One of the first articles I wrote on this blog is titled what to do if you think you might hate your stepkids. It was recently suggested to me that I write about this from the angle of why do stepkids seem to hate stepparents.
I want to offer this.
Your stepkids probably don’t hate you.
On the other hand, that’s not always true. Sometimes a stepkid will hate a stepparent. To be really honest, sometimes there are legitimate reasons for those emotions. I am an advocate for stepparents. I speak out daily to empower the voices of stepparents and reduce the stigma associated with the word. Even I must admit that there are some stepparents who are very poorly behaved and even abusive to the children in their relationships. There are also stepparents who create additional conflict within families. There are stepparents who work to exclude stepchildren from the relationships with their parent. So in those cases the reason the stepkids hate the stepparent would be becuase the stepparent is not a good, helpful, supporting, loving addition to their family. It should be mentioned that can happens with biological parents too. You, dear reader, know this already. There is nobody reading this article who does not know first hand a person who will tell you that they hate an adult in their life.
When I was a new stepmom I worried a lot about the stepkids not liking me. That was a top concern of mine. I speak today with a decent relationship with both my adult stepkids but there were lots of times when in the early days I wondered if they liked me. There were also plenty of days where I though to myself: they might hate me and there’s nothing I can do about it. There were times where I wondered if being a stepmom was a role that I even wanted. I also want to add that I have two kids who are biologically related to me and they have both told me to my face that they hated me over the years. It sucks.
Back to my ideas on why it can feel like your stepson or stepdaughter might hate you and maybe some ideas on what you can do to work through that.
Why do my stepkids hate me?
Initially, when I was introduced to my stepkids I was a novelty. A new friend of their dad’s who planned fun things and like a camp counselor or a baby sitter. In the beginning I only saw them for dinners out, trips to fun places, fairs and parks. I was on entertainment mode and I’m pretty sure they liked that a lot. Me too. It was fun. But in the life of a stepmom if you shift from part time companion to full or part time living together … a shift in how kids/stepparents interact often happens because it’s hard … I would say impossible to maintain that cheerleader energy all the time.
One of the truthisms that I will offer for your consideration is that living with other people can be really challenging. In my opinion this is a fact whether we are talking about other adults, roommates, relatives who visit and definitely children who are not fully trained socialized humans can be a HUGE stressor.
I had a conversation with a therapist recently who has been doing 20 years of family therapy for stepparents. She is not a stepparent herself which is something that can often rub me the wrong way because I think that people with personal stepparent experience give different advice than people who just “think they know stuff.” To be honest this therapist and I don’t agree on a lot of things. She told me that stepkids hate their stepparents because it goes against a primal instinct to defend their mom. This is an idea that bounces around …always. This idea can be harmful if and when it puts a lot of pressure on parents to not ever feel negative thoughts about their kids and it puts a huge barrier between non-biological caregivers, custodians and stepparents that no matter what they do a connection is impossible. I think that’s an false idea that is based on the romanticized notion of mother-baby attachment. One of my sources for this is the research done by Chelsea Conaboy for her book Mother Brain. This is an idea that in modern society has roots in patriarchal systems that benefit from assigning females the obligation of the work of raising the next generation of humans simply because of biology.
In my experience, children can be very disrespectful to adults and it’s not related to whether or not those adults are biologically related to them or not. Children yell at their parents, grandparents, babysitters, teachers and friends. The reason I want to bring this up is to just offer the idea that it’s okay to be compassionate with yourself in this situation and consider that perhaps they don’t hate you exclusively because you are a stepparent. Sometimes kids strike out at people close to them and sometimes they strike out at strangers. I caution everybody against looking for absolute rules on children’s behavior because it’s often more complex and nuanced. But also consider that maybe they are just being cranky with everybody.
Change is hard
The stepparent often introduces changes. Changes can be uncomfortable. In many of these 5 billion and 7 times that this will happen as you create a blended family the stepparent can be the target of resistance against the changes. New house, new holiday routines, new dinner conversations, new daily schedules, new siblings. Change is hard and the stepparent is often the symbol of these changes.
