We’ve discussed principles for parenting kids who reject you, but sometimes that rejection can be so deep that any sort of healthy relationship is impossible.  What do you do when your relationship with your foster child or stepchild starts feeling toxic?  How can you live with that child and still preserve a healthy blended family?  There are no simple solutions, but there are some principles that can help you get through the challenges of parenting a child who insists on a toxic relationship.

           1.        Realize that You Are Not Unique.  The first thing to remember is that toxic behaviors are not unique challenges for foster and blended families.  Sometimes, for example, foster children have learned that they can get themselves moved from a placement by being disruptive.  Stepchildren may be actively trying to get a new stepparent out of the family.  Many times, either foster or stepchildren have low impulse control and a lot of anger from trauma, and that combined negative behavior can make life miserable for the whole family.

           I’ve been in that situation with a kinship placement.  Our child struggled with depression, and when COVID hit, the isolation and anxiety caused a tailspin.  Our teen ended up in a dark place that neither we nor the family therapist could reach.  For many months, the teen simply avoided us, staying in the bedroom and not joining us for meals.  Being in the house together was tense and miserable for all of us.  We never were able to find any solutions before the teen aged out of the system and went back to live with parents.  I will confess that it took me a long time to get past my exhaustion and relief to start feeling sad about the lost relationship.

           So, know it’s not unusual to be living with a child whose trauma and anger affect the entire family.  Simply do an Internet search for “toxic stepchildren” or “foster behavior disorders,” and you’ll find all sorts of articles and threads about those problems.  You are not unique, and you are not alone.

           2.        Concentrate on Your Marriage.  The first essential foundation to dealing with problematic children is to concentrate on your marriage.  Be sure that you and your spouse are on the same page.  Find agreement on the essential areas in your family life, and keep an open dialogue about each other's parenting role.  Get professional help from marriage or family therapy if you need it.  Do your best to keep children from playing you off against each other.  Your family members will take their cues from you, and keeping a good relationship at the heart of your marriage will help your children realize that they cannot disrupt those strong bonds.  

           3.        Maintain Healthy Boundaries.  Trying to build a relationship with foster or stepchildren, or even just keeping the peace, will require you to compromise from time to time.  Never compromise, however, on healthy boundaries such as respect and house rules.   You and your spouse need to enforce those healthy boundaries not only for your own self-care and to protect your marriage, but to provide structure for your kids.  They need to know that, no matter how much you love and care about them, there are certain behaviors that are not acceptable in the family.  Communicate those ground rules clearly and enforce them consistently.

           4.        Don’t Take It Personally.  Most of the time, your child’s response is not about you.  They have lost their intact biological family, and they may be having a hard time adjusting to new family dynamics.  Deep down they feel that you are not the person who is supposed to be parenting them.  Even if you were perfect, you could not change that visceral reaction.

            So, don’t even try to change their minds.  Simply give them the space that they need to process the change in their lives.  Make the decisions that you need to make in order to keep them safe and expect them to be respectful, but be flexible about everything else.  Let them decide what relationship they want with you and when they want it.

           Always be open to the idea that you need to change something.  We can make the relationship difficult by making any number of common mistakes.  The other principles, however, remain the same.  Give them space and do not force a relationship.  Maybe your children will learn to appreciate you, or maybe they will resent you forever.  Either way, you cannot control their reaction.  All you can do is treat them with respect and let them decide what relationship they want.

           Of course, not taking it personally is easier said than done.  Do not try to pretend that their toxic behavior or rejection does not bother you.  It is human nature to want people to like us, and a snub can be particularly hard to hear from someone that we have sacrificed for and tried to help.  Of course, rejection hurts.  Do not try to tough it out.  Give yourself time to grieve and space to process the rejection.  Then move forward and work on the other relationships that you have in your life.

           5.        Remember That You Are the Adult.  Whether we are dealing with young children, teens, or even adult stepchildren, we are always the authority figures in our families.  One of the most important things we must do is resist the temptation to respond to bad behavior with more bad behavior.  It’s tempting to respond to a disrespectful statement with an unkind comment, but you really aren’t gaining anything by yielding to that temptation.  You are simply creating power struggles that will torpedo any hope of a positive relationship.

           More importantly, you are modeling for the child that being disrespectful is fine if you have enough provocation.  It’s tough always being the adult in the room, but that’s our job.  Learn to bite your tongue and take time to respond calmly and respectfully.

If you need to respond in the moment, look for a neutral placeholder.  For example, you can say, “I’m sorry this is not the situation you want.  But I care about you anyway.”  Find something neutral that you believe so that you can avoid adding to the conflict.

           6.        Control What You Can Control and Let Go of the Rest.  Remember that our goal is not to inspire our kids to have a relationship with us. That may happen, but it’s a side effect and only a possibility. We cannot control other people’s reactions, even our children’s.  All we can control is what we do and how we think. So our focus, especially in dealing with kids who reject us, has to be on what is the right thing for us to do. If we start thinking in terms of “we’ll do this and then maybe they’ll do that,” then we’ll find ourselves flailing in the quicksand of empty gestures and unmet expectations. We need to concentrate on figuring out the right thing to do, and then doing it, letting the results be what they will be.

           Raising a child is not like following a recipe, where we apply the right amounts of caring, structure, and encouragement, mix with love, and pull a great relationship out of the oven.  Children have their own decisions to make about our relationship.  Of course, we can and should stack the odds in our favor by being (or trying to be) patient and caring and generous.  But we cannot do those things in order to get our kids to accept us.  We should do them because it is the right thing to do and the right way to treat our children.  

