Raising kids is hard enough, but when you become a step-parent, you’re faced with a whole new set of issues – especially when it comes to helping a step-child who seems to be experience emotional, behavioral or academic difficulties. This kind of situation can be especially difficult if your spouse has yet to recognize that his or her child may need help dealing with a particular issue.
While it’s understandable that you don’t want to find yourself at odds with your spouse, as a concerned step-parent, you probably want to try to help your step-child as much as possible. And although it’s inadvisable to try to step in and “take over” responsibility and decision-making for your step-child’s well-being (your step-child’s natural parent has the ultimate responsibility in that regard), there are some things you can do to alleviate the situation and facilitate a constructive solution for the child in question.
Depending upon how long you and your spouse have been married, you may first need to establish a sound relationship with your step-child. Don’t expect immediate acceptance – or to replace the child’s natural mother or father; instead, focus on offering kind, consistent support for him/her and showing genuine interest in him/her as an individual. Once your step-child knows that you are there for him/her and that you are available to listen, talk, help and provide a solid basis of support, leave it to him/her to establish the level of intimacy between the two of you – and be patient. Close relationships take time – the more comfortable your step-child feels with you, the more he/she is likely to turn to you for help and support with any academic, emotional or behavioral challenges he/she may be facing.
And just as you need to solidify your relationship with your step-child by providing consistent, non-judgmental support, you also need to do the same for your spouse. Making yourself available to serve as an objective and concerned listener when it comes to your spouse’s own parenting challenges will create a relationship in which you can openly discuss the issues you think your step-child may be experiencing.
When the time is right to broach any concerns you may have about your step-child’s academic, emotional or behavioral state, make sure that you address the subject in a manner that is open, positive and constructive. Putting your spouse on the defensive by offering a pat diagnosis – saying “John must have ADD,” or “Beth needs to see a counselor,” for example, will come across as accusatory rather than supportive. Instead, gently focus the conversation on any patterns of behavior or concerning incidents, then express your suspicion that these may be symptomatic of an issue that may need third party support.
Allow your spouse time to digest your concerns and to consider his/her own perspective on the matter before rushing to decide on an immediate “solution.” In fact, once you’ve presented the issue, you might even decide to let your spouse initiate a follow-up discussion regarding alternatives for tutoring, therapy, counseling or medical advice. If necessary, you may also need to give your spouse time to consult your step-child’s other parent.
Before you close your conversation, however, make sure you have addressed constructive alternatives for helping your step-child, and make sure you agree on a timeline for arriving at some decision. The two of you may also want to decide how to discuss the issue – and your mutual concerns – with your step-child, after all, it is vital that you retain your step-child’s trust and confidence as much as it’s important that you help him/her through this difficult stage.
And through all of your discussions, remember to keep one thing absolutely clear: both you and your spouse are working towards the same goal: helping your step-child enjoy a balanced, happy and fulfilling childhood and adolescence.
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