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Healthy Expectations in Stepparenting

Finding an effective stepparent role is a challenge, yet a satisfying bond can be nurtured.

Mom with her arm around young daughter

Time and positive experiences will eventually bring you closer to your stepchild, but you can’t force affections. So relax and trust the Lord to increase your connection over time.

Parenting holds many challenges. Add to that the task of being a Christian stepparent, and the role can feel daunting. The stepparent joins the biological parent in raising a child but does so initially without a clear role or bond with the child.

Consider this email I received from a biological father looking for help: Jean is the stepmother of my 7-year-old son. In the past 10 weeks, an intense relationship has developed between them. Once inseparable, Jean now wants nothing to do with him and has told him as much. This has strained our marriage, and she has talked about leaving. Our marriage is as perfect as one can get when my son is visiting his mother, but when he returns, it’s uncomfortable for everyone. My wife doesn’t understand why God is doing this to her. She’s questioning her faith.

This stepmother likely feels confused about her role, displaced from her husband when her stepson is around, and helpless to change the situation. She may also feel guilty because she knows God is expecting her to love this boy.

Finding an effective stepparent role is a challenge. Yet, with healthy expectations and a specific strategy to build the relationship, a satisfying bond can be nurtured.

Be Real About Expectations

Stepparents and biological parents alike frequently expect too much from the stepparent, especially early in the stepfamily’s development. Research confirms that stepparents and biological parents generally assume the stepparent should be affectionate with stepchildren and attempt to assert authority (to establish his or her position as a parent). However, stepchildren report, even five years after the wedding, they wish the stepparent would seek less physical affection and back away from asserting punishment. The challenge for biological parents and stepparents is to lower expectations and negotiate a relationship that’s mutually suitable to both the stepchild and the stepparent. Keep the following three principles in mind.

1. Give Yourself Time to Develop a Working Relationship

Realize that love takes time to develop. Some research suggests that children under the age of 5 will bond with a stepparent within one to two years. However, older children, teenagers, in particular, may take as many years as they are old when the remarriage takes place. A 10-year-old may need 10 years before feeling truly connected with you.

2. A Child’s Loyalty to a Biological Parent May Interfere with Acceptance of You

Children often feel emotionally torn about a relationship with a stepparent. The fear that liking you somehow betrays their non-custodial, biological parent is common. The ensuing guilt they experience may lead to disobedient behavior and a closed heart. Here are some suggestions to help stepchildren deal with this struggle:

  • Allow stepchildren to keep their loyalties and encourage contact with biological parents.
  • Never criticize a biological parent. Doing so will sabotage a child’s opinion of you.
  • Don’t try to replace an uninvolved or deceased biological parent. Consider yourself an added parent figure in the child’s life. Be yourself.

3. Let the Child Set the Pace for the Relationship

This is the cardinal rule for your relationships. If your stepchild is open and seems to want physical affection from you, don’t disappoint him or her. If the child remains aloof and cautious, don’t force the relationship. Respect a child’s boundaries; they often represent confusion over the new relationship and grief about the lost past. As time brings you together, slowly increase personal involvement and affections.

Above all, relax. It’s an interesting word to hear when you feel like you’re not making any progress, yet that’s exactly what you need to do. Time and positive experiences will eventually bring you closer to your stepchild, but you can’t force affections. So relax, accept the current level of relationship, and trust the Lord to increase your connection over time.

This article is adapted from HomeLife Magazine.

6 Smart Strategies for Building Bonds with Your Stepchildren

  1. Don’t expect you or your stepchildren will magically cherish all your time together. Stepchildren often feel confused about new family relationships — feeling both welcoming and resentful of the changes new people bring to their lives.
  2. Give yourself permission not to be completely accepted by your stepchildren. Their acceptance or rejection of you is often more about wanting to remain in contact with their biological parents.
  3. Give your stepchildren time away from you, preferably with their biological parent. The exclusive time stepchildren had with their biological parent before he or she married you came to a screeching halt after the wedding.
  4. Be part of activities that are important to your stepchildren. Take them to soccer practice, ask about their upcoming math test, and help them learn their lines in the school play.
  5. Until stepchildren feel comfortable with you, buffer your relationship. Be involved with them when another family member can be present. Most kids prefer not to be thrown into a one-on-one situation until they’ve grown more comfortable.
  6. Share interests. If you know how to play the guitar and a stepchild is interested, take time to show her. If a child is interested in a particular book series or video game, ask him about it. Enjoy service projects together. Share a family devotional time.

Ron L. Deal is founder and president of Smart Stepfamilies; director of FamilyLife Blended©, a division of FamilyLife©; the author of The Smart Stepfamily, The Smart Stepfamily Small Group Resource DVD and Participant Guide, The Smart Stepdad,and Dating and the Single Parent; and coauthor of The Smart Stepmom and The Smart Stepfamily Marriage. Ron and his wife, Nan, have three sons. Learn more at