How Do I Bond With My Stepchildren?
As a stepmom
have you ever wanted to develop closer, more connected relationships with your partner’s kids, but you don’t know how to react when they tantrum or push boundaries, so you just end up keeping your distance?
If so, you’re not alone.
In fact, one of my clients (left anonymous out of respect for her stepchild) is a high-achieving, well-educated, brilliant woman who’s seen a lot of success in her life. She’s got a pretty solid track record when it comes to showing grit and tenacity in the face of hardship. Let’s just say that she’s not someone who typically backs down from a challenge.
But when it came to her stepchild who often acted out, melted down, and defied authority, she eventually found herself going to great lengths in order to avoid spending too much time with them. Any time she’d offer a suggestion to her partner about how to handle those intense moments, her partner would get defensive and they’d argue. Any time she’d try to step in and parent, she’d be met with fierce resistance. Despite her best intentions to become respected as a parent figure, she quickly realized that life as a stepmom was turning out to be nothing like she imagined. And she had no idea what to do.
As time drew on
she held onto hope that the wrinkles in their relationship would smooth themselves over and that her parenting role would take its own shape once enough days had passed. After all, “give it more time” is one of those pervasive pieces of (bad) advice lent to stepmoms who can’t, for many reasons, connect with their partner’s kids.
Unfortunately, the associated stress, anxiety, and awkwardness of their interactions just kept growing and growing, causing her to spend more and more time out of the house during visitation weeks so she wouldn’t be faced with the discomfort of her glaring reality: she had no idea how to be a stepmom in a way that felt connected or genuine, especially during and after instances where her stepchild would act out. The more time she gave it, the more disconnected she became. Even if there were no tantrums she was always on edge, waiting for something to trigger a meltdown. And as if that wasn’t hard enough, she started noticing the distance growing between her and her spouse. How couldn’t it have? She was spending so much time at work and at friends’ houses that she and her partner hardly saw each other.
All of this is to say that even for someone who didn’t make a habit of avoiding life’s challenges, when it came to the relationship with her partner’s child, she made an exception. The guilt and shame she experienced because of their (lack of) relationship hung over her like a thick, dark cloud. She wanted to want to be around them, to help raise them, to feel a deep parental love for them.
Expectation vs. Reality
The problem with the bonding process between stepmom and stepchild is that a lot of the time, it’s your idea about how your relationship is supposed to look that actually prevents the genuine connection from taking shape. In other words, the expectation is the obstacle.
Makes sense, right?
Our society is highly prescriptive about how women are supposed to be: we’re supposed to be nurturing, selfless, and motherly. Combine that with the (really harmful) myth that a stepmom is supposed to love her stepkids like her own, and we have a recipe for disaster – or a plot line for a fairytale.
A stepmom is not, and can never be her stepkids’ biological parent, period, the end, full stop.
But social pressure to “Drop The Step” encourages a romanticized and completely unrealistic target for most families. Failure to appreciate the differences inherent to step-relationships has inadvertently torpedoed more stepfamilies than I can count. Pressure to become “The Same As A Bio-Parent” and “Love Them Like Your Own” places unnecessary tension on the fragile developing relationship between stepmom and stepchild, as the quality of their interactions and speed of the bonding process fall under close scrutiny by well-meaning partners, friends, and relatives.
The expectation that a stepmom assumes equal parenting responsibilities to her stepkids’ biological parents is most likely so the stepmom will feel integrated and included in her partner’s preexisting family structure – no small feat. The intention behind this is also probably so the children feel unconditionally loved and cared for by their newest parental figure – a noble cause. But even though the intentions are good, the real-world impact is more likely to bring about a sense of inadequacy, guilt, and even shame on the stepmom’s behalf when reality hits. And the icing on the cake? This expectation can also trigger loyalty-binds, skepticism, and resistance from the kids.
In other words
modeling step-relationships after biological relationships is a surefire way to create jealousy, resentment, and disconnection – the opposite of what’s intended. Truth be told, most biological parents aren’t all that skilled at navigating act-out and meltdown behaviors with their own kids. Yet, it’s expected that a stepmom who is in essence a stranger to her stepchildren will not only reallocate her time, energy, and money in ways she probably didn’t anticipate, but that she’ll do so in a way that her social circles deem acceptable and appropriate, that nurtures relationships that don’t come naturally to anyone involved, that doesn’t step on the other parent’s toes, while probably not having any other stepmom friends, while stickhandling around children’s behaviors that range from annoying to aggravating to straight-up dysregulating, AND do it all with a smile.
