For almost every foster parent or stepparent, there comes a time when a child announces, “I don’t want to be here,” or “I don’t want YOU to be here.” Or the message may not be direct, but a series of subtle slights that add up to the same idea.  However we hear it, the moment is always painful.  Fortunately, there are ways that we can move past the problem and still build whatever relationship our children are willing to accept.

Take A Deep Breath

The first principle is to give yourself a moment.  Do not try to pretend that their attitude 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 comment.

Always resist the temptation to respond in kind.  If you have to respond in the moment, make it 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.  Do your best not to add to the conflict.

In fact, if you have not faced this situation already, prepare for it now.  Plan ahead what you will say.  Just as the Red Cross does disaster planning, figure out what you say that is both truthful and not inflammatory.  Do not leave the problem to the inspiration of the moment.

Don’t Take it Personally

The next important principle is that their response very rarely is about you.  They have lost their intact biological family, and 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.

Sometimes, it is about you.  If your stepchildren see you as the reason that their parents broke up, for example, then you have a very tough road ahead of you.  We also can make the relationship difficult by making any number of other common mistakes.  The other principles, however, remain the same.  Give them space and do not force a relationship.  Maybe your children will develop the astounding grace of Princes William and Harry, 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.

Care About Them Anyway

Finally, don’t let your child’s rejection affect how much you care about them.  I know that that project is easier said that 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 have to be willing to sacrifice for our children, whatever they think of us.  

Knowing that a child does not want us in his or her life is always difficult.  Their reaction, however, does not change our responsibilities.  If we remain steady in our response, we have a much better chance of getting past the rough spots and forging a strong and positive relationship.

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Debbie Ausburn

I make my living as a lawyer, but what I do is take care of other people’s children.