Remarriage and blended families are common. According to reports from the Pew Research Center, 40% of marriages in the US include at least one individual who has been divorced, and 16% of children live within a blended family. For a step-parent, navigating relationships with stepchildren can be difficult. Not only do they have to contend with (or fight against) the evil stepmother/stepfather trope so common in popular media—anybody picture Mother Gothel in “Tangled” or Lady Tremaine from “Cinderella?”—but step-parents also have to balance the needs within their marriage with those of the children and the exes.
That can be exhausting, especially early on when emotions are running high and relationships are tricky. It can take a few years before a blended family truly adjusts to the changing family dynamics.
As a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist, I have witnessed the tension that can exist between child and step-parent when that step-parent struggles to meaningfully connect. I have also seen relationships bloom when step-parents learn how to lead with love and patiently nurture the relationship. Here’s some step-parent advice to smooth that inevitable transition.
10 tips on navigating step-parent boundaries
1. Give it time
It may take two to three years to fully adjust to the realities of living as a blended family. Consider that the children have a new step-parent, could be attending a new school, may have moved into a new home or now have step-siblings. That’s potentially a lot of change that could have happened quickly. Be patient, validate their feelings, extend lots of grace and follow their lead. Don’t try to force a bond if the child is not ready.
2. Consider the age and developmental stage of the children
Younger children are more likely to bond more easily with the step-parent compared to school-aged children and teens. Older children may grieve the demise of their parents’ marriage/relationship and feel abandoned by the other parent. Or they may worry that their biological parent will get upset if they bond with the step-parent.
3. Discuss parenting expectations with your spouse
Your spouse may want you to ease into the new parenting role initially to allow time for everyone to adjust, or they may want you to adopt a more active parenting role up front. For example, backseat parenting often looks more like an evolving friendship and is appropriate for older kids, while active parenting may entail the step-parent enforcing rules and doling out punishments, though this strategy works best with much younger children or after there has been adequate time to form a bond. Otherwise, children may come to resent the step-parent for trying to do too much too quickly.
4. Get clear about discipline
Take some time to devise family rules together. Discuss consequences for misbehavior and dole out punishments together. Make the biological parent the primary disciplinarian and forego disciplining the stepchildren in the absence of the biological parent, at least early on.
5. Decide on titles together
Ask what your stepchildren want to call you. Don’t force them to call you a name that makes them feel uncomfortable. Be flexible, creative and patient. You can come up with a special nickname together.
6. Make an effort to connect
Spend time getting to know your stepchildren. Find out some of their interests and share yours. If there are multiple stepchildren, you can spend time with each one individually.
7. Create new family traditions
Birthdays, holidays, weekends and summers—these present opportunities to start new traditions as a family. Don’t force anything but be open to finding new ways to celebrate together.
8. Foster open and honest communication
Healthy communication is critical to help form a strong bond between step-parent and stepchildren. This includes verbal, written and non-verbal communication, and occurs between step-parent and stepchild, step-parent and partner, and step-parent and ex-partner. Healthy communication requires respect, active listening and honoring everyone’s voice and opinion. Allow your stepchildren to talk about their feelings honestly, even if it’s tough to hear. This also means refraining from making negative comments about the ex-partner.
9. Make time for your marriage
The stepchildren are not the only ones figuring out how to adjust to a new normal. In all the change, it can be easy to overlook the needs of your partner and your overall marriage. Talk. Spend time together. Schedule date nights regularly. Create emotional holding space for one another.
10. Reach out for help
Sometimes the adjustment is really difficult. You may feel guilty or frustrated, the stepchildren may be angry and resentful or really sad, and the biological parent may feel trapped in the middle. All of this is completely understandable, but don’t be afraid to get professional help if you find the weight of everything too much to handle. Family therapy can improve communication and strengthen the family and blended family relationships.
Step-parent advice: Accept the challenge
Living as a blended family can be beautiful, but it can also be a difficult journey. I encourage you to accept the challenge as the step-parent and to craft a bond with your stepchildren. They might resist your efforts, but be patient. With love, compassion and time, you and your stepchildren will develop meaningful and deeply connected relationships that you will cherish.