When people get overwhelmed (and stepparenting can certainly be an overwhelming situation), they tend to withdraw and get resentful. I used to hide in the bathroom or bedroom for long periods of time feeling all churned up inside—who were these strangers in my house? Was it my house? Part of making the transition and commitment to stepparenting involves making a firm attempt to know each of your stepkids individually, and apart from your mate. It will take time, work, and respect for the child.
Here's an approach: Try the solo outing. Go out on a date with the child, just the two of you. Does that idea clench your stomach? The prospect fills many a stepparent with fear and horror, but it's not a bad idea. Getting to know the child one-on-one is an important part of building a real relationship. Here are a few tips for your solo “date”:
- Make it an activity with some, but not all, the focus on each other. This is not an encounter session, it's an outing.
- Don't push for too much intimacy. Respect the child's privacy. Make yourself emotionally available, and let him come to you.
- Do something that will be fun for both of you, but don't expect your stepkid to gush over it. A child may act sullen throughout the day, and then you'll overhear her on the phone to a friend raving about the fabulous time she had.
- Don't believe everything you hear. If the child is having trouble with the set-up, she may still try to sabotage things.
- No bribes—expensive gifts or lots of candy will backfire on you. You'll get no gratitude, and you're setting yourself up as Sugar Daddy instead of the reasonable stepparent you want to be.
- Don't do the “How's school?” thing. Forget your parental role, and just hang out.
- Work on feeling comfortable with silence. You may not have anything to say to each other. Concentrate on relaxing.
- Make it a regular thing; a one-time outing doesn't work. So what if you don't have instant chemistry together. A relationship requires work, time, and more time.
When Solo Outings Are Too Much
Many stepparents steer away from the idea of solo outings (hey, you may be feeling so resentful that you don't even want to be in the same room with the beast, let alone go out just the two of you). Often stepkids will feel so uncomfortable that they refuse as well.
In terms of your resistance, remind yourself that things will probably be better when it's just the two of you, and that sometimes the only way out of a problem is through it. If the problem is that you don't really know each other, then you have to get to know each other, painful as that process might sound.
Relationships are built through shared experiences, and solo outings are a good way to begin putting in the time.
About the child's negative reaction to the idea: Don't flip out. Try not to feel rejected (I know, you have just been rejected.) Fight the bitterness. Here's the time to practice your long-term perspective.
- Invite the child again. And again.
- Practice “special time” at home, such as impromptu popcorn when he's up doing homework, but he has to eat it in the kitchen with you.
Cramming for the “Big Test”
Kids test limits. That is part of their job of being children. Once the honeymoon's over and the novelty wears off, and once the kids get comfortable around you (this might be after you move in with their parent, or it might be after you're married), the testing will increase. Now's the time for you to gather your patience, understand the testing for what it is, and gently assert yourself and your opinions.
Try not to take testing personally. Children push as hard as they can, but they're not doing it to be cruel. It's an instinct—they need to know how much they can rely on you.