It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin. Frankly, it isn’t fair to stepmoms, their partners, the kids, or the other parent.
Luckily, after working with hundreds of stepmoms from six countries over the last four years, I’ve discovered the solution.
To genuinely connect and bond with your stepchildren without being sabotaged by socially prescribed ideals, you need to:
Let me explain
The truth is that most people have never done an audit of where they’re expending their resources. Problems in stepfamily relationships can always be traced back to an imbalance in one of three things: the ways that time, energy, or money – otherwise known as resources – are being spent.
For instance, one of the most common complaints that stepmoms have is that everyone in her partner’s life: the kids, the ex, and the career, all come before her. While your spouse is expending resources on the First Family, you may tend to be left with the remnants once everyone else is done taking. Issues arise because, in stepmom’s interpretation, her partner is investing too few resources into their own relationship, and too many into the First Family.
Another common complaint stepmoms have can arise when you’re expected to take on childcare responsibilities that interfere with your own schedule and personal goals. Whether that’s chauffeuring to extracurriculars, missing work when someone is sick, or being expected to tag along to sporting events, resentment is quick to bubble up when your life and the things that are important to you become an afterthought.
Taking inventory of where your resources are being expended, where they’re not being expended, and where they need to be reallocated in order to create more inner harmony for you is a step that can zap resentment and turn your relationship dynamics around, pronto.
Secondly, apply curiosity to your own paradigms about the world. What sorts of ideas and ideals do you have about the way a family is supposed to look? Consider how your culture, the media, religious institutions, peers, and your own family have influenced the ways in which you believe children should be raised, children should behave, relationships should function, and what it means if your current reality doesn’t meet those expectations.
Remember when I talked about the way our society pigeonholes women into the role of doting, nurturing mother? One way this uninvestigated paradigm may present in your life could be if you feel guilty or ashamed that you aren’t instantly connected to your spouse’s kids. Another way could be if you feel a sense of urgency to correct your stepchildren’s behaviors and attitudes; after all, the way kids act is often attributed to the way their mothers, specifically, parent them. Is there a possibility that your anxiety around your stepkids’ “bad” behavior is rooted in a fear of how others will judge you?
I don’t know the answer for you, but I do know that investigating the ways that our own moral fabrics have been woven together is often more revealing than one might expect.
the job description
Finally, it’s time to define and design what you want your role as a stepmom to look like. You can very literally think of this as writing your own unique job description that is completely intended to support you in creating the absolute most peaceful, harmonious, and fulfilling stepfamily life possible. If this phase is done properly, then no two stepmoms will have the same responsibilities outlined. This is entirely specific to you.
Here, you get to decide what exactly you’re willing and able to do as a member of your stepfamily. It’s best if you create this role based on specific feelings you want to feel more of. Do you actually want to give up your Saturday morning spin class to go to your stepson’s soccer games? Are you actually able to leave work early to take your stepdaughter to the orthodontist? Are the actions you’re taking to develop a relationship with your stepkids actually providing intentional opportunities to build trust and respect, or are they creating feelings of tension and resentment as your wants and needs take a back seat?
Far too many stepmoms fall into the trap of letting their positions be dictated by external pressures. Find me one stepmom who has built healthy step-relationships based on other people’s opinions. (I’ll wait.) As well-meaning as your spouse, your in-laws, and your loved ones might be when they expect you to increase your resource expenditure, the only person you need to be in integrity with is yourself. Spending time, money, or energy on your stepfamily of your own free will produce exponentially better opportunities for you to integrate and connect with your stepfamily.
What experiences do you genuinely want to be present for? Which responsibilities do you genuinely have the capacity to add to your plate? In what ways can you enrich your life by being discerning with how you share your resources? How much better off would you and your stepchildren be if your relationships were created entirely from a place of authenticity and integrity? Human beings are highly social, with brains that have adapted to be able to sense subtle shifts in energy and mood of those around them. What sorts of moods and energy have your stepfamily members been sensing from you? Once you have clarity in your Job Description and you begin creating your relationships from that place, you’ll be amazed at the differences in your interactions.
Now obviously, that’s easier said than done, right?
You can’t normally just sideline social and cultural norms, or start to ignore the expectations of the people in your stepfamily without completely upending your sense of safety and security. The main reason stepmoms give their resources to their stepfamily when they’re not able to be out of fear that if they don’t spend the time or energy or money, then their relationships will suffer. That if they take a stand and start saying No, then important things won’t get accomplished and they’ll be judged or criticized. Or worse yet, their partner will misinterpret their new boundaries as being spiteful, selfish, or a sign that stepmom doesn’t want to be part of her stepfamily after all.
