How to Build a Relationship With a Stepchild

© 2008 Bill Nodrick, Ph.D. and Bev Nodrick, RSW


Getting oriented to the task:

Deep, caring, affectionate relationships develop slowly. Sharing experiences (good and bad), “working through” countless points of difficulty, and the simple passage of time are all required. So, if you are trying to build a relationship with your stepchild, you will need to be patient. It will help to remind yourself: “This is much too important to rush.”

A reality check:

You are quite unlikely to develop the same feelings for a stepchild that you have for your own biological child. The feelings that emerge towards your stepchild may be very positive and strong, but they are almost certainly going to be different from the feelings you have for your biological child—and that’s OK. There are many ways to love. For example, you love your parents differently than you love your partner, correct? The same applies here.

  It's important to discuss the kind of relationship you want to have with your stepchild with your partner. Your partner will need to "step back" to create some "space" so you and the child can begin to relate to one another. As long as there is a third person in the middle of your relationship with your stepchild, you are most unlikely to develop a good relationship with that child. Keep in mind, in the beginning of your stepfamily, and usually for quite some time thereafter, your partner will find it easier to "allow" your relationship to develop with their (biological) child: a) if you are NOT trying to be the child’s disciplinarian, and b) they have consistently seen you and the child relating in a civil, pleasant, or some other positive way. 

When questioned about the kind of relationship they would like to have with their stepchild, many stepparents offer that they would like to be the child's " friend". The fact is that almost anyone can be the child's friend (and ideally, the child’s friends should be approximately the same age as the child). A stepparent needs to be something more. Consider this: An adult approaches you says: "I want to be your son/daughter's friend". How would you react? Suspiciously, I would hope. Fortunately, there are many perfectly acceptable, and much more functional models to consider as possibilities for your relationship with your stepchild (e.g., an aunt/uncle, a coach, a mentor, an advocate, etc.)

If your goal is to develop a relationship where you will be able to “discipline" your stepchild like you would discipline your own child, use the child's age when the stepfamily forms as the approximate number of years it will take for you to accomplish that goal. For example, if the child is two or three when your stepfamily forms, in two or three years the child will "welcome" your discipline. If they are 14 or 15 when the stepfamily forms, chances are they will have moved away from home before that goal will be accomplished. Unrealistic goals are unlikely to be achieved. Clearly, with older kids, you must ensure that your relationship goals are realistic.


Don't try to discipline your stepchild until: a) your partner supports it, and b) you have a meaningful relationship with that child.

The cardinal rule for developing a relationship with a stepchild:

Find out what the child likes to do; and do that with them.

What if you don't like that activity? Suck it up. You are the adult.

Don't expect or require your stepchild to call you “mom” or “dad”. Most stepchildren refer to the stepparent by the stepparent’s first name. Find out, or ask your partner to find out, what label or name the child would be comfortable using, and follow the child’s lead.

Spend regular, one-on-one time with the child. During that time, don't talk about other kids. If you do, it is very likely to provoke rivalry between the child you are with, and the one(s) you talk about. Plus, it won't endear you to the child who is in your company. They will be thinking that you’d rather be with the kid(s) you are talking about.

If you are a male wishing to establish a relationship with a stepson, the odds are that he will react better to you in his mom's absence. Boys tend to defer to the “alpha” male when their mother is not on the scene.

A note on being the “alpha” male: Boys who are deprived of the opportunity of observing a male who is confident enough of his masculinity to act in gentle ways, often acquire very faulty beliefs about what manhood is. These faulty beliefs (such as “might is right”) are likely to be played out in relationship difficulties that are marked by aggression.

If you are a male wishing to develop a relationship with a girl, she is likely to feel less comfortable with you when her mom isn't around—with this being especially true as she moves into puberty.

As a male role model in young woman's life, it's important for you to show interest in her thoughts. If she comes to feel that you: a) are interested in what she is thinking, and b) value and respect her thoughts, she is much more likely later in life to have healthy relationships with males.

If you're a female, wishing to establish a relationship with a teenage boy, you will probably need to give up on the idea of establishing connection with him by having a good "heart-to-heart" talk.  If, however, you do want to get some talk going, here's what you need to do:

Don't sit opposite him looking him in the face.  He will likely respond by fidgeting, looking at his feet, or by looking away.  In the animal kingdom, an eye-to-eye  encounter is a challenge. Instead, do an activity that requires you both face the same direction -- such as going for a drive in the car, or taking a long, brisk walk. When you undertake, say a long, brisk walk, don't try to initiate conversation. Leave that to the boy. If you come upon a park bench, sit there briefly.  Again, don't try to initiate conversation. Just be patient. The boy will eventually introduce conversation. When he does, it's important to be fairly sparse in your comments. Build gradually on your successes.

Don't expect your stepchild to show physical affection toward you -- especially if you are a male, and the child is a female.

Don't try to earn the affection/admiration of your stepchild by buying them things. Even very young children will see through it, and think poorly of you for your efforts.

Support your partner in their efforts to discipline their child by “monitoring” the child’s behaviour. Here, monitoring means expressing your interest or caring concern in what the child is doing -- not "snoopervising" or being a tattle-tale. Kids will see your interest and concern for them as affection.

Before making any attempts to address your stepchild's misbehavior, ensure that you and your partner have carefully discussed, detailed, and agree upon the behaviors you require, and those you will tolerate. Then, when you do address the child’s misbehavior, you will say."  In this house we....". Doing so allows you to draw on the strength of the relationship your partner (i.e., the child’s biological parent) has with the child.

If a situation arises where you feel you must confront an issue that is of important concern, introduce the issue to the child by saying: "My relationship with you is too important to let this go unaddressed…."

When you confront a misbehaviour, strive to see the child as separate from their misbehaviour.  To do this say:" I like/love/admire/respect you; but I really dislike what you've done.

Always give the child, a chance to "reclaim" -- to put things right with you. If you are struggling with this notion, ask yourself: Is my stand on this misbehaviour/issue so fixed or important that I would be willing to permanently end my relationship with this child, and shoulder all of the fallout with my partner that doing so would surely bring. 

Recognize that your stepchild is almost certain to feel a huge, disloyalty towards their [absent] parent as they develop an attachment to you. This may be expressed when, after having a very positive or pleasant experience with you, and without apparent provocation, they "turn" on you.  Your challenge is to refuse to personalize their reaction, and "metaphorically, take the child by the hand to their bioparent." To elaborate, never “come between” the child and his or her biological parent—especially an absent biological parent. Always speak respectfully of their biological parent(s). Acknowledge that, at times, the child’s loyalty to his/her (absent) parent may produce situations that are exceptionally difficult for the child. If the situation warrants it, you might also say to the child: “Whenever it comes down to having to choose between me and your biological parent, pick your biological parent every time. It is the right thing to do, and I will always support you in that choice, to the best of my ability."

Offer to help the child to get a gift and/or a card for their absent parent if and when doing so is appropriate. 

Use encouragement: 

When a child achieves a goal, or some other accomplishment, say," that must make you feel very good/proud about yourself."  Avoid saying," I'm so proud of you; or you have made me so happy. The former helps the child to see him/herself as capable and competent. The latter two comments are, in the bigger picture, much less helpful for the child’s development.

Say what you mean, and mean what you say. Talk is cheap. Be true to your word. When you say you will do it. Otherwise, the child will find it difficult to believe you or respect you. Caution: Do your best to consider the implications of any pronouncements you plan to make before you make them.

Absolutely refuse to compete with that child on the child's level. Discuss your concerns about the child with his/her parent, in private. Don’t plead “your case” to your partner in the child’s presence.

Don't criticize your stepchild.

Say at least five positive things for every negative comment/criticism you make about the child. Strive to have a balance of many such positives "in the bank".

Remember: Children learn what they see. Be proud of what you show them.

Another dose of reality:

Sometimes, despite the best efforts, a tender, loving relationship between a stepchild and his/her stepparent fails to develop. (The same sometimes occurs between a biological parent and his/her child.) In these situations, establishing a polite and respectful relationship with that child then becomes your relationship goal. Here, the good news is that a polite and respectful relationship is almost always possible. This is because it’s very difficult for anyone to persist in being disrespectful towards you if you consistently treat them in a polite and respectful way.


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Stepfamily Foundation of Alberta