Why Don’t My Stepkids Like Me?

“I try so hard to be a good stepmom, but nothing I do seems to make a difference,” stepmom Lisa wept.

“No matter how many times I make their favorite foods, help with homework, pay for their stuff, or try to make them feel special, they persist in keeping me at a distance,” she continued.

“I recently had a birthday and not one of them said anything or gave me a card. I was so hurt. Will they ever accept me? I’m ready to give up.”Lisa’s words are ones I’ve heard many times. As a stepmom of 32 years, I’ve even uttered them myself. That was before I understood the “why” that resides inside the hearts and minds of most stepkids.

Before moving on to the “how” as a stepparent, it’s imperative to understand the “why.”

WARNING: This blog is for the parent and stepparent who TRULY desires to understand WHY many stepkids are mean, cold, angry, belligerent, violent, or defiant. It’s the first step towards learning what to do in response.

Like many difficult things in life, change requires hearing insights that will likely be the opposite of what we desire or thought would be the answer. In other words, like cleaning out an injury, it’s likely going to sting a bit. it’s not for the faint hearted or the easily offended.

Therefore, if you are not ready to address the things necessary for change, this article isn’t for you. Save it, perhaps it will be useful at a later time.

Here are a few of the most common reasons kids resist a stepparent.

1. The parent’s divorce has created a HUGE wound. If we as stepparents are going to heal and tackle stepfamily issues we must stop believing that the divorce, or family breakup, didn’t affect the kids. We SAY we get it, but then we become annoyed when the kids don’t “move on.” When was the last time you read a good resource on kids and divorce? If you want to have a better relationship with your stepkids this is crucial. (I have several listed on my site)

2. You represent the death of their dream. Stepparents hate hearing this statement because it hurts. That’s especially true if your spouse wasn’t the one who wanted the breakup/divorce. We believe the kids should “understand” that it was the other parent who destroyed the marriage. Here’s the reality: THE KIDS DON’T CARE who was at fault. It’s still their parent and they don’t want to choose sides or view him/her badly. They still long for that one day this will all go back to “normal.” This remarriage has devestated that dream.

3. They feel helpless. Have you ever had someone stronger hold you down when you wanted to get up? Perhaps when you were a kid and a sibling was tickling you. Remember how horrible it felt when you had no control to make it stop? That’s how your stepchild feels—every day. This is not the life they want. They don’t want to live in 2 homes, with 2 sets of parents. They are fighting the day-to-day reality with everything that is in them. But they have no control or power to change any of it. And the stepparent becomes the easy target for that frustration.

4. You took their parent away. I can hear stepparents everywhere shouting, “That’s not true.” This is another point that is extremely hard to hear and painful to embrace. It’s crucial to remember we aren’t discussing what’s true. We are discussing how the stepchild FEELS. This is their reality. Your spouse didn’t actually abandon his/her kids, but to them it FEELS that way.

5. They already have two parents, they don’t see a need for any more. This is true even if one of the parents is a very bad parent.

6. They feel guilty for embracing a stepparent. Kids are fiercely loyal to a biological parent. This is often more evident if the other parent is unhealthy, emotionally unstable, uses the child as a replacement for a mate, manipulative, or depressed. The child feels the need to protect that parent, and the roles switch. A stepparent can not control or change that loyalty. The better step–acknowledge it, “Maddie, I know it’s hard to have 2 homes. I don’t expect you to ignore your loyalty to your mom. It’s normal. Don’t feel guilty about it. I understand.”

7. The other parent may be encouraging them to hate the stepparent. This is commonly true. The bigger issue however is when stepparents wrongly default to this as the only reason the child shuns him/her.  Sometimes the parent is toxic and causes horrific damage to the child and his/her relationships in the other home. But it’s very unwise to automatically assume this is the only reason the child isn’t embracing the new family.

8. The stepparent quickly jumps into a parenting role. Many couples make this mistake. The parent either isn’t good at discipline or doesn’t want to be the bad guy. So, they push the stepparent into the “disciplinarian role.” I don’t know how to clarify it any better than to say, this is the fastest road for a stepkid to hate a stepparent. Why? Let’s review: we have a hurting, angry kid, who already resents the stepparent for numerous valid reasons. Mix in that the child doesn’t have a close relationship with the new adult, and THIS is the person we think should be in charge of implementing the unwanted rules. Does that sound wise? Does it even make common sense? We have an entire chapter in The Smart Stepmom on how the stepparent can gradually and successfully move into a parenting role.

Most of these issues are things a stepparent, and sometimes even the parent, can not change. So…What is stepparent to do?

Get educated and keep learning. Two resources that IMHO should be read by every adult in a stepfamily are: Between Two Worlds The Inner Lives of Children and Divorce by Elizabeth Marquart and The Smart Stepfamily by Ron Deal. For stepmoms I also suggest, The Smart Stepmom, not because I co-wrote it with Ron, but because stepmoms face unique issues that are not addressed in the other two books. Click here for a full list of resources

Recognize how unproductive it is to stay focused on issues you can’t control. Say to yourself, “I cannot control what goes on in the other home. Lord, help me to accept that I cannot control what goes on in the other home.” Repeat it and pray it, over and over, until you believe it. When was the last time you prayed for the parent in the other home? When was the last time you asked God to help you see the situation through his/her eyes? This is how to replace the destructive thoughts with calmer ones.

