How to love your stepchild, when you don't

How to love your stepchild, when you don't.
How to love your stepchild, when you don't. Photo: Shutterstock

Just because you fall in love with someone, doesn't necessarily mean the rest will flow easily and you'll fall in love with their kids. We all know children can be challenging and annoying, but the thing that saves them most of the time is that we're programmed to love them with an evolutionary fierceness that cannot be helped.

But when those children are somebody else's – and possibly also take issue with you coming in and "stealing" their parent's attention away from them (or worse, perceiving you as being responsible for their parents' separation) – it's entirely natural for the road to love to be a bumpy one strewn with hazards. 

That's not to say step-relationships are automatically going to be terrible. Child psychologist at the University of Queensland Dr Sasha Lynn says every situation is different.

"There are a lot of factors (both internal and external to the person) involved when blending families," she says. "For some it works relatively easily, and for others it can be a struggle."

'We didn't hit it off'

Brisbane stepmother Megan* says struggle is definitely a word she would use for her relationship with stepdaughter Amy*, 10.

"We did not hit it off at first at all!" Megan says. "Mark* and I had been dating for nearly a year before he introduced me to his daughter because he wanted to protect her, and I respected that.

"But when Amy and I met, I could see from the start she was livid that I was interrupting her special time with her dad. Mark and Amy only get every second weekend together, and suddenly here I was trying to muscle in on the action.

"Amy would act out whenever I was around, intent on getting Mark to pay all his attention to her. It was a stressful time for everyone and I had a lot of trouble seeing the delightful kid he kept telling me she was."

Megan says although she understood where Amy was coming from, it didn't make the situation any easier to deal with.

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"I had no idea what to do, but I knew I couldn't force it, so I just hung back and waited," she says.

Three years later, Megan says her patience is only just starting to pay off.

"I'm not sure we'll ever have an overly warm relationship," she says. "But Amy accepts me now and includes me in conversations. I'll take whatever I can get!

"I have to admit though, I prefer our time when Amy isn't around. I wish things could be different but I'm not sure what else I can do."

Megan says she tries to keep at the front of her mind all the time that she is the adult, so the responsibility to keep the situation positive is on her, not Amy. 

And no matter how offensive or difficult-to-love she finds her stepdaughter, she is the most important person in Mark's life – and that is never going to change. 

Dr Lynn says there is no point worrying about what is and isn't "normal" in your own unique situation, as blending families can vary wildly depending on individual circumstances.

"When you love someone who has children, you are aware that love then encompasses more than just one person in that particular situation, and there are other little people that come as part of a package deal," says Dr Lynn.

Take the pressure off

So how do you learn to love your stepchildren when you really, really don't?

Dr Lynn says it's important to be kind to yourself first, and not to put too much pressure on the situation. 

"When blending families, there are a lot of emotions involved, there can be hurt from the changes in the family dynamic for the children, there can be confusion and of course the loss and grief for the family that once was," she says. "This impacts everyone involved."

"Taking an open mindset, going gently and knowing when to give some space, and when to lean in are important" says Dr Lynn. "Be clear with your partner about everyone's role with the children, work as a team, and add a new dimension of support by finding common bonds with your stepchildren you can build on together."

Jess* says she went into her step-mothering role five years ago with an open mind and a patient heart, but felt she was fighting a losing battle.

"I went from being single and free to being the stepmum of three kids, one week on – one week off," she says. "It was a lot."

It didn't help that Jess's stepchildren, Max*, 14, Ben*, 12, and Lily*, 9, wanted their parents back together. 

"Jake* and his ex-wife had only been apart for a year when we got together and in hindsight I realise that was too soon for the children," she says.

"But we thought if we were patient and loving, it would all come together."

It wasn't that simple, but with regular family therapy, the party of five is starting to gel now.

"We've found new ways to relate and communicate with each other," says Jess. "It's not easy, and I've found it really tough to like these kids a lot of the time, but we're learning to love and care for each other now in a way that I wouldn't have thought possible in the beginning."

Seek professional help 

Dr Lynn says seeing a psychologist can be a positive way to move forward if there are problems, even without the children.

"Getting some perspective, working on building a toolkit for managing your emotions, and for managing the children, can only help couples learning to parent together," she says.

As for how much you should confess your feelings to your partner, Dr Lynn says it's important to be open and honest – but also sensitive.

"Start with 'I' statements (that is, 'I'm feeling stressed about xyz') rather than 'you/they' statements ('they're always pushing my buttons')," she says. "Those kinds of statements just generate defensiveness and don't get things moving forward.

"Admitting that it's a trial and error game for a while until everyone understands their role in the new family dynamic can help too. Looking at where you can work together as a team, and focusing on what you can do together will help you support one another and move forward."

Jess says if she can do it, anyone can.

"I felt like Julie Andrews meeting the Von Trapp children in the Sound Of Music when this all started," she laughs. "But without the patience!"

"It hasn't been easy but it's been worthwhile. I've had to earn my place in the hearts of these children and what they need more than anything is love.

"Yes, they've had moments when they were hard to love, but I'm sure they'd say the same about me. Now when we sit quietly and all watch a movie together, I look around and think 'I've earned this happiness – and it's all been worth it'".

*Names have been changed.