Dear Lisa,

I have a 5-year-old daughter. Her biological father was never around so I was the only parent raising her for the first four years of her life. We lived with my parents so she was around my parents and also my two sisters.

I married my husband last July. My daughter loves playing with him. But most of the time she prefers me over my husband. If he asks her if she wants to do something or if he offers her something, she doesn't want it. If I ask her if she wants to do something, she'll want to do whatever I ask. She tells me and her half brother (six months old) that she loves us, but she never tells my husband the same thing. She doesn't like to hug or kiss him, but she hugs and kisses her brother and me. I'm not sure if she's like this because my husband works two jobs five days a week. She only sees him for less than an hour on the weekdays and then she sees him for the whole day on the weekends.

My husband feels hurt and left out. He feels like she only likes to play with him and that's it. I don't know what to do. I told him he just needs to try harder, but now he feels like there's no point if she doesn't love him. Maybe she needs more time to bond with him?

H.L.


Dear H.L.:

Your husband's situation is very common. It takes many years for stepfamily members to feel a strong bond. It's very natural for your daughter to prefer you over your husband. You're her mother. Your husband needs to understand that your daughter's reaction to him isn't personal. He needs to be patient. He should also understand that it's very common for stepparents to feel left out.

Dr. Patricia Papernow, a well-known psychologist and stepfamily expert in Hudson, Mass., says that stepparents need to "compartmentalize." Rather than trying to "blend" in a stepfamily, or insist that everyone spend all their time together, they need to spend one-on-one time with all members of the family. Your husband should do this. When he's alone with your stepdaughter, he should let your stepdaughter lead, and find some activities that interest her, Papernow says. At www.stepfamilytalkradio.com, we'll soon be offering an audio/ebooklet that's based on an interview with Dr. Papernow.

Many stepfathers find it tough to connect with a rejecting stepchild, according to a study by E. Mavis Hetherington, author of "For Better or For Worse: Surprising Results From the Most Comprehensive Study of Divorce In America."

In fact, many stepdads give up the battle of trying to forge this connection after only two years, Hetherington says in her book.

Your husband shouldn't give up. He should let go of his fantasies about creating "instant love" and embrace patience. You might consider reading our book, "One Family, Two Family, New Family: Stories and Advice for Stepfamilies (www.stepfamilyadvice.com). In the book, my co-author describes his super-human efforts to bond with a rejecting stepchild (my son). After a few years, his efforts paid off.

Keep in mind that a number of factors affect the bonding process in a stepfamily.

A stepchild's mother and biological father play critical roles in the stepdad-stepchild relationship, says Robert Klopfer, a licensed clinical social worker and co-director of Stepping Stones Counseling Center, Ridgewood, N.J. If a child is rejecting, the stepfather should try to understand that the child may be feeling as though he needs to be loyal to his biological parents.

I'd be happy to send along a story that gives additional tips for stepdads.

Good luck.
Lisa