New Rules for Stepfamilies

Finding the missing peace

"I Can't Stand My Stepkids!"

"What do I do if I hate my husband's children?"

Dear Dr. Coleman,

What do you do when you don't like the kids of the man you married? I married a great guy 3 years ago, love of my life, but his kids drive me up the wall. They're disrespectful to him (not to me yet, but I'm sure that's coming), demanding, and spoiled. Worse, I just don't like them as people. They'll all be out of the home in about 5 years but that's 5 years too long. How do I survive?

Dear Reader,

This is a common complaint that I get from stepparents. There is a lot to tease apart here:

* Many stepmothers feel guilty that they don't like their stepchildren. Most women are raised to feel like they're going to love being a mother and therefore feel confused and self-critical when those feelings don't spring eternal for their husband's kids. Guilt and self-criticism are hard on oneself and hard on a marriage. Work to accept that you feel the way that you feel and that that doesn't make you a bad person.


* Sometimes stepchildren are difficult or unlikable as an expression of loyalty to the parent who isn't in the home. Their guilt about being close to you may make them feel more conflicted about having you like them and of them liking you. Assume it will take some time for a relationship to develop. Maybe years. Don't assume that it will go quickly.


* While you don't have to love them, you should try to find some common ground with them. Not only is this important for them, it is key to your having a life in a blended family. So, see if you can find something, ANYTHING, that you might have in common. It doesn't have to be anything fancy: a TV show, a musical artist, a love of a certain kind of food, an author--just some toehold of similarity and compatibility to build a relationship from.


* Let your husband know what bothers you the most about their behavior. If they hog the television, talk on the cell phone during dinner, talk over each other all of the time, ask him to step in more. But don't assume that he can change all of their behavior to accommodate you. If he can change even some of their behavior, that's a good thing. However, if they behave in ways that are directly disrespectful to you, it's better for you to set limits with them yourself in the same way that you would set limits with anyone else.

 

Joshua Coleman, Ph.D., is a psychologist in San Francisco and Oakland. He is also a senior fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families. His newest book is When Parents Hurt.

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