Being a step-parent is different than being a biological parent, and it has its own set of trials and tribulations. Although blended families are becoming more common in our modern world, the role of step-parenting has not become any easier. There are many adjustments that both biological parents, step-parent, and stepchild have to go through to navigate some of the tricky nuances in combining their new family.
Step-parenting can be confusing!
Many step-parents can experience pressure to try and be perfect or get “it right” all the time. But they can also struggle to navigate where they fit in their new family and what their role is. Some common topics that can arise for step-parents can be:
- When am I allowed to voice my opinion?
- What topics can I weigh in on?
- How involved can I be?
- How do I know if I’m overstepping?
- What will my relationship with my stepchild look like?
- How will I navigate a relationship with the other parent?
Tips for Building a Healthy Relationship With a Stepchild
Every family’s dynamic will be different. But here are a few things to consider when building a solid and healthy relationship with a new stepchild:
There can be so much pressure on each member of the blended family during the adjustment phase. There will likely be tension and stress. And the reality of navigating ex-partners, finances, custody, and new living arrangements can add additional challenges to developing a healthy relationship with a stepchild. So be gentle. Take small steps. Work on building a respectful relationship and take it slowly without any expectations on yourself or your stepchild.
Acknowledge and support the relationship with their biological parent.
Having a new step-parent is tricky. Children might feel “unfaithful” to their other parent if they have a good time with you or feel new affection for you. This guilt may lead to the child being closed off to you, disobedient, or hard to accept you. You are not, nor will you ever be, their birth parent. But this doesn’t mean you cannot have a different but equally loving and strong relationship.
The temptation can be to try and protect your relationship with your stepchild over their relationship with their biological parent. However, this is still a significant relationship to them. Instead of replacing that parent (which can lead to unrealistic expectations on yourself to fit the shoes of some other person), work on developing your unique relationship with your stepchild.
Negotiation is key!
Have open and frank conversations with your partner about your joint parenting values and expectations—things like family rules, discipline, etc. Making sure you and your partner are on the same page about your parenting will make navigating things easier. However, in the early days, you cannot expect your stepchild to listen automatically because of your new role as a step-parent. Although you should be an active participant in rule-setting, it may take some time before you get involved in the disciplining.
Navigating blended families can be challenging. I’m not saying complain and whine about the challenges, but endeavor to create an environment where everyone can be open and transparent about where they are at. If your stepchild can feel safe to express their emotions, worries, and concerns, it will help build a solid and trusting relationship.
Let your stepchild set the pace of your relationship.
You might feel like there are milestones or benchmarks to meet, but there aren’t. Try to go at the pace your stepchild feels comfortable with. You can’t force their affection. Instead, you could try showing your love and care by paying attention to and commenting on their interests. Figure out their favorite sport, the foods they love, ask about their friends and classes they take in school. This shows your interest without asking anything of your stepchild.
Try try again.
You’re human; your stepchild is human; your partner is human. You will all make mistakes at some point in this journey. That’s okay. Be humble, learn the art of apologizing, and keep putting one foot in front of the other and try again each day. It can take time to build a strong relationship with a stepchild. Your partner already has a clear relationship with their child; you do not. This is a relationship that needs to be nurtured as you both need to learn about each other, build respect, and find similarities and ways to work together.
Your stepchild is also likely to be just as confused by all of this as you are. They may feel equal parts excitement and anticipation about the new change to their family. At the same time, they may feel vulnerable about their role in the new family, resentful of the time you spend with their parent, defensive of their other parent, or fearful of who you are and what changes you might bring to their current status quo.
Becoming a blended family can be a veritable minefield, giving each other space and time to work through very normal ups and downs. Becoming a whole new family takes time. Be gentle and compassionate with yourself as well as your partner and new stepchild.
King, V., Thorsen, M. L., & Amato, P. R. (2014). Factors associated with positive relationships between stepfathers and adolescent stepchildren. Social Science Research, 47, 16–29.
Hofferth S. L., & Anderson, K. G. (2003). Are all dads equal? Biology versus marriage as a basis for paternal investment. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65. 213–232.
Stewart, S. D. (2007). Brave New Stepfamilies: Diverse Paths Toward Stepfamily Living. Sage; Thousand Oaks, CA.