It might be helpful to consider that one reason a stepparent is sensitive to the behaviors of the kids is that they too are stressed by the changes happening.
Voices from outside.
I wish I could tell you that all families are made of adults who are mature and emotionally self-sufficient and resilient. That’s false. Most families are made of real humans who carry emotional scars and wounds forward from their own lives. Most adults have no practical training or skills to manage the very challenging real life situations that come up in marriage and families and raising kids. Many families include real-life humans who misuse substances and struggle with mental health conditions that complicate everything.
What this means in practice is that while all people are trying their very best a lot of times a stepmom is joining a family that might have what I call a legacy of dysfunction. There are a few things that I mean by this. Where there has been divorce there is often a reason for that split and if the adults are not superhuman they likely are incompletely healed and have unprocessed grief and emption still hanging around. Where the family split due to violence, addiction, death, incarceration…whatever …those events often have emotional leftovers that carry forward into the new family and a stepparent can feel like they are the target.
If the ex-spouse isn’t happy with the situation they may share that with the children who may transfer that to their interactions with the new adult in the mix – that’s the stepparent. It’s not always just the ex. It can be their friends, siblings, extended family, co-workers or neighbors. While I’ve never had an adversarial relationship with my husband’s first spouse one of her friends was very nasty in her description about me. It hurt a lot. This is a hard situation for a stepparent. There are some tools that can be helpful for stepparents to improve their individual experience if this is going on.
Older stepkids may not want a new “parent”
One of the bits of advice that I got when I was stepping into my role was that younger kids are more accepting of stepparents. I have personally found this to be true. In my experience, talking to other stepparents it seems to be fairly common.
If you join a family where the child/ren are adolescents they may already be in the process of becoming independent from their parents. If you show up and want to take on an adult figure role as a source of discipline, restriction and punishment they may not choose to be welcoming to you in their lives. I encourage adults in this situation to reflect how they felt at that age themselves because I think that most of us can remember back to the feeling that the adults around us were totally clueless 🙂 In this case, I offer the idea that they don’t hate you …they want support to be independent generally. I know many people who have joined families with other kids and developed strong and rewarding relationships with teenage and adult stepkids and I also know stepparents who have wonderful marriages and they don’t really interact all that much with the adult stepkids and it works for them.
In the world of family self-helpers and the very small pool of people who speak directly to stepparents I am often a contrary voice because I don’t offer quick fixes, guarantees, complicated academic nonsense that doesn’t work in real life. I also never suggest that anybody accept a situation that requires that they accept a role of domestic subserviency or default misery. I want to offer everybody who is in this position that there might not be anything wrong with you, with your family, with your kids, stepkids or spouse. You may feel very much like a powerless victim in your family at the moment. I want to offer you the idea that you probably have more power to be happy than you realize.
A basic reframe that might help
If you came to this blog post looking for instant solutions…well, please do keep in mind that it’s a blog post. But here’s one thing that I will offer you that may help. Right now if you feel like the emotional pain and discomfort in your life is because your stepkids hate you I will offer you this reframe. A reframe is a coaching technique which is basically a different perspective to give you a chance to shift from your current emotional state and into another. Is it possible that you can be a happy human with a great life even if your stepkids don’t like you? There’s no right or wrong answer to that question … the progress that this reframe may offer is related to all the things that come up when you answer it for yourself.
What’s a stepmom to do when she thinks her new husbands kid’s might hate her?
This is something that I work on with my coaching clients. The good news is that there are lots of tools and techniques that might help. At the root a strong sense of self-confidence and worthiness is helpful. Additionally, a clear concept of what the new family culture you wish to build will be can be important. Setting boundaries is a powerful and important skill in any family. Communication is a powerhouse skill that when improved often helps everybody. I want to throw in that a sense of humor and individual agency in your life makes a big difference to how we each experience our individual situations. If any of these sound like things you’d like to talk more about reach out when you are ready.