Like most foster, step-, or adoptive parents, one of my biggest challenges has been knowing how to respond to my children's bone-deep sense that I was not supposed to be in their lives. Children are hard-wired to want a biological parent, and only biological parents, as the foundation of their families. There’s nothing we can say to change that instinct. It’s an almost primal need for an intact biological family that is too deep to be reached by logic. And on some level, they are right – if the world worked the way it should, we would not be in their lives. I have learned through hard experience that if we try to fight this instinct, we will both fail and damage our relationships. If we want a close relationship with our non-biological children, we have to learn to work with and around their instinct that we don’t belong in their lives.
Effects of Our Kids’ Sense That We Aren’t Supposed to Be There
Whether our new family members join us as foster/adoptive kids or as part of a blended family, their sense that they or we don’t belong there is going to have some inevitable effects. We have to be prepared and recognize them when we see them.
The most common reaction is some degree of rejection from our kids. It may be out in the open, as when many of us hear, “You are NOT my parent!” Or it may be more subtle, with kids simply passively resisting us. Whatever way our kids show their attitude, we will sense that they have shut us out. They simply don’t want a new parent, no matter how wonderful we are.
A lot of the reaction will depend on our kids’ ages and developmental level. Younger children may be more accepting, particularly if they crave a “normal” family. Teenagers may be an entirely different story. It seems to be in their job description to disagree with adult decisions, and having a parent bring in a new spouse certainly will not be an exception.
Even when kids don’t actively reject you, they probably won’t jump into establishing a relationship with you. My stepkids never rejected my joining the family, but they did take their time warming up to the idea. They halfway expected our marriage to go the way of their father’s previous relationships. They weren’t exactly opposed to a new stepparent, but they weren’t going to invest a lot of emotional energy in a relationship until they were sure it was a stable one.
• Conflicting Loyalties
No matter how much our kids like us, and especially if they are willing to accept us, they will experience a loyalty conflict. There’s a good line in the otherwise not-very-realistic movie Stepmom where the kids say to their biological mother about their new stepmother, “We’ll hate her if you want us to.” All of our kids will feel this conflict to some degree or the other. No matter how nice or kind or generous we are, our child’s other parent will have their primary loyalty.
Responding to Our Kids’ Instincts
The good news is that we can respect our kids’ instincts and still develop good relationships. The most successful stepparent-stepchild relationships or foster care relationships generally follow some important, if difficult principles.
• Take Your Time
It’s easy to go into these relationships with unrealistic expectations. After all, we are wonderful people ready to love our new kids as if they were our biological kids. We can do all the things we’re supposed to about open communication, finding common ground, and providing a foundation of mutual respect. Why shouldn’t our kids respond with an instant bond and love like the Brady Bunch? Unfortunately, that’s not how kids are wired. They will have to have time to process our presence, and we have to give them that time.
• Don’t Take it Personally
We also have to understand that our kids’ preference for their natural parents is not about us. It’s not a reflection on what kind of people we are or how much we are trying. No matter how close to perfect we are, our kids are wrestling with their own internal narrative. We have to respect that struggle and recognize that it’s not always about us.
• Don’t Give Up
We also have to prove to our kids that we are in our new roles for the long haul. Early in my marriage, my stepsons often signaled that they weren’t sure that I would be in the family for the long haul. They gradually relaxed and a few years ago I asked my youngest stepson why he quit worrying about our marriage breaking up. He thought for a minute, then shrugged and said, “You’re still here.” It wasn’t my promises to always be there that convinced him. What convinced him was that I followed through on those promises.
In the same way, we have to give our kids unconditional love. As I’ve written before, that’s not the same as unconditional commitments, which are not healthy. We have to protect our commitments with healthy boundaries. But acceptance and love is a different concept. An important part strong parent-child relationships is letting our kids know that, no matter what stupid things they do, we still love them. We may not be able to support their decisions or help them avoid the consequences, but we don’t stop caring about them.
• Don’t Apologize
The fact that we are our child’s second choice (or non-choice) as a parent doesn’t mean that we are second-best parents. We still have an important role in our kids’ lives. Foster and stepfamily relationships can become an important part of a child’s safety net. For example, I’ve discovered that even our adult children need an appreciate my emotional support. Even though they no longer live with us, I can be an important helping them find their way through adulthood.
For all of our kids, we should be secure in the benefits that we bring to the family. Whatever the circumstances that brought our children into our lives, we have virtues and skills to share with them. Our children may not recognize their value, and estranged biological parents certainly will not, but that reaction does not matter. This is one area where we have to rely on ourselves and our spouses for emotional security.
Feeling apologetic as a new partner in a relationship also can lead us to overcompensate. It is all too easy to let understanding our kids’ motivations turn into making excuses for them. We have to resist that temptation and recognize that we do have a parenting role in the family, even if it’s only an indirect one. As a stepson phrased it a few months before my marriage, I was the “soon-to-be female authority figure in the house.” Children need the structure of an authority figure. No matter how much I might regret the circumstances that brought my children into my life, my job is to provide the love and family structure that they need.
We may not be the parents that our children want, but we are the ones that they have. We should never apologize for being that person or for our contribution to the family. We need to love our children, but gently encourage them to deal with, and eventually triumph in, the reality that they have.
For other thoughts about being the person who is not supposed to be in our kids’ lives, visit my other blog posts on related topics: