Mature marriages are on the rise thanks to things like longer life spans, financial independence, better healthcare, and the growing number of people starting over after a previous relationship. Accordingly, many of these relationships involve grown children. Even under the best of circumstances, a second marriage can be stressful when children are involved. And the dynamics of stepfamilies can be just as challenging with adult children as they are with young ones.
While there are plenty of exceptions, many adult children have problems with a stepparent and tend to make this loud and clear. You aren’t invited to “family” dinners. They refuse to visit. They bring their father a Christmas gift, and you get air. They dislike you, even though they don’t know you. In short, they make your life miserable.
Most of this has nothing to do with you!
Having a stepchild who doesn’t like you is a common experience. And while you don’t need to parent adult stepchildren, it’s nice to aim for a healthy relationship with them. Here are a few steps to take you in that direction:
Adult children came from two parents – and you aren’t one of them. In most cases, your stepchild already has a mom and doesn’t want another. At least not yet. So, don’t chime in with unsolicited advice. Don’t give your opinion when it’s not wanted. And for the love of God, don’t try to influence their father. Butt out, stay out, and go shopping.
No matter how close in age you are with your stepkids, you are some form of “parental” figure, so creating a welcoming environment is key. Open up your home and your world. Acknowledge the important milestones in your stepchildren’s and grandchildren’s lives and let them know you are there for them if needed. But while trying to win them over by being nice is important, too nice is not the best approach. Be authentic. Be yourself. Be the best version of yourself as opposed to the person you think you should be in order for them to like you.
Talk to your husband.
There’s a semi-old adage that says, “You control your extended family; your husband controls his.” Yes, your husband plays a huge part in this. Without trash-talking your stepchildren, share your feelings with your man. “While I really want a good relationship with your children, I feel they don’t like me, and at times, the way they treat me is hurtful.” If your spouse does not or chooses not to understand how you feel, that’s a conversation for another time. Suffice to say, it could compromise your relationship with him. His children have no right to treat you badly, especially in your own home. And your husband should not allow it. He needs to tell them that he won’t tolerate disrespect or rudeness toward you under any circumstance.
Give your husband time with his children.
When a father remarries, his children, regardless of their age, may feel a sense of abandonment. Let’s face it: A remarriage often results in the biological parent spending less time with their children and grandchildren and more time with the new wife – at least in the beginning. Children could then worry that now that you are in his life, they’re out.
Encourage your man to spend time with his children and to communicate with them regularly. Show everyone that you are secure in your marriage and don’t need to be present for every little thing their father does. And unless they specifically ask you to be there, have your own plans. Try to give them space so they can have alone time. Help your husband remain interested and supportive of his children and grandchildren’s activities, celebrate wins, and wipe tears at disappointments. These are his children, and they should continue to be involved in his life, and he should be in theirs.
Try not to judge your stepchildren. Understanding what they may be going through can help you build a healthy relationship. For example, an adult child may find it painful to watch their father and his new wife share their one-time family home. Be sensitive to things like PDA and cool it for now. Look at situations objectively. Butting heads and insensitivity will only work against you.
Don’t expect it to be smooth sailing in the beginning, but deal with the short term while building the long term. Take your time getting to know your stepchildren. Give them space to adjust to the new family structure while they figure out the kind of relationship they want. Try to develop common interests – sports, cooking, reading, their favorite hobbies… This way, you’ll have something to talk about while building a friendly relationship. Don’t push, as it could make them pull back. Yet show them that you’ll always be there for them, regardless of whether or not they like you.
Be sensitive to grief.
A new stepmother following the death of a biological mother can be fraught with pain and result in challenging situations. Reassure your stepchild that you could not nor would ever want to replace their mother, and encourage your husband to keep his late wife’s spirit alive with his children.
Be sensitive to money issues.
Financial issues for adult stepfamilies can be a source of emotional upset for obvious reasons – aka money. Stepchildren wonder how things will change and how your presence will affect them. Decisions about inheritances need to be made, wills need to be written or re-written, and chaos ensues. Keeping the lines of communication open, having honest discussions, and perhaps a consultation with a trust or estate lawyer will help to lessen the chance of confusion and bad feelings.
Connect with your stepchildren.
Adult children and stepparents have the opportunity to develop a special relationship based on who they are as individuals rather than something involving childcare duties. Nevertheless, it can be challenging to connect with your stepchild when you feel unliked. The great thing about having a grown stepchild is that you can actually have a meaningful conversation with them. Keep the lines of communication open so he or she knows you are interested in developing a positive relationship. If there is more than one child, consider picking the one you feel is the most open-minded and tell them how important it is that you have a good relationship with all of them. Then, simply ask if there is anything you can do.
Foster a respectful household.
Earn your stepchildren’s respect by being a respectable step-parent. Be consistent, calm, honest, and kind. Do what you say and say what you mean. Own your mistakes quickly, and apologize for your part in problems. Set boundaries, respect boundaries, and try not to judge. With some time, patience, and empathy, your step-kids will grow to trust and maybe even like you.
Never ever ever speak negatively about their mom.
Keep your chin up.
Know that you’ve done all you can – and that’s all you can do. At the end of the day, an adult child is capable of contributing to working out relationships. We can only control our own attitudes and actions. We can be empathetic and kind, but how they will respond to our gestures of kindness is up to them. So just give things time and space, communicate with your husband, and breathe. Chances are your lucky stepchildren will come around to fabulous you. And in the meantime – go shopping! You’re a saint. You deserve it.