One of the biggest challenges to parenting other people’s children is establishing a good relationship with them.  One important foundation in forging a healthy relationship is to give our children plenty of space.  I like to think of that space in terms of emotional space, physical space, and a space of their own, all of which I have found to be essential to any solid family relationships. This month, as we discuss principles for our relationships with our children, let’s start with how to give them that space.

Emotional Space

        The first principle is to give our kids plenty of emotional space.  The ways that this principle will show up in our families are as varied as our families.  The most common issues, though, seem to show up again and again.   Here’s how I’ve seen them and the actions I’ve seen work best.

        1.    Let Your Child Set the Pace.  It’s easy to let our good intentions get ahead of us, leaving our children feeling like we are trying to force a close relationship.  We have to start with realistic expectations for these relationships, particularly if it's a new relationship or your child resents having their biological family disrupted.  Not all children will recognize right away how wonderful we are, and some never will.  It’s best to hang back and let our kids set the pace.  It’s going to take them time to accept a new relationship.  In most cases, it’s best to just be available and wait for them to initiate whatever relationship they want.  Present yourself as a caring adult, not a substitute parent, who is available as an extra resource for them.

         Letting them set the pace doesn’t mean that you make them initiate every conversation.  After all, we are the adults in the situation with presumably more developed social skills.   Start conversations the same way you would with anyone else — ask about their interests, let them explain to you what they want, and ask their opinion about related current events.  Give them opportunities to talk to you, but don’t insist on it.  

        Above all, aim for mutual respect and open communication with your child.  It may not be reciprocal communication.  After all, they are not adults with our life experiences and skill sets.  But we can be a positive role model about what good communication looks like in a positive relationship while giving them time to become part of a blended family or foster family at their own pace.

        2.    Create opportunities for “together time.”  Try to find things that your family can enjoy as a group, whether it’s game night, getting ice cream, playing a video game, or attending extracurricular activities.  Again, don’t insist on quality time to the point of alienating your child; the principle is to create opportunities, not force them.  Try to find some common ground for things that you can enjoy together.  Or things that you at least can learn about -- I never will enjoy video games at a level that my stepsons do, but at least I learned to let them teach me enough to talk (somewhat) intelligently about one of their passions.

        Another important part of this principle is to engage in a way that’s comfortable for your child.  One-on-one conversations may be difficult for your child, which is one reason that family dinners may be an important part of your parenting toolkit.  Children often will speak up more in a group than other situations.

        Also don’t overlook the importance of times when they can talk without actually looking at you.  Some kids are shy, and social media seems to have created a generation of young people who don’t know how to have face-to-face conversations.  Children, especially teenagers, seem to be more comfortable having conversations when you and they are focused on something else, such as watching television or working on projects.  You also may find that you can have more one-on-one time if your child can look at something else.  The most common place that my kids have initiated important conversations with me has been while I’ve been driving them from one place to another.  I don’t know if knowing that I had to watch the road instead of them made them more comfortable, or if they liked talking while looking out the window.  Whatever the reason, I learned to never discount the importance of these conversations.

        3.    Spend time building trust.  One very true lesson I learned is that my kids don’t care how much I know until they know how much I care.  Building trust and showing (not just telling) them that I’m here for the long haul takes time- in some cases, a long time.  Relationships have to grow organically, and there are no magic words you can use that will speed up the process.  Give them time to learn that you are trustworthy, and spend that time learning how to be a person they can trust.

        Part of building trust is letting them decide what name to call you.   Don’t insist on “mom” or “dad.”  Your children have (or at least once had) a mom and dad, and they do not want any substitutes.  Give them the respect of making their own decisions about whether to call you by your name or a (respectful) nickname.

Physical Space

        Giving our kids physical space can be just as important as emotional space.  There are a couple of areas where this principle can show up.

        1.    Physical Affection.  Don’t force physical affection — just like the emotional aspect of the relationship, let your kids set the pace.  Some of their reaction will be developmental.  Young children are naturally more affectionate than older children, and many teenagers have an invisible “do not touch” zone surrounding them.  Wherever they are developmentally and emotionally, let them set their own boundaries for what affection they want from you.

        2.    Time With Biological Parents.  Don’t insist on always being involved.  Let your child have time with their biological parents, consistent with whatever court orders or case plans you have to follow.  If you are a stepparent, you need to give plenty of room for your bonus child to spend time with your spouse and with the other biological parent.  If you are a foster parent, you need to find ways, consistent with the case plan and the child’s safety, for them to spend time with their biological parents.  If your children can’t physically spend time with their parents, do what you can to facilitate phone calls, emails, and handwritten notes.  Those relationships are important to your children, and you need to stay out of the way and encourage them where you can.

        3.     Alone Time.  Also, be sure that you give your kids time and space to be by themselves.  Again, different ages of kids will have different ideas of what that alone time looks like, and you will have to supervise younger children more closely than older ones.  Everyone, however, needs a break from everyone else every so often.  Don't take it personally if your kids want to start spending time by themselves.

A Space of Their Own

        The final principle is one that’s easy to overlook in the rush of daily life.  While your children are figuring out what relationship they want with you, they need a physical retreat that’s theirs alone.  In most cases with my kids, I left their bedrooms as their space.  Just as I never wanted my children to have free access to my bedroom, I always respected their bedrooms as belonging to them, not to me.  I didn’t go in unless I needed to for safety or hygiene reasons, and I always knocked and asked for permission.  

        Wherever you set up space for your child, ensure that the house rules require the entire family to respect everyone's boundaries.  If your children have to share a bedroom, help them set boundaries within the room so they can claim their spaces.  Encourage them to choose decor or, if you have money and time, a new paint color.  Letting them make decisions about their rooms will help them feel that they belong there, not that they are in a strange place that someone else controls.

        This principle is particularly important when you are a stepparent with a bonus child who visits only part-time.  Helping them carve out a space of their own will make them feel a part of the family, even if an extended family, rather than just a part-time visitor.  Do what you can to give them the same amount of space as the children who live full-time in the family.  If you can’t do that, work to find them a dedicated space rather than putting them in another child’s room once in a while.  Involve everyone in the discussions and keep communications clear about how best to make every child feel like an important part of the family.


        Building a strong relationship while you are parenting someone else’s child is one of the unique challenges that we all have to meet as foster or stepparents.  It can be hard work.  We have to provide structure without taking over another parent’s job, and sometimes we have to be the adult authority figure for children who don’t want us there.  Learning how to give them space — both emotional and physical — will help you set the foundation for eventually forging a healthy relationship.  


Debbie Ausburn

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