Check your attitude. Many stepparents share with me, “I never say anything bad about the other parent.” However, kids are very perceptive. A parent or stepparent doesn’t need to say anything negative for the kids to know how the stepparent hates/judges/resents the other parent. Body language, attitude, tone of voice, or what isn’t said, often reveals more to a child about how a parent/stepparent feels than they realize. If the child views the stepparent as negative, condescending, critical, judging or bashing their other parent, they will turn icy toward that parent/stepparent. At the very least they will mistrust and dislike the stepparent. Trust me, I KNOW how hard it is to “pretend” to be nice, and like the other parent. I only have one piece of advice because its the only thing that worked for me. Prayer. God is the ONLY one who can change my heart and mind when the situation is so inflammatory and frustrating. He alone taught me how to sincerely let go of the anger, and distain, towards of my stepson’s mother.

Avoid thinking the “The Child Needs to Know” Many parents and stepparents believe the child will be drawn to them if they knew the “truth” about the other parent. This means revealing the huge flaws, mistakes and sins committed against the family, marriage and child. Trust me, it backfires. I’m not suggesting lying to the child. I’m merely stating that telling the child how horrible the other parent is, in an effort to get the child to embrace the stepparent, only damages the child’s self-worth. The child is a part of that parent. That parent is his/her identity. And learning how horrible he/she is doesn’t cause them to run from that parent, towards you, even if all of it is true.

Step Back Don’t try to overcome the “wicked stepparent” persona over night. And resist stepping into the disciplinarian role even if your spouse desires it. This issue is so prevalent and complicated that it can’t be entirely explained in one bullet point. It requires a lot of explanation. The stepfamily books mentioned will give details on how to it effectively.

• Consider that you might be wrong I know this one is going to be controversial, but “I’m goin’ in anyway.” When a husband and wife insist on saying, “We have no steps in this house, everyone is the same” it can push a child further away. This is one of those things that sounds wise, loving and harmonious but can trigger just the opposite. If the child doesn’t feel that the step siblings are their brothers and sisters, it can cause tremendous pain and anger. When we force kids to view the stepparent or siblings as equal to their biological family, it becomes one more frustration over which they have no control. It’s much better to let those relationships move at their own pace and blossom over time. Let them morph into what comes naturally. Some stepsiblings become very close, some do not.

• Lay down your sword. I meet many stepparents that are constantly armed for battle. Their dukes are always up. Trust me—I get it. Don’t think because my stepkids are grown that I no longer understand the stress and resentment. However, here are thoughts to ponder. Is being on the edge making your life better or worse? Is thinking about the ex-spouse and all the drama and chaos  he/she is causing making your home happier? Is it making your marriage stronger? Is spending time on social media hashing, bashing and rehashing your situation solving anything? Could there be a better way to move forward? Would a live group that listened to the struggles, and then offered healthy solutions, and held each other accountable, be more productive? Aren’t you tired of being so angry all the time? Jesus can teach you how to lay down that sword, and replace it with His peace of mind instead. If there is no group in your area, why don’t’ you be the start up?

Keep the Main thing—The Main thing United you stand, divided you fall. If the husband and wife are not consistently learning, growing, exploring, and tackling how to have a healthy stepfamily marriage the foundation is shaky ground. This is imperative to the stepparent/stepchild relationship. Kids will withdraw from a stepparent if they have any suspicion that he/she isn’t going to be around for long. They don’t want another loss, grief, broken heart or relationship. If they see their parent and stepparent non-stop fighting, yelling, attacking, and demeaning each other they will automatically put up a wall toward the stepparent, and resist growing closer. If you need help for your stepfamily marriage, Laura offers life coaching.

This hasn’t been an easy blog to write. And I know for some it hasn’t been an easy one to read. I fully recognize how hard it is to live in a stepfamily. I’ve done it for 32 years, and from age 10 I grew up in one.

In order to heal, grow and thrive in the midst of a difficult situation is to ask ourselves some tough questions. Such as:
• “Am I teachable?”
• “Do I want to be right, or do I want a healthy stepfamily?”
• “What can I do (not my spouse or the ex) to eliminate some of the drama, stress, and frustration in my household?”

I close offering this as a suggested prayer.
“Lord Jesus, help me to understand what’s keeping my stepchild from growing close to me. If its things I can’t control give me the ability to turn them over to you. Help him/her to be healed from those issues. If I do have a part in the distance show me my “blind spots”. Reveal to me the areas where I’m contributing to the problem, but my tears, frustrations, anger or sadness are preventing me from seeing it. Help me to look beyond myself, to see this through the eyes of my stepchild, the other parent, and my spouse. Tell me when to speak and when to keep silent. Show me when to guard my heart and how to step back. And if I’m doing anything that is hurting my stepchild please reveal it to me in an obvious way and give me the passion and wisdom to change. Thank you that you never leave me alone to confront life’s grueling challenges. You are my inspiration and my strength. Amen.”

Copyright © 2018 Laura Petherbridge. All rights reserved.
Laura Petherbridge is an international author and speaker who serves couples and single adults with topics on stepfamilies, relationships, divorce prevention, and divorce recovery. She is the author of When “I Do” Becomes “I Don’t”—Practical Steps for Healing During Separation and Divorce, The Smart Stepmom, co-authored with Ron Deal, 101 Tips for the Smart Stepmom and Quiet Moments for the Stepmom Soul. Her website is www.TheSmartStepmom.com

To view Laura’s upcoming events click here.