It's easy to talk about building good relationships with foster and stepchildren, but what if you don't like your kids?  It's very difficult to find the motivation to build a close relationship, or even a marginally good relationship, with someone whom you don't like.  This dilemma is a more common situation that we want to admit, but we shouldn't be surprised when it happens.   I was fortunate in that my stepchildren were generally 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 helped us move toward a more positive relationship.

        1. Don’t Feel Guilty

        Not liking your child does not make you a bad person. Unlike biological parents, we are stepping into a child's ongoing story, and we are doing so without the benefit of the hormones and biological changes that prepare us to love our biological children at birth without reservation.  Moreover, every parent-child relationship can have hiccups.  Children are individuals, with their own likes, dislikes, and reactions.  Some of those attitudes and preferences will seem annoying or strange, and not being able to understand them does not make you a terrible person.  

        If you find yourself parenting children that you don't like, then, the first step is to take a deep breath.  Realize that this may be a relatively normal situation for parenting foster and step children.  Members of any new family will have to adjust to each other. Fortunately, there are solutions to make these family issues more manageable.  Give yourself some time and space to work through a common and difficult situation.

        2. Manage Your Reactions

        Don't try to change your kids' attitudes.  You need to set ground rules for your home, but you can't make your kids like you or make yourself like them.  Real life is not a TV show, and there is no magic wand to turn disrespectful stepchildren into wonderful people before the next commercial.  All that you have any control over is your own attitudes.  So concentrate on managing your reactions.  As with every child, try not to take the situation personally. Then 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.  Do what you can when you can to have positive interactions.

        The problem can be more pressing in a foster or blended family, where our children by definition have suffered from adverse childhood experiences.  Traumatized children likely will have developed ways of coping with and reacting to their trauma that may be counterproductive and almost certainly will be annoying.  If you do a bit of soul searching, you may find that the problem is not so much the child's bad behavior 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.  Understanding trauma responses and recognizing them when they occur are important steps toward being able to accept our kids and work towards a healthy relationship with them.  

        Avoid friction points and power struggles when you can.  If discussing homework with your partner's kids ends up in a fight, then let your spouse handle that issue.  When I was a single foster parent, I was the only adult available to establish structure, but I learned that I was spending a lot of time on issues that, in context, weren't worth the emotional energy.  I learned to focus the house rules on big issues such as mutual respect and leave the small things for later (if ever).

        Another important lesson I learned as a married foster parent was to stay out of any disagreements between my husband and our foster child if there were no safety issues at stake, just constant disagreements and bad attitudes.  I always had to fight a tendency to "fix" things or to talk one or the other of them into a better attitude.  I finally realized that my good intentions were just making things worse, as well as harming my own relationship with each of them.  Once I finally learned to leave their relationship as their responsibility, I ended up with a closer relationship with both.

        3. Keep It In Context

        Remember that the whole family may be going through a difficult time.  Your children are mourning the loss of their "own family" and their "own homes."  They probably are having a hard time with this new relationship just as you are.

        Also, understand that being annoying sometimes is simply part of growing up.  Children have to be taught which natural impulses are morally wrong or socially unacceptable.  Our children 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 have faith that the aliens will return their brains eventually.

4. Don't Ignore Serious Problems

        Understanding where kids and coming from and keeping their behaviors in context doesn't mean that you put up with disrespectful behaviors or serious bad behavior.  You may have to insist on healthy boundaries or new rules of engagement within the family.  Get professional help if you need it.  If the rest of the family won't agree to family counseling, then at least find resources for yourself.  If your budget doesn't extend to professional counseling, find a support group or online group of people in a similar situation.  Wherever you can find them, look for practical suggestions on how to manage your new role and new responsibilities.  Stay in your lane, but insist on healthy boundaries for yourself and within the family.

        5. 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 realize that "eventually" can seem like a lifetime.  Unfortunately, building trust with each other takes time -- sometimes a long time.  And, given that children can make their own decisions about such things, we may never have a great relationship with them.  But if we do nice things for them regardless of whether we like them, all the while observing healthy boundaries, our relationship will at least be stronger than if we never try.


        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 a worthwhile relationship with your foster and stepchildren.


Debbie Ausburn

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