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Let’s Talk about Attachment

People in stepfamilies always ask me “what is the most fundamental issue to be aware of in a stepfamily?” In my book, at my workshops, and on my videos, I always stress how important it is to understand that there is an attachment of the children/teen to their biological parent and vice versa. This is critical to understand and accept because it explains many of the difficulties that happen in a stepfamily.

The Attachment Theory – this is what we know.

Children bond to their biological parents in their early years, if the parent is loving, caring, and emotionally involved in their lives. This attachment is very powerful for the children and the parents.

 John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, two world famous psychologists, worked together to research and develop the attachment theory. Bowlby and Ainsworth showed that the need to maintain physical proximity to a loving caregiver gave emotional and physical security to the child. Children saw their parents as a “secure base” in order to explore the world. And they would rush to an attached person in situations of danger or alarm.  Children also felt reassured by a loving caregivers ongoing availability. These psychologists showed that attachment does not only affect infants and young children but it also affects individuals of all ages throughout their lives.

Once children are attached to a parent, they will do anything to keep that love and the feeling of security alive. And the parents will also do anything to keep seeing, loving and being with their children. There is panic and fear for both the children and the parents if they are unable to see each other for any extended length of time. This attachment to a parent does not change just because your living situation changes.

Let me give you an example of some ways this affects a stepfamily. All good parents have spent a great deal of time and energy loving and nurturing their children from a very early age. Therefore, it can be hard for an ex-partner to share his/her children with a stepparent. And children can be loyal and defensive of both their parents. This makes it tricky to be a stepparent when children are so attached to their parents that they find it hard to accept a stepparent. Also, if the ex-biological parent is struggling with sharing his or her children, their stress could be directed at the stepparent.

I am delighted to say that from time to time my husband David will blog with me on different issues in stepfamilies. Over the years, he and I have learned that there are many ins and outs to stepfamilies. We sure don’t have all the answers, but we might be able to give you some ideas to help maneuver through some of the issues in stepfamilies.

Today David is going to share with you his point of view on attachment. It is a subject dear to his heart because we both had to change our thinking around stepparenting. He knows first hand how important it is to understand just how attachment affects those in a stepfamily.  

You better adjust your attitude

David C. Bowker

I had an amusing moment several years ago on an island vacation. We were sitting on a lovely patio having lunch overlooking the blue ocean. Service however was painfully slow and this was getting increasingly irritating to a couple, likely from the eastern US seaboard. To say that we were on island time and there was little evidence of New York State of mind would be an understatement. After increasingly aggressive approaches to the server, the beleaguered server turn to them and said in no uncertain terms that “ You better adjust your attitude”

Of course, there was merit to this comment as we were all sitting under a beautiful sunny day in lovely circumstances and the only thing missing was prompt service. Clearly the couple were missing the point and in any event nothing was going to change.

I think of this comment in circumstances where in fairness you have to bring a completely different attitude in order to make your way through the situation you are facing. The integration of adult parents in the stepfamily is just one of these circumstances. Blythe has discussed with you the concept of attachment. She will have done so with her mental health therapist background and a long history of experience. I was hoping to add to that discussion from a strictly practical point of view. I also have decades of experience in a stepfamily and also observed many stepfamily relationships. It is clear to me that gaining a thorough understanding of attachment and the consequent reality of the loyalties of stepchildren will go a long way to making a substantial difference in the success of a stepfamily.

Children are deeply attached to their initial caregivers which usually is their biological parent. In some circumstances notwithstanding that this parent has been anything approaching a loving supportive engaging parent. Candidly, it just is this way. The best advice I can give is to really understand this concept of attachment and recognize that it will take a different approach to build a solid relationship with a stepchild. So, you need to “adjust your attitude” and recognize that you have to enter this new relationship with stepchildren with a different frame of mind then you might otherwise. Your natural enthusiasm to make it work will have to be tempered and reflect the complications that attachment theory has on your efforts.

It is cringe worthy to watch a new stepmother, for example, try to step into the role of mother and try to engage a stepchild on a very personal maternal basis. New stepmothers do not corner this market, I have watched aghast as a

stepfather attempts to put his “foot down” to create what he considers a better role model for the stepchild. These attempts to stand in the stead of the absent parent is fraught with problems and clearly become even more problematic when the stepchildren are older. Often it appears to me that if the stepparent were honest with themselves their need to see themselves in the parental role is in some measure for their own benefit. Granted they do it for the right reasons, but it does not change the result.

So, given a stepchild will be loyal to their biologic parent first and foremost, what is to be done for the incoming stepparent. Let’s look at some positives first. You will have every opportunity to have a positive, loving relationship with a stepchild, it will just be different. This will be infinitely easier if you tread lightly.

Let’s start with some basics.

  • Be comfortable introducing your stepchild as that – your stepdaughter or stepson. I remember as if it was yesterday my stepmom introducing me as her son and she likely remembers me correcting her much to her embarrassment. You would think I would have let it slide but I was a teenager and loved my Mom.

  • Do not force the physical affection that comes so much easier to biological children. As with most things with stepchildren, let it come naturally and let the child dictate the tempo of the changing relationship.

  • Go slowly in building the emotional bonds – it cannot be hurried. It helps to try to do things on your own with a stepchild that you know they might enjoy. For example, going to baseball game, taking them out for a meal or even simpler things like volunteering to drive them places so you have some time with them on your own.

  • Be as supportive with their interests as you might be with your own child. So, if they have games, concerts, school events etc. make the effort to go see them and let them know it matters to you.

  • You might have interests or skills that you can pass on to the stepchild, see if they have any interest and then engage them in that newfound skill.

  • Engage them in conversations one on one with you. If they are older, you can have deeper conversations and they will see you as an individual with opinions and hopefully ideas that might interest them.

In all things you have be somewhat more nuanced in your approach and recognize that you will hopefully take on a role that is rewarding for both you and a stepchild. In some cases, this might be more a mentorship role or others perhaps more friendly but assuredly it will take on a positive life of its own if you work at it.

Of course, as you are trying to navigate your way through this newfound relationship you are not alone as you have their biological parent watching this unfold. So again, some simple advice to that biological parent, let the relationship evolve naturally with your child and their stepparent. You cannot pressure the child to speed up their acceptance of the other partner. Try not to engineer what you hope will happen. Of course, as the couple you will talk about it but be comfortable that it takes time.

The other side of this attachment theory is that the biological parent is very much attached to their own child. So again, as a new stepparent you have to recognize that dynamic and a patient nuanced approach will serve you better.

Candidly I appreciate that I have been somewhat simplistic as I certainly understand there are myriads of stepfamily relationships, from ones starting at a young age and many much older into adulthood. Clearly, I have been largely addressing those that might be in their childhood years. However, I believe in all cases you are well served to go slow.

To use the analogy of riding into the wind when cycling, at the end of the day you have to take what it gives you without trying to pressure the result. Once you have put a reasonable effort forward you will have to accept that result and move forward.

As an aside, although an important one, there will be circumstances that are significantly more difficult. Perhaps prior issues of some nature, mental health issues at some level or other conditions making this adjustment exceedingly challenging. At this point, your partner and you will be well served to seek out professional counselling to chart a path forward and both to learn how to cope with these challenges.

Humans are very social creatures, and in my experience, young ones will welcome new relationships providing they are not bulldozed into the relationship. Take your time and I am confident you will enjoy the outcome. It will be different but undoubtedly rewarding.

I leave you with the following;

Keep your expectations in check but above all be sure to enjoy the experience, it is after all a privilege to positively influence a young person’s life.



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