In our work with stepfamilies we often hear about children’s behavior toward a stepparent: “My husband’s daughter doesn’t like me! She is rude and he does nothing about it,” says a woman who sits with her arms crossed during a therapy session.
Her husband shakes his head and looks defeated. “I don’t know why my daughter acts like she does,” he says. “My wife is a great stepmother; she does a lot for my daughter. When I try to talk to my child about her behavior, all she says is that I don’t understand.”
Children’s hostility toward stepparents can be a source of tension in the household and cause arguments between the adults. In a stepfamily, every family member has his or her own story or special perspective and unique challenges. Understanding the situation from the child’s point of view can be extremely helpful for the adults.
When a divorced adult finds a new partner to share his or her life, it is a joyous occasion. This is particularly true if the prior marriage and divorce was filled with conflict. Finally, something positive and uplifting!
Not so for children. Children whose parents have divorced tell us it is difficult for them to see their mother or father with someone else. The new relationship responsible for a parent’s happiness can evoke the opposite emotional reaction in a child. There is sadness at the finality of their parents’ split, anger at the amount of attention their parent gives the new relationship and a strong sense of loyalty to the other parent.
Loyalty binds are common for kids when a parent remarries. They occur even when the divorce has been amicable. If the child has an especially close relationship with a parent, the bind can be even stronger. How can they accept Mom’s new husband and still stay loyal to their dad? For children, it can feel like a betrayal to love (or even like) a stepparent.
Conflicted loyalties can be at the root of a child’s seemingly rude behavior toward a stepparent. For the stepdaughter in our example, whom we’ll call Jenna, even enjoying a dinner made her miserable. “My stepmother is a really good cook and the food she made was great. My mom doesn’t cook like that. I thought the dinner was good, but felt funny saying it. Dad kept commenting on how delicious it was and looking right at me. I know he wanted me to say something, but I couldn’t. I got a knot in my stomach and ended up leaving the table and going to my room. He doesn’t understand. It feels wrong to like my stepmother’s cooking better than my mom’s!”
To help loosen loyalty binds, children need to hear from adults that caring for a stepparent does not make them disloyal to a parent. In Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships, author Patricia Papernow encourages parents to have “loyalty bind talks.” Papernow offers an example: “Having a stepparent can be kind of confusing. I want you to know that your mom has a permanent place in your heart. Like the sun. Like the earth. I hope you come to care about Claire. But even if you do, her place in your heart will be a totally different place from your mom’s place.” Grandparents, guidance counselors, parents, therapists and stepparents can all talk to kids about loyalty binds.
Trying to force the stepparent-child relationship can worsen loyalty binds. Stepparents should not attempt to “win the child over” and parents should not push the child to accept the stepparent. A stepparent trying harder and doing more for a child can actually make a loyalty bind worse. Let the relationship unfold naturally over time. Shared activities will help but should happen over time and never be mandatory.
When we talk with children who have a stepparent, we say that having another significant adult in their life whom they didn’t pick or have any control over can be difficult. However, we ask them to remember this person is important to their mother or father. We suggest to the child and adults that the only expectation is the child treat the stepparent respectfully while remaining open to the possibility of developing a closer relationship. Sometimes it works out well and there is another helpful and caring adult in their life, but it’s also OK if it remains respectful but superficial.
Understanding Jenna’s loyalty bind helped both her father and stepmother relax and take a more empathetic view. With the pressure off, Jenna was free to develop a relationship with her stepmother over a number of months. Tentative at first, theirs grew into a mutually respectful and caring relationship.
Cary and Tonja Rector are married and live with their children in Manlius. Cary is a licensed mental health counselor and Tonja is a licensed marriage and family therapist.