Stepparents: what you can do to make it work

Stepparenting is often portrayed in a negative light in pop culture – think Cinderella, Snow White and Parent Trap. And unless Walt Disney himself just had a really bad experience with stepparenting, there must be some truth in the matter. Maybe not that stepparents are inherently evil, but certainly in terms of how they can be perceived within a family.

Family dynamics are varied as it is, and a new parental figure can be met with so many possible responses. The roles, boundaries and emotional implications of having a stepparent or being a stepparent are ongoing issues that need to be discussed.

Advice for new stepparents: how to make it work

The reality is that, unlike the movies mentioned above, stepparents are not introduced to children overnight. Relationships are gradual and before actually becoming a stepparent, you will have an opportunity to spend time with your spouse’s children. Nevertheless, no relationship is without complications, and some guidance for new stepparents may be required:

  • Don’t make too many changes – try to work with the status quo, even for a while.
  • Don’t try to replicate the role of the child’s other parent – many children already have a mom or a dad, and they don’t want another one. Not right away, anyway.
  • Try not to take things personally – be prepared to be hated or told ‘you’re not my real mom!’
  • Don’t be a pushover or allow yourself to be manipulated.
  • Be firm but kind.
  • Make an effort with your stepchildren – don’t attempt to take their parent away from them and don’t compete with them for their mother/father’s attention.
  • Partner and parent WITH your spouse – don’t take on a new disciplinary role without working together as a team.
  • Similarly, work together with your spouse’s ex if need be – don’t compete and certainly don’t counter any decisions the ex has made (like allowing your stepchild to get their ears pierced when it’s forbidden by their mother).
  • Don’t be too pushy – allow children time to get used to having you around.
  • Don’t try to buy their affections. Children are smart and they’ll pick up on this, either rejecting the actual love or by playing up to it.
  • Try not to get involved in arguments between your stepchild and your spouse.

Emotional implications of being a stepparent

Being a stepparent is much more challenging than being a regular parent. Children have grown up with their parents and they know the inner workings of the family – both the good and the bad. The introduction of a ‘new’ parent requires a child to come to terms with a whole new system. Children can be less forgiving of a stepparent than their parents, and will at times be looking for the stepparent to fail to prove that this person should not be in their lives.

Regardless of the reason for their parents not being together, your stepchild could believe the split to be your fault. No matter how chaotic things were before, and how calm they are now, your stepchild may still will wish for their parents to reconcile. Stepparents often become the scapegoat for this anger and sadness, especially if the stepparent is introduced quite soon after a separation or divorce.

“Make an effort with your stepchildren – don’t attempt to take their parent away from them and don’t compete with them for their mother/father’s attention.”

Stepparents can also create some identity confusion for children. When their mother suddenly has a new surname that is different to theirs it can feel like a form of abandonment, as if their mother has moved on with a different family. Children can also become confused by their positive feelings for the stepparent. As much as they may try and fight it, they may quickly develop positive feelings, which leave them feeling disloyal towards their biological parent and find it difficult to process their feelings for both their stepparent and biological parent.

Absent parents can either promote closeness between a child and their stepparent or make the divide more apparent. A child’s anger at the other parent leaving, or for letting them down may be misplaced and taken out on the stepparent who for the most part may be consistent, loving and present.

In many situations, though, a stepparent is a welcomed addition to the family or something that has been missing – especially with the presence of a stepfather in the life of a little boy. These responses are all circumstantial and cannot be pre-empted. It is important to manage your child’s expectations and their feelings when introducing a new spouse or stepparent into their lives.

Be firm though too – they may be unhappy about the situation but that does not mean they can dictate your relationships. Acknowledge their feelings and emphasise how you’ll manage the process with them as you proceed. Allow them a space to voice their unhappiness if need be, but remind them that there are also expectations on how they treat your new spouse, and what they can and cannot do or say to them.

“Living in a loving home environment, regardless of how the unit is made up, can be a buffer for so many negative socio-economic factors in our country.”

Father and son walking with stepmother

What about blended families?

‘Blended families’ is a relatively new term for an age-old concept – the idea of blending one family with another through the marriage of a parent from each family. By definition, it is also a family where at least one parent has a child that is not genetically related to their spouse or partner. Blended families very often involve children from both parents, and thus stepsiblings are introduced.

Several complications can arise (some initially, some long-term) between stepsiblings. In the majority of divorce cases, mothers are given custody of their children and fathers are given various weekends or visitation rights. In heterosexual relationships this then means that the mother’s children will most often be living with her, and her spouse’s children will live with their mother most of the time, creating a disconnect between the step-siblings.

The children living with their mother will access their stepfather more than his own biological children are able, which can foster jealousy and resentment among the step-siblings. Try to ensure that the children from the blended family are able to spend adequate time together where possible in order to encourage their relationships. At the same time, spending time with your child, without your stepchild present can also be helpful so they know they’re not being abandoned or left out from your affections.

Children must be disciplined in the same manner within blended families. Any perceived or real favouritism can be problematic in maintaining an equilibrium in the family unit. This is true of nuclear families but even more apparent when a family consists of members who were not initially there. This sense of favouritism can be further exacerbated if the new couple have a child together and it is an area that has to be walked carefully as even with the greatest of intentions children can feel left out, or that their sibling is favoured because they “belong” to both parents.

There may be some situations where your stepchild’s interests are more aligned with yours than your child (think Kurt and Finn from Glee). While this can be a helpful “in” for you and your stepchild, make sure that your child does not feel left out, or feel that you prefer their stepsibling because of those common interests. While common interests can be binding, they are not necessary for making and maintain relationships.

Stepparents and blended families can be difficult to navigate initially and some remain tough long-term depending on circumstances, but other times children are offered something they otherwise wouldn’t have had access to – whether it be a loving parent, a role model, siblings, or even just two happy adults living in the home with them.

Living in a loving home environment, regardless of how the unit is made up, can be a buffer for so many negative socio-economic factors in our country. It is key to be attentive to your child’s feelings when introducing a new spouse and to show them they are not being replaced. Similarly, as a stepparent, it is important to address your own feelings and any insecurities coming into a new relationship in order to be able to manage the children in the family too.

I am an HPCSA registered independent Educational Psychologist. I work at a school and in private practice. I offer short and long-term therapy for children, adolescents and young adults, as well as parental guidance. My method is primarily non-directive and psychodynamic but I will take the unique nature of every client into consideration when making a choice on how to proceed with therapy. I offer therapy for (among others) anxiety, anger, bereavement, depression, children struggling with divorce or parental conflict, adjustment and learning difficulties, self-esteem, eating disorders, self-injury and trauma.