And I get it.
It’s scary to restructure your role into something that prioritizes your own well-being. Even if you’re deeply unhappy fulfilling all these expectations, at least you know what to expect each day. Walking into the unknown, even if you know that your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health are depending on you to make a change, is just that: Unknown.
If you don’t have a good support system for other stepmoms, if you don’t have a clear picture of what your role should even look like for it to feel good for you, if you’ve tried unsuccessfully to place boundaries in the past, or if you have some sort of unique circumstance that makes change especially hard, then how could you possibly have any other stepfamily dynamic than you do right now with all these roadblocks in the way?
Unfortunately, these roadblocks prevent far too many stepmoms from ever being able to create the peaceful, harmonious homes that they long for. We don’t have to look much further than the two-in-three divorce rate in stepfamilies to see that most folks are just winging it, waiting for the wrinkles in their relationships to smooth themselves out under the iron of time. Waiting for other people to get their acts together. Waiting, waiting, waiting.
Until it’s too late.
peace, love, stepmom
how it works
That’s why I’ve created a comprehensive 4-phase program, designed specifically for stepmoms who want to improve their stepfamily relationships so that they can enjoy more peace and love. The fundamentals are simple, and the results come surprisingly quickly.
In Phase 1, IDENTIFY: You’ll do an audit of your current stepmom role, taking a thorough look at where exactly you’re expending your resources, and discovering the direct and indirect consequences of those expenditures. You’ll use the data gained in this phase to IDENTIFY the areas of well-being that most need your attention, so that you’re able to set your intentions for the rest of the program, ultimately creating more opportunities for you to feel the way you want to feel.
In Phase 2, IMPLEMENT: You’ll start to unpack the ways in which social and cultural expectations have both obviously and inadvertently informed your current stepmom role so that you can recreate your role with conscious intention. By the end of this phase, you’ll be showing up in your stepfamily based on your own values, intentions, and availability. Through the creation and IMPLEMENTATION of effective boundaries that people actually respect, you’ll be well on your way to reallocating your resources in an aligned and authentic way. You will notice the rapid disappearance of resentment, jealousy, and frustration in your relationships as your interactions become curious, genuine, and relaxed.
In Phase 3, INVESTIGATE: As you practice the implementation of your boundaries, you will almost certainly run into resistance from your spouse, your stepkids, your stepkids’ other parent, your in-laws, and most notably, and hard to distinguish yourself. In other words, as you metamorphosize, the Old Way is going to subtly, and sometimes not-so-subtly, try to lure you back from whence you came. But you, being the wise and valiant stepmom that you are, will march forward knowing that you have the support of an entire stepmom community and a fleet of stepfamily professionals behind you. In this phase, you will INVESTIGATE the effectiveness of your efforts, track and troubleshoot any resistance, and navigate past any roadblocks standing in the way of you and your perfect stepmom role.
In Phase 4, ITERATE: You’ll arrive at this phase with every piece of information you need in order to finalize your stepmom Job Description. You’ll more than likely be completely awestruck with your progress as you reflect on the improvements to your wellbeing – measured in percentiles for my fact folk. The version of you who arrives at the fourth phase will be a much different version than has ever existed before. There is a potential that some of the intentions and goals you initially set for yourself are no longer in alignment with the type of life you want to create. This phase provides an opportunity to reexamine your resource expenditures, and choose whether you’d like to continue to work toward your initially defined endpoints, OR, if you’d like to make a few edits & ITERATIONS in honor of your expanded, authentic self, by beginning back at Phase 1.
If you’d like, let’s hop on a quick Zoom call to see if Peace, Love, Stepmom is right for you.
Just tap here to book a time that works with your schedule:
During that call, we’ll create your very own personalized plan so that you know what to do in order to feel more peaceful, connected, and authentic in your role as a stepmom. We’ll also look at what your next best steps would be if you decide to Identify, Implement, Investigate and Iterate your complete, unique Stepmom Job Description.
Spots are limited, and there’s zero obligation to work with me, but if we do end up being a fit then I’ll invite you to join my Group Coaching Community, so that we can all support you as you begin this exciting new chapter in reclaiming your happiness once and for all.
It’s well known that we have the most supportive, growth-oriented, positive community for stepmoms on the internet.
Will you be joining us?
Can’t wait to speak with you to find out!