Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Being a Stepparent: What You Need to Know to Make It Work


Being a Stepparent: What you Need to Know To Make Them Work

I’ve done a lot of hard things. I’ve run a marathon (well, technically a ‘fun run’ but it did require running shorts, running and sweat so I stand firm on ‘marathon’); I’ve given up sugar (not gonna lie – worst 2 hours of my life) and I’ve travelled (‘Middle East, solo, broke with a backpack’ travelled, not ‘may I take your bags madam? The lift to the 34th floor is just past the atrium’ travelled).

Being a step-parent is up there with the hardest. My stepchildren are adults now