“Oh, the new marriage is going well,” my friend said. “I adore my husband. The only downside . . . .” She hesitated, looked around carefully, then leaned forward and whispered, “I just don’t like his kids.”
My friend’s dilemma is not unusual for blended and foster families. Even biological parents find their children going through phases when they are simply not likable. I was fortunate in that my stepchildren were almost always delightful, but I have parented foster children that I had to struggle to like and care about. While I never found a magic solution, I was able to find several principles that made the situation much more positive for all of us.
Don’t Feel Guilty
Children are individuals, with their own likes, dislikes, and reactions. Some of those attitudes and preferences will seem strange to us. They also will have developed ways of coping and reacting that may be counterproductive. Traumatized children can be particularly annoying. Don’t avoid your feelings. Analyze them and figure out what you dislike and why. You may find that the problem is not so much the child as your expectations or preferences. Or you may find that they are so bound up in their trauma that they are doing the best they can.
Manage Your Reactions
All you can control is yourself, so manage your reactions. As with every child, try not to take the situation personally. Remember that part of our job is to show children how to constructively deal with disagreements. If we feel rejected and respond in kind, then we are simply setting up a destructive spiral that will not end well.
Avoid friction points when you can. If discussing homework with your child ends up in a fight, then let your spouse handle that issue. Or, even better, I learned to tell my children that grades are their responsibility, and to let me know if they needed help. Natural consequences taught them far more than any of my lectures, and I was able to avoid a lot of arguments.
Keep It In Context
Understand that being annoying is simply part of growing up. Children have to be taught which natural impulses are morally wrong or socially unacceptable. Our child may come to us without any prior guidance, and they are doing the best they can. That realization will not make their behavior any less annoying, but it can help us understand the child’s positive attributes.
Finding those positive attributes is an essential exercise. Every flaw is the flip side of a virtue, and it is part of our job to find and encourage those positive traits. A child who argues is at least trying to use reason over emotions. A child who is stubborn may be frightened of change, or perhaps has a strong will that can help them overcome their past. Whatever the annoying behavior, try to find a virtue that you can encourage.
Also know that children do grow up, and most annoying behaviors are just a phase. Sometimes you just have to wait for the aliens to return their brains.
Pretend, pretend, pretend
The final, and most important, principle is to act like you like them. When I was a child and complained that I didn’t like something, my grandmother sometimes responded, “Pretend that you do and eventually you will.” I hated that advice then, but (like most of the advice I hated when I was younger) she was exactly right. Don’t wait for your feelings to change; do nice things for your children anyway. Figure out how you treat people that you like, and treat your children that way. Feelings follow actions. If you treat your children well, eventually your feelings will follow suit.
I’ve only hit the high spots here. Certainly you should consider seeking help from a family counselor, take care of yourself, and a myriad of other things. But do not wait for those things to solve the problem. Control the things that you can, keep everything in context, and be nice anyway. These principles are not a magic wand, but they can help you build worthwhile relationships with your children.