepmother did the only thing she could—step out of harm’s way, take good care of herself and maintain a respectful stance.


Mind Kind by Dr Joanna North is available from Exisle Publishing and wherever good books are sold. RRP $32.99.

Dr Joanna North is a doctor of psychotherapy, a chartered psychologist and scientist with 30 years of experience. She lives in the UK where she works as an expert witness for the Family Court and runs a private clinical practice.