Being a stepparent or foster parent is a challenging task for many reasons, but the highest hurdle may be knowing how and when to provide strong structure for our children. There is no doubt that structure and predictability are important foundations for families. However, there are many reasons we need to make nurture a higher priority for our relationships than enforcing structure.
There are several reasons that nurture is more important in building relationships, but they all stem from the fact that we are stepping into a child’s story halfway through the narrative. Our children already have their story started, with quests and heroes and villains. I’ve written before that if we want to be the mentor instead of the villain in our children’s stories, then we need to learn from classic tales. In all of those stories, the people who emphasized structure (Cinderella’s wicked stepmother, for example) were the villains. The mentors (such as Dumbledore) didn’t ignore structure, but they led with how much they cared about the heroes. We need to follow that pattern if we are to build good relationships with our children.
Why We Should Lead with Nurturing Our Children
For many of us, setting boundaries may come more naturally than nurturing our children. There are some important reasons, though, that we need to be proactive about providing emotional nurture.
1. Emotional Well-being: High-nurture relationships help our children that stepchildren feel loved, valued, and emotionally supported. The old saying is very true about our children — they don’t care about how much we know until they know how much we care.
2. Building Trust: Trusting adults is very hard for children who have suffered trauma, particularly when they have seen the disruption of their biological family. They are hard-wired to resist anyone else in the place of their biological parents. If we want them to trust us, we first have to show them how much we care for them.
3. Foundation for Healthy Relationships: We all want our children to learn how to develop healthy relationships as adults. They best way they can learn how to care for someone is to see us care for them. They will develop the relationship skills that we model for them.
How to Lead with Nurture in Our Relationships:
So, if we decide to focus on emotionally supporting our children, what does that look like? As I’ve said before, each relationship is different and each child has different emotional needs. There are some common principles, however, that will make our task easier:
1. Open Communication: We need to encourage open and empathetic communication. It’s often hard for children who have suffered trauma to put words to our feelings. They often just let the feelings build up until they spill out in an emotional, often disrespectful and chaotic outburst. When that happens, we have to look beyond our initial hurt and wait for the best time to calmly help our children sort through their thoughts and feelings. We also have to be sure that we don’t impose any consequences for their attempts at communication. We may need to guide them away from being disrespectful (and perhaps sometimes impose appropriate consequences), but on the whole we need to concentrate on what they are saying. If our children believe that we will penalize them for expressing their honest opinions, then we won’t hear any honesty. Letting them vent and helping them sort through what they are saying is the best way to build trust and emotional connection with them.
2. Set Clear Expectations: Concentrating on nurture doesn’t mean that we ignore structure entirely. We do need to work with our spouse to establish clear rules and expectations for behavior within the family. Ensuring that rules are consistent, and that we enforce them consistently, may require a lot of negotiation and communication with our spouse, but it is not a task that we can do alone. If we don’t have buy-in from our spouse about house rules, then we can only enforce our personal boundaries and concentrate on emotionally nurturing our children. As with all things in life, we concentrate on what we can control.
3. Positive Reinforcement: Use positive reinforcement to acknowledge and reward good behavior. Positive reinforcement works much better than negative with children and builds a better foundation for relationships. The old mantra “catch them doing it right” is a powerful parenting skill for children who have suffered trauma.
4. Quality Time: Find ways to work on projects with your children, or doing something that they enjoy. Letting them teach you something that they know can be a powerful way to strengthen your emotional bond. If nothing else, the time that you spend will demonstrate your commitment to nurturing them.
5. Be Patient: Parenting other people’s children is challenging, and establishing a good relationship will take time. Don’t rush it, and don’t expect them to act like adults. You may see them take one step forward and then two steps back. You will have days when you feel that you have a good relationship and days when you can’t understand why they are being so hurtful. The only solution is to keep on being who you are, or at least the person you would like to be. Concentrate on being patient and letting them find their equilibrium in their own time.
Stepping into a child’s story is always a challenge, particularly when that child has suffered some level of trauma. The best way to establish a strong and healthy relationship is to concentrate on emotional support and nurture. Structure is important, but not nearly as important as their knowing that we love and care for them.