Coming into a new family and taking on the role of step-parent can be a daunting prospect. You want to make a good first impression, you want to be liked, but you also hope to become someone who the children will respect and listen to.
For some new step-parents, this urge to get it right can push them to do things they wouldn't normally do. Some may attempt to instill firm boundaries and rally their partner to support them, in an effort to display solidarity and assert their new position. If these boundaries are disregarded, the adult may feel they have to up their game. Perhaps they will take a different route and try gifts, bribes and treats to win over the child. But children are not foolish. They can see right through any shallow attempts to gain their respect, and ultimately, none of the above methods will bring any trust or respect from your new stepchild.
So how can you achieve a position of respect in your new family?
The first step is to realise that respect and trust are not something you automatically get with the title of “parent.” You have to earn these things, which takes time. You may have known them a while, or you may be practically a stranger; when you introduce a new person into the family, it doesn't matter how familiar they are with the child or teen, it’s still a significant change in their world. It is going to take time and effort on your part for them to adjust to it. But there are several things you can do to support them through this and make it as smooth a journey as possible.
Respect is a two-way street, and one of the best ways of earning it from others is to give it first. Show them that you value them as a person, rather than treating them as a subordinate or a nuisance. Take their opinions into consideration. Let them speak without cutting them off and show them that what they think is important too.
Focus on connection and stop trying to lay down the law
When you come in with rules and boundaries, you immediately set off a defence mechanism in the child. They feel resentment at being told what to do in their own home by this new and strange person. The more you push, the more they shut down and ignore you. You as a parent will feel frustration at their defiance; they will feel anger and disconnection from you. You cannot gain respect without creating a connection. This must be your priority - the rest will come in time, but not without first building this vital foundation. So read a book together. Sit down and watch a film. Focus on being kind and on connecting, and you will begin to feel their resistance melt away.
Leave the discipline to their parent and discuss any differences of opinion behind closed doors
When discipline needs to happen, step back and leave it to their parent to deal with. You may feel that the situation was handled too harshly or not seriously enough. You may feel disrespected and compelled to step in as the guide, but don't. There will come a time when it becomes natural for you to gently help them through difficult situations, or when they have behaved inappropriately, and you can help them to work through what happened and figure out a better way for the future. But you will know in your heart when the time is right. It will feel natural, and your connection will be secure enough to handle a difference of opinion and some gentle guidance. Wait until the time is right.
Treat them as a person, show an interest in them and their passions
Often step-parents are thrown in at the deep end. Sometimes they've spent very little time around children and don't know how to talk to them, so they dumb down their conversations or don't make the effort to listen to the child properly. Children pick up on this behaviour, and it affects how they respond to the adult. They can feel dismissed, unheard and withdraw from interaction. But the important thing to remember is that although children are not just little adults, they are still people. They often understand far more than they let on. They don't need baby talk or pacifying. They appreciate eye contact when being spoken to. When you treat them like a human being rather than a doll or a pet, they feel respected and important to you, and this will have a dramatic effect on your entire relationship.
A child needs unconditional love, connection and clear boundaries to thrive. As a step-parent, focus on instilling the first two and in time you will have developed a strong and loving relationship with your step-child. And when they feel connected and loving towards you, they will naturally respect and listen to you. It will take time, but in parenting, there are no shortcuts.
Samantha Vickery is the author of "Trust Me I'm a Toddler", a guide to parenting gently and peacefully through the toddler stage.