New stepfather wants to win love of preteens

Child Life

July 07, 1996|By Beverly Mills | Beverly Mills,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

I recently married a woman with 10- and 12-year-old daughters, and I need to know how to win their respect and love. Does anybody out there know how to do it?

W.E., Opa-locka, Fla.

It can easily take up to three years for a stepfather to truly bond with his new family, says James H. Bray, a family-medicine professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, who has tracked 200 stepfamilies since the mid-1980s.

The older the children, the longer the bonding takes, adds Emily B. Visher, of Lafayette, Calif., co-author of "How to Win As a Step-Family" (Brunner/Mazel, $14.95).

New stepfathers of pre-adolescent children probably have it toughest of all, Bray says. Preteens are beginning to pull away from their families and becoming more interested in peers, and they are uncomfortable seeing their parents romantically involved.

"With a stepparent, this is heightened," Bray says.

Don't mistake this normal behavior for rejection of you or the stepfamily, Bray advises.

"If [the stepfather] interprets that as a personal slap at him, he's going to have more trouble," he says.

During the transition, try to establish your own relationship with the children, being careful not to try to replace their father.

"It's very hard, especially for girls, to accept another man in their lives. I know because I had a stepfather," writes Nancy Chap, a reader from Garfield, N.J.

Adds Dawn Wilder, a teen from Baltimore: "Take some time watching your 10- and 12-year-old daughters to see what they like and are interested in, and then join in with them."

It's important to spend some time alone with your stepchildren.

"When the parent is around, the child nearly always turns toward the parent, so the stepparent doesn't get a chance to build up that relationship," explains Visher, who, with her husband, Dr. John S. Visher, founded the Stepfamily Association of America.

While an anxious stepfather's first inclination may be to shower his new daughters with hugs and kisses, Bray says pre-adolescents often are uncomfortable with physical demonstrations of affection.

When difficulties arise, listening to your stepchildren's feelings will go a long way.

"Listen and don't interrupt what they are saying," cautions Marie Leak, a reader from Phoenix, Ariz. "Feelings just are. They are not to be judged."

Although it can be difficult, Visher says stepparents should try not to be hurt by stories about how things used to be.

"It's important so kids don't have the feeling that everything they did before was wrong," she says.

It's a good idea to let the children's mother handle discipline, at least at first.

"He needs to be supportive of the mother but not try to take on a discipline role until there's a relationship established," Visher explains.

Finally, stepfathers must realize their roles will always be different. "I don't know if stepparents are ever completely equal," Bray says.

Two resources Bray and Visher recommend are:

Materials offered by the Stepfamily Association of America. For a list, call (800) 735-0329.

"Step-Fathering, Stepfathers' Advice on Creating a New Family" by Mark Bruce Rosin (Simon and Schuster).

Pub Date: 7/07/96

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