Ben felt awkward around his 16-year-old stepdaughter, Morgan. It seemed her body stiffened every time he tried to hug her. He figured that after three years they would've made some progress in getting closer. From Morgan's perspective, although she thought Ben was a decent person, she just couldn't think of him as family. Hugging him felt weird, like hugging a gym teacher.
Of all the dynamics in a stepfamily, navigating the relationship with an opposite-gender stepchild is one of the most challenging — especially when the child is a teen. It can feel like a constantly changing game of "how to get close without getting too close."
Research shows that stepchildren, especially stepdaughters, prefer verbal affection over physical affection from opposite-gender stepparents. They may become more comfortable with physical touch as the relationship matures.
When showing affection to your stepchild, there are a few guidelines to keep in mind:
Respond to touch
Let the stepchild initiate touch and then respond. Stepchildren need time to define their relationship with their stepparents, and physical space is the most tangible way to accomplish this.
Touch in kind
When a child initiates touch as a way to display affection, responding at the same level of touch is best. If your step-daughter gives you a playful punch on the arm, it's not permission to give her a big hug.
Hold your I love you's close
Saying those words can feel closer and more intimate than a hug — and therefore can feel too imposing. Instead, reserve the I love you as a response you hope you get to use one day. Until that day comes, find alternatives that communicate the message. When your stepchild succeeds or does something worthy of praise, put your voice to it. No one tires of well-placed and authentic praise. Detecting when something troubles your stepchild is an important skill that communicates your care and concern. Empathy and a willingness to listen go a long way toward building the relationship.
Even through the complexities and ambiguities, it's possible for stepparents and stepchildren to grow close — but it's a slow process that requires patience and humility.
Dr. Chris J. Gonzalez is the director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program and assistant professor of psychology at Lipscomb University.