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My stepkids think I’m the Wicked Witch!

Being the new stepmom is seldom easy, says Dr. Gail Saltz, who offers tips to help minimize children’s understandable hostility.

Q: My new husband has two pre-teen children who are mean to me. I feel like the wicked stepmother. How can I make them like me more?

A: Yes, this is a tough position to be in. One of the keys is not to take it personally. No matter how nice you are, your role in their father’s life is by its very nature threatening to these children.

It helps to understand where they are coming from emotionally.

To them, you are the reason they are no longer living with their mom and dad together. You are the end of any hope their parents will reunite.

Plus, they wonder whether their father loves you more than he loves them and they fear he might desert them, just as he split with their mother.

Even if the children like you, it may be hard for them to show it, since doing so makes them feel guilty and disloyal to their mother.

Here are some things you can do to minimize their hostile behavior:

Don’t force the relationship. Let the children approach you at their own pace. You can’t make them love you, but you can seem so desperate for their affection that you drive them away.

Make yourself available in ordinary situations. It’s easier for them to warm up if you are doing simple things like watching television, cooking dinner or going to the grocery store together.

Learn as much as you can. If you know little about child development, read up on it so you know what to expect from your stepchildren at various ages.

Don’t mix families for now. If you have biological children, spend time separately with them and with your stepchildren. This way, the kids are less likely to feel competitive, and your stepchildren will see that you have time for them, too.

Don’t criticize their mother. No matter how awful she may be, she is still their mother. The children will feel hurt and angry if you speak ill of her.

Don’t let them play you against their father. Make sure you and your husband agree about discipline and privileges. If you are inconsistent, they will use it against you and create discord.

Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: If you've got the tough but rewarding job of being a stepmother, it helps to understand the issues your stepkids face by putting yourself in their shoes.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to “Today.” This column was adapted from her new book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back.”  For more information, you can visit her Web site, .

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist. Copyright ©2004 Dr. Gail Saltz. All rights reserved.