15 Tips to Promote Healthy Stepparenting

By: Dr. Tarra Bates-Duford
February 08, 2017

Many of us have seen stepfamilies and blended families on both the big and small screen, most being depicted as a seamless transition from one family type to another. However, with most significant life changes, transition and adjustment is rarely easy, or quick. I am sure we all remember television shows like the Brady Bunch, Step by Step, and Modern Family that seemed to resolve all familial issues, regardless of severity, within a half-hour show.

Children need time and patience to adjust to all significant changes, as change is typically not an easy, seamless process to undergo. Unlike adults, children react to significant life changes behaviorally, responding to changes in their emotions through actions rather than words.

When two people get married and have children, they expect to stay together forever. However, sometimes romantic feelings change over time, even when they have children together whom they both love. A couple might come to the realization that they would be happier apart than they are together, choose instead to end their marriage through the process of divorce. Divorce is not easy for anyone, especially for children, as this can be a time of increased confusion, frustration, and fear. Children often jump to the erroneous assumption that they may be the cause of their parents' divorce, a divorce means they are no longer a family, their parents' love for them will end or change, etc.

Although, divorce can be painful for parents, eventually former partners begin to heal. A divorced parent may even meet someone new that he or she would like to live with or marry. Unfortunately, sometimes spouses die and the partners they leave behind are forced to start over. Despite all the pain of losing someone they love, in time they might find someone they want to share their lives with again. Partners that can consider remarriage after a divorce or the death of a spouse suggests they are ready and available to open their lives to someone else.

Too often single parents assume because they are in love with their partner, then their children will like their partner or become instant friends with their partner’s children. Unfortunately, this way of thinking is hardly ever true. Most children will need time to adjust to the new adult in their lives as well as any additional children that are brought into their lives. Some parents will assume children will bond almost instantly, becoming fast friends. However, this is rarely the case when children feel their relationship with a parent could be jeopardized or they will have to share their parent.

Most experts agree that while a stepparent may love and respect their stepchildren, they may never develop that personal and close bond with them that they have with their own children. Many times, stepparents who do not have biological children of their own bond better with stepchildren than the other way around. Additionally, the age of the stepchildren when the stepparent is brought into their lives also affects how much bonding goes on. If children are very young and the stepparent begins to parent the child and love it, then a special bond will be formed.

Notably, if a family is fragmented by divorce and one or both parents remarry when the children are older, then developing a special bond with the stepparent can be a very difficult process. In return, the stepparent may find it very hard to develop a relationship with stepchildren that harbor feelings of a reconciliation between their parents.

Children that hold onto hope of the parents getting back together often view the new person in their mom or dad’s life as an intruder, the person that is standing in the way of their parents getting back together. Children that are able to accept the new person in their parent’s life will typically feel conflicted between the love and loyalty for the other parent and this new person in the other parent’s life. Sadly, this makes marriages difficult because stepchildren frequently feel guilty about accepting the stepparent as if they are not being loyal to their biological parent.

Useful Tips That Can Be Used to Promote Healthy Stepparenting

  • Do not try and rush a relationship with your partner’s children/stepchildren.
  • Do not come on to strong, i.e., trying to take on the role of a parent too quickly.
  • Do not allow your stepchildren to be rude to you.
  • Do not create a separate parenting plan from your partner, you both need to be on the same page.
  • Do not try to be the cool stepparent.
  • Do not set your personal expectations too high.
  • Do not badmouth the other parent.
  • Do not assume you must do everything with your partner and his/her children, i.e., they need some time to process what they are feeling with their parent.
  • Do not deprioritize your relationship with your spouse.
  • Do not take it personally when children favor their "real" parent over you.
  • Do not expect to be an instant happy family.
  • Do not ignore the pink elephant in the room, i.e., changes in living space, mood, behavioral concerns, etc.; talk about them instead. 
  • Do not minimize or deny the changes in family dynamics.

The most difficult aspect of stepfamily life is parenting. Forming a stepfamily with young children may be easier than forming one with adolescent children due to the differences in developmental stages. Stepparents should first establish a relationship with the children that resembles a friend rather than a parent or disciplinarian. Couples are also encouraged to agree on the parenting style that will be used in the household.

Ideally, the custodial parent should remain primarily responsible for control and discipline of their children until the stepparent and children develop a solid bond. However, as stepparents take on more parenting responsibilities, they can monitor the children's behavior and activities while keeping their spouses informed. Families might want to develop a list of household rules that everyone must abide by, which include respecting the feelings of each person in the household.

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