Getting into a relationship or marriage with someone who has children is a delicate processes. It can be difficult, stressful and it has the ability to stir up a wide range of emotions for everyone involved.
When first interacting with the kids of your partner or spouse, you will likely question, and re-question, the best approach for moving forward.
How long do you wait to meet? How much should you be around? What types of activities should you plan? What type of role will you lead?
The one thing that all experts, surveys and studies seem to agree on is that the relationship should start slow. But what does that mean? Where are the lines between too fast, appropriate and stagnant? Everyone you ask will have an opinion but all that really tells you is what they would be comfortable with if it was their child or if they were in your position.
I used to think that there was a right way to move ahead at the start of a relationship with children. Now, I’m not so sure.
Real Life Examples
Talking to people who have positive relationships with their stepchildren has showed me that there is no ‘typical’ path or approach. It has has shown me that everyone thinks their way is the best way….
“It starts with respect. The like and love comes later. They need to respect you as an adult in their life before the relationship grows.”
“You have to be friends first. Create good memories and traditions and then slowly move into a parenting or authority role. Let them get to know you.”
“Your job is basically to follow the same guidelines as a baby-sitter. Treat them the same as if they were a friend’s kids you were watching. Don’t worry about the rest.”
“I think that you should play the role you want to have from the beginning. There might be some turmoil at first but it’ll be easier than doing a bait-and-switch down the road.”
“Follow their lead. Let them be the first to start conversation or build a connection.”
“Stay out of the way. Give them plenty of space with your spouse and don’t get involved.”
“My husband and I went at the pace we were comfortable with and I now have a great relationship with my stepson. With my stepdaughter, we’ve tried everything. It’s just not happening right now.”
Each one of these families approached the stepchild/stepparent relationship differently, and each of them have moved on to have positive relationships despite those differences.
How Does this Help You?
These different approaches highlight the one overarching theme in all remarriages – every family is different! What works in one stepfamily will not necessarily work in another. Every change in characteristic from the temperament of the kids to custody schedule and involvement of other family members will change the outcome of your efforts. Instead of following the lead of a friend or what one expert suggests, find out what works for your family.
The negative in all of this is that it’s more of a guessing game. A path of trial and error without one, clear road of how to get to your happy ending.
The positive is that you aren’t trapped with following only one path. You can make adjustments as your family needs change and you don’t have to force a relationship that doesn’t feel right.
Now What Do You Do?
Before anything else, have a conversation with your partner or spouse about where you are at and your expectations for the relationship. Then listen to their thoughts and expectations and be committed to hearing each other out. If there are disagreements or lingering issues, work through them. The one common element of the families above is that the couple was on the same page. They knew the roles that they would be comfortable with and they were willing to flow and adjust as needed. Pay attention to existing pain points and identify any strict boundaries from the beginning.
Identify what is most important. Without an understanding of your most important goals, it’s hard to move towards them. If the most important aspect is gaining a deeper connection, plan time alone with the children and have age-appropriate conversations with them about the relationship. If it’s getting the kids to respect the stepparent, communicate your expectations to them and follow through with consequences or discussions when needed.
If you find that you are way off course from where you would like to be, implement one change at a time. Don’t wake your children up one day with a list of 15 things that will be changed. Help them, and yourself, to ease into the new roles a little at a time.
If you are at the start of this journey, you have a great opportunity to set clear expectations from the beginning. Remember to back each other up and to check in with one another regularly on how you think things are going.
Don’t be afraid to re-set your course. If something isn’t working, don’t force it. Also know that there may be times when you want to take a step back or times when it makes sense to take a larger lead. Running a house and family is rarely 50/50 and keeping an open mind to change will make your journey much easier.
At the end of the day, don’t worry about following the ideas from your friends or caring about what someone else thinks. Do what works for your family and everyone will be happier in the end.