           Recognizing that our children have free will is good news and can be incredibly freeing.  We no longer need to take complete responsibility for their actions.  Of course, it hurts when they reject us and watching them make life-altering mistakes can be incredibly sad.  But it is their life and their decision.  We only have responsibility for our actions, not theirs.

           Giving our children space to make decisions also can improve whatever relationship we have.  Rather than constantly trying to motivate a child to accept us or our advice, we can learn simply to be available when they think they need us.  We can care about them without hovering.  Giving them that freedom to make their own decisions creates a baseline of respect that automatically enriches our interactions and increases the odds of a healthy relationship.  Even if it doesn’t improve the relationship, we will be much happier without taking responsibility for their happiness.

           7.        Care About Them Anyway.  Don’t let your child’s rejection affect how much you care about them.  I know that that project is easier said than done.   I have a less-than-perfect record of meeting that goal, but I believe that it is an important one.   Caring about children is always a one-way street; that dynamic is no different in foster or blended families.

           One-way does not mean unlimited.  All healthy relationships have boundaries.  We need not, and should not, enable people who are hurting themselves or others.  But within those bounds of safety and self-respect, we must be willing to sacrifice for our children, whatever they think of us.

           I call this “being like gravity.” People may find gravity annoying and may complain about it, but none of that changes what gravity does. Gravity just is what it is. And when someone is willing to work within its limits, gravity is still there.  Now the analogy is not perfect because we are not a force of nature. We are human beings who get exasperated and run out of patience. Rejection hurts and a child's rejection can cause tremendous pain that we would rather avoid. But to the extent that we can learn to be like gravity — to just be what we are, no matter what our kids throw at us — the happier we (and our families) will be.

           Instead of reacting to everything our kids say or do, we should learn to let them bounce off us and keep offering them a loving relationship.  If we can do that without getting emotionally exhausted, then we’ll be able to invest in them if they ever are willing to build a relationship.

           8.        Know When to Quit Trying.  At some point, we will have done all we can do to rectify the situation. Then we need to quit trying. It’s not a vindictive stance. It’s simply that, at some point, we have to stop making gestures that give our kids more opportunities to reject us. Moreover, our gestures sometimes just make things worse because they increase the conflict that our kids feel about having us in their lives.

           Often the best way to give kids a safe space is to simply stop trying to reconcile. Leaving them in complete control of the situation will be hard, but it’s often the healthiest boundary to set.

           Of course, disengaging is easier with adult children or stepchildren who don’t live with you. When you are responsible for a child, you need to set boundaries and provide structure. Kids who reject a relationship with you will be particularly resistant to letting you do your job of keeping them safe.  When we can do it safely, however, we need to stop trying to engage them and give them space for their resentment.    

           For example, if they don’t want to be involved in social settings such family activities at the holidays, find a way to safely give them the option to not engage. If they must go with you to an extended family gathering, ask only that they politely greet everyone. Then give them permission to sit somewhere by themselves listening to music or playing games on a tablet. Don’t worry about your family’s expectations, and don’t try to entice your kids to be part of the family. Let them have as much control of the situation as safety and essential good manners allow.

           9.        Keep Lines of Communication Open.  Even as we quit trying to stop our kids from rejecting us, we need to leave open a way for them to reconcile. It’s hard to do, because the process involves leaving ourselves emotionally vulnerable and open to more rejection. It’s much easier to just retreat into a shell and cut an alienated child completely out of our lives. A better way, if we can find the emotional resources to do it, is to establish open communication when we can and leave a way for them to come back into the family.

           These times can be heart-wrenching, because kids rarely make a clear and one-time decision to either build or torpedo a relationship. They will tentatively reach out and then pull away again, leaving you with emotional whiplash. It’s hard to keep going through this cycle, but it often is an unavoidable part of parenting children who have suffered trauma.  Children often need life experiences to understand what being a good parent involves, and they usually understand only in retrospect all that you sacrificed for them.

           Sometimes leaving a path open may require reaching out from time to time. For example, if you have addresses for adult kids, consider sending them birthday and holiday messages.  Your kids likely will need you sooner than they want to admit. Those are the times that you can remind them that you love them unconditionally and that they do have a family whenever they want to be a part of it.  The kids often may ignore these gestures, but sometimes such small gestures are simply the right thing to do.

           Of course, leaving a way open for reconciliation doesn’t mean that you ignore healthy boundaries. With kids battling substance abuse or mental health issues, for example, you can’t give them money. However, you can drive them for job interviews or visit them at rehab. The avenue you leave for them to come back home has to have healthy guardrails, both for your sake and for theirs.

           10.    Take Care of Yourself.  Finally, always remember that taking care of yourself is the first step toward being able to take care of your family.  Dealing with a hateful child is emotionally exhausting, and you must be able to replenish your resources.  I’ve written in another blog post about various ways of refilling your emotional care tank, such as spending time exercising or meditating, giving yourself grace for mistakes, avoiding unrealistic expectations, and finding an adult network for emotional support and practical advice.  Whatever works for you, be sure to make it an important part of your routine.  Trying to deal with rejection when you are already exhausted is certain to end badly.


           Dealing with a toxic level of rejection from your foster or stepchild is a challenge that many have faced, or still are facing.  Some relationships can be repaired; others simply have to be endured.  Whatever your situation, keeping these principles in mind can help you get through these rough seasons of life.  Parenting other people's children never is an easy journey.  If we can hang in there, though, it can be an incredibly rewarding one.


Debbie Ausburn

Helping foster parents and stepparents learn how to be the person who is not supposed to be there.