Taking care of other people’s children requires a lot of sacrifice, and our stepchildren often don’t recognize our efforts for quite a while. But, just like biological children, if we hang in there long enough, our children eventually will develop the life experience to appreciate our love for them. At least, that’s the encouraging message of one in-depth study of stepchildren who described positive relationships with their stepparents.
The goal of the study was to find out what events created the positive bonds within the blended families. It had a small sample size, only 38 now-adult stepchildren. The small group enabled the researchers to ask searching questions about how the relationship in the stepfamily developed and get detailed answers. They took the answers and categorized them according to common themes.
The theme that the stepchildren cited most frequently as creating a positive relationship was out-of-the ordinary kindness from stepparents. They recounted events such as a loan to buy a car, letting a child paint her bedroom red, and helping in a dispute with a landlord. The common thread was that these actions helped the children form a bond that was, in their words, “parent-like” or “a parent back-up.”
This theme of kindness and helpfulness fits with what I have seen many times in many families. Our kids want to know that we care about them, and actions matter more than words. Of course, I can’t say that sacrificing for our children will always lead to a good relationship. They have agency, and they may reject our overtures for reasons beyond our control. But I can say that, if we don’t show our kids that we care, then our relationship never will have a chance. We have to accept the risk of rejection in order to even start being their back-up parent.
We also have to recognize that relationships with our kids won’t grow at a steady rate. They aren’t plants that we can raise with the exactly correct combination of sun, water, and fertilizer. Children grow into relationships the same way they grow into everything else in their lives — more by trial and error than by listening to adult advice. In fact, in the study, it was when children felt most uncertain about the relationship that the kind acts had the most impact. It is when we give without any expectations that we will see the greatest benefits to our relationships
We also have to give our children freedom to choose what kind of relationship they want. They usually have to try out the relationship for a while before they know whether they like it or not. Giving them room to explore while we remain committed is an important part of forging a strong relationship. It’s rather like the girl in the study who wanted to paint her room red. “[My stepdad] was like, ‘It’s just a wall.’ And he told me I would probably hate it in like a year, but we can always repaint it.” We know that our children will benefit from having us in their lives, but they have to reach that conclusion in their own time and in their own way.
We also have to expect them to test our commitment to them. From birth, children learn about their environment by testing it. They learn by crawling into walls, throwing food from their high chair, and banging toys on the floor. They learn the limits of their world by testing those limits. They will approach our concern for them the same way. They will test our limits, whether consciously or unconsciously, to see if we really mean what we say. We have to be ready to keep sacrificing, continue being kind, and not give up on them.
Of course, healthy sacrifices have healthy limits. We can’t give so much to our kids that we keep no resources for ourselves or other responsibilities. It also doesn’t help them if our sacrifices simply enable bad habits or actions. The key is to focus on what our children need, not what makes us feel comfortable. Sometimes the best thing we can do for our kids is to enforce boundaries on what we are willing to do. But they also need to know that, if they come back from the brink, we will still be there.
Sacrifice and one-way commitments are heavy lifting, but there is no other way for us to become the additional parents that our children need.