Honest communication is the only policy when it comes to the stepfamily. Withdrawing in an attempt to be self-protective will backfire on you. The family will continue its biological bond, and you'll be left out in the cold.
Don't Be Wicked
Don't lecture! I guarantee that if you shake your finger at a child, they will not hear what you are saying. Kids are deaf to stories with a moral. Save your breath.
Stepkids! Talk to them wrong and they'll shut you off. How do you get it through their thick skulls? Effective communication involves talking with your stepkids, not to them. Easier said than done, huh? Here are a few tips:
- Lose the lectures Nobody wants advice. And don't nag! The minute you start getting “that tone” in your voice, you become inaudible. From a long distance way off in his head, your child sees your mouth moving, with nothing audible coming out.
- Tell the truth Remember that childhood b.s. meter! Truth-telling with kids doesn't mean confessing all, but it does mean not lying.
- Use active listening Remember that active listening means listening to and trying to understand the child's thoughts and feelings. Listen silently and then paraphrase, say back again as closely as possible without interpretation what has been said.
- Don't let your disagreements escalate Try to keep to the specifics. Nothing turns a kid's brain off worse than “You always…” or “You never….” If accusations escalate, don't play. Try taking a five-minute break.
- Cool it with the general criticism It doesn't help, and it can be very damaging.
- Never set a kid up to be a liar Forget the rhetorical questions: “Did you break my umbrella?”
- Use “I” statements Saying, “I feel…” is more effective than saying, “You make me feel….”
A stepfamily's identity is built slowly, through effective communication and shared experiences. Communication can happen in family meetings (and we'll go into those later), but primarily it happens every day, each time family members interact with each other. As a stepparent, your daily communications with your stepkids should involve three points:
- Communicate respect
- Communicate affection
- Communicate your expectations and goals
It's simple: You gain your stepkids' respect by showing them respect. People respond to being treated well, and kids learn by imitation. When you model respectful behavior, they learn appropriate modes of behavior. You can communicate your respect for a child's body and personal space, temperament, privacy, needs, and opinions by listening to them, observing carefully, and taking them seriously.
Sometimes it's hard for stepparents to listen to a child. It takes energy, and if you are feeling resentful of the emotional space a stepchild takes up in your life, you may not want to consider his needs. But paying respect to your stepchild will lessen the energy drain you feel. When a child (or anybody, for that matter) feels respected, he returns your efforts twofold.
Respect is not a hands-off policy (the child still needs your guidance), nor does it mean agreeing with the child's every opinion, belief, or action. Respect is an acknowledgment that a child's feelings and beliefs are valid. Respect is a starting place.
Communication is not just what you say; it's also how you say it, and it involves your body language. Not all people are comfortable expressing their deepest thoughts and emotions with words. Even for those who are, words are not always enough. A kiss, a rumpled head, a smile across the room, a wink when things are rough—nonverbal affection is just as important as beginning every sentence with an “I” statement or writing your Family Values and posting them in the kitchen (both of these are covered later). Being affectionate with your stepkids shows in a very tactile way that you care about them.
Family identity is built through shared experiences. Eating together every day, or almost every day, sets up an automatic forum for communicating as a family.
Affection doesn't always involve touching. You may not be a naturally “touchy” person. Little kids have a biological need for physical affection, but physical affection doesn't always feel natural in a stepfamily, nor is it always appropriate. (Older kids need physical affection, too, but not necessarily from you.)
If your stepchildren are preteens or teenagers, hormonal issues may come up. Incest taboos are not as strong in stepfamilies, and without the biological bond or long-term experience of raising a particular child, sexual attraction may make hugs and back rubs inappropriate or even dangerous (see more about this in Stepfamily Problems). Yet affection and nonverbal communication are not necessarily tied to physical contact. So much is communicated by the way you look at a child (and by how you say things).
Whether your stepkids are little or big, it's important to have some kinds of nonverbal communication with them. Talk together about how much physical affection you all feel comfortable with.
Organization and structure within a family make children feel more secure.
Communicate Your Expectations and Goals
Preconceived expectations of what stepfamily life should be like are never helpful. Once the new stepfamily has formed, however, the kids need to know what they can expect in terms of family structure, and they need to know what kinds of behaviors are acceptable and expected of them. Kids need to understand these three points:
- Family expectations These are moral- and value-based expectations about how people in the family should behave and treat each other.
- Personal expectations These are achievement-based expectations that kids and adults have, such as goals and expectations for academic, athletic, and developmental growth.
- Relationship expectations These are socially based expectations: “I expect you and your stepsister to cooperate when you are cleaning up your room.”