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Stepparenting: The Seven Steppingstones of Trust - Part 1

Stepparenting: The Seven Steppingstones of Trust - Part 1

The stress of the pandemic over the past year has made every aspect of parenting more challenging, including the special challenges that stepparents face. In this first blog of a two-part series, we will look at how the principles of Love and Logic can help stepparents build trust with their stepchildren, even during these difficult times. Keep in mind that these principles are also very useful with your own children!

“How do I bond with them? It’s so hard. No matter what I do, they think I’m the ‘evil stepmother.’ The harder I try, the harder they push me away.” Of all the questions asked about stepparenting, this is certainly the most common and most important. Obviously, building healthy relationships with stepchildren isn’t easy. Most stepchildren come with at least some feelings of hurt and distrust. Many come with backpacks bulging with this stuff. Fortunately, there is good news.

At the Love and Logic Institute, we’ve spent the last four decades refining a variety of powerful relationship-building techniques. These tools aren’t “just add water” gimmicks guaranteed to totally transform your family in a matter of days. Instead, they are slow and methodical strategies built around the science of trust.

In a nutshell, trust develops over time when we consistently experience, and truly know, the following:

  • I know that this person is not trying to manipulate me to get their own needs met.
  • I know that I’m physically and emotionally safe around this person.
  • I know that this person loves me even on my worst day.
  • I know that this person will never leave me nor forsake me.

The following Seven Steppingstones of Trust will allow you to grow your relationships with your stepchildren (and even your own children!) and will help you build the foundation of trust that is necessary for healthy relationships:

Steppingstone 1: Know that trust can’t be rushed.

Steppingstone 2: Listen to the heartbeat.

Steppingstone 3: Prove that your promises are gold.

Steppingstone 4: Share control within limits.

Steppingstone 5: Provide sincere empathy.

Steppingstone 6: Make them part of the team.

Steppingstone 7: Break bread daily.

This week we will begin with Steppingstones 1-3.

Steppingstone 1: Know that trust can’t be rushed.
Trust is something that can take time to gain from your stepchildren. The reason(s) trust can take significant time can be wide reaching. As the stepparent, what can you do to earn your stepchild’s trust?

I’m reminded of a conversation I had many years ago with one of my sons, who was just beginning elementary school. We were discussing how he was having a hard time befriending one particular child. My son said something very wise.

“It’s like some kids are like Checkers.” (Checkers was our cat.)
“How so?”
“Some kids are like dogs. When you go over to a dog and you pet him, he licks you. If you chase a dog, he wants to play with you.”
I agreed, “Yep, most dogs are like that.”
He continued, “Yeah… but other kids… they’re like cats. When you run up to a cat, it runs away.”
“That’s for sure,”
I agreed.
“Yeah, but when you sit and ignore them, then they rub all over you and get you all hairy.”

When we try to rush relationships, it becomes more about our need to connect and to feel accepted than their need to feel safe. That’s why healthy relationships can’t happen faster than trust can be established.

Steppingstone 2: Listen to the heartbeat.
I love visiting with people who had a positive experience growing up with a stepparent. There are plenty of them, and they all say more or less the same things, such as:

My stepmom (or stepdad) listened to me.
I could talk to them about anything.

These stepparents understand that the health and well-being of the relationship depends largely on how well they validate their stepchildren’s feelings by listening without judgment, without lectures, without trying to fix the problem, and without doing anything that communicates, “Your feelings aren’t welcome here.”

The “without judgment” part sends shivers up and down the spines of many, including my own. Listening without judgment doesn’t mean giving the green light to unhealthy, immoral, or illegal behavior. In fact, it increases the odds that our kids will truly listen to our concerns.

Steppingstone 3: Prove that your promises are gold.
Now, after stating the obvious, you might be saying, “so much for being a helpful blog post.” Don’t we all know that Parenting 101 means keeping our promises? Sure! Obviously, trust is not improved when we say something like, “On Saturday, I’ll take you to the park, and we’ll play catch,” and then ditch our kids in favor of hanging with our buddies.

I’m not talking about these sorts of promises, even though keeping them is very, very important. The types I’m talking about have to do with the limits we set. Limits are promises. That’s right. Every time we set a limit, we are essentially promising to enforce that limit.

Enjoying success by setting limits involves following a fundamental rule of Love and Logic:

Never tell a stubborn child what to do.
Describe what you are willing to do or allow, instead.

Here’s the bottom line: A child will only come to trust, respect, and eventually love a stepparent whose “yes” always means “yes” and whose “no” always means “no.”

In next week’s blog, we will cover the final four Steppingstones of Trust:

Steppingstone 4: Share control within limits.

Steppingstone 5: Provide sincere empathy.

Steppingstone 6: Make them part of the team.

Steppingstone 7: Break bread daily.

 

Thanks for reading!

Dr. Charles Fay