After 12 years as a loving stepfather, Grant started hearing something from his stepdaughter, Cassandra, that he had never heard before: "You're not my dad. I don't have to do what you say."
Her words cut deep, as did her cold distance and angry tirades. Grant always thought he'd had a solid relationship with his stepdaughter; he now questioned whether they had really ever been close.
Grant came to me for help, and I spent some time with Cassandra to explore the situation. As I suspected, something had changed in her relationship with her biological father. (For children of blended families, changes in relationships within the other home can often reignite a child's loyalty conflicts.) Cassandra's dad had been involved in her life since the divorce, but inconsistently so. Recently, however, he moved in with his girlfriend, became involved with her children and went "MIA" for his biological daughter. Cassandra felt as if she'd been traded for the kids of her dad's girlfriend.
Why so tough?
No one in stepfamilies experiences more loss than children. They've lost a parent to death or a family to divorce, and the process takes away their psychological security, sense of control and sometimes their trust in God. The pain from these compounding losses often reveals itself as anger, depression or defiance.
In Cassandra's case, the absence of her father fueled a loyalty bind: If she continued to obey her stepdad and let him into her heart, would there be even less room for her father if he returned? It's a tough spot for children to be in, and when kids are in a tough spot, they tend to get tough with their stepparent. To respond, parents and stepparents need to modify their parenting.
Reset the relationship
"It's time for a fresh start," I suggested to Grant and his wife, Chelsea. "There's a reliable principle that says you must be moving toward someone — and she toward you — if you are going to have influence on her life. Right now Grant and Cassandra are moving away from each other. Let's see if we can reconnect them."
Step back; step up. When a stepparent and stepchild are at odds, it's wise for the biological parent to step up to the primary authority position while the stepparent steps back. The biological parent — who by nature has a stronger voice of authority — should take over the heavy lifting of discipline. While this dynamic gives the stepparent and stepchild a chance to heal, it only works if the biological parent is confidently able to engage in the job of discipline.
Approach the child with humility and compassion. A callous attitude by the stepparent only perpetuates the child's defenses and toughens his outer shell. Try not to take his behavior personally, and instead approach the child with compassion. Be sensitive to the hurt that lies beneath his angry words. Give permission for appropriate expressions of grief, as opposed to angry, defiant ones, and show him you can empathize with his sadness. Finally, if you have anything to apologize for as the stepparent, humbly do so. Humility tends to soften hardened hearts.
Understand her pain, but make your expectations clear. For example, Chelsea might say the following to her daughter: "We regret how much your dad has disappointed and hurt you. You certainly don't deserve being pushed aside this way; we think you're great! And yet you may not disrespect Grant or take your anger out on him. He's not trying to take your dad's place, but he is an authority in your life, and I expect you to respect him."
Let the child set the pace. Wise stepparents follow the child's pace in sharing affection. This is especially important when trying to heal and reconnect with a stepchild. Look for little opportunities to laugh together or share an activity, but don't push yourself on him. If he wants to be cordial but distant, allow it. If he offers a smile, respond with a warm, loving smile of your own.
Watch Ron Deal talk about stepparenting.
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Ron L. Deal is the founder Smart Stepfamilies and director of FamilyLife Blended for Family Life. He is also a licensed marriage and family therapist, a popular conference speaker, and author. Ron and his wife Nan reside in Little Rock, Ark., and are the parents of three sons.
This article first appeared in the January/February, 2011 issue of Thriving Family magazine. Copyright © 2010 by Ron L. Deal. Used by permission. ThrivingFamily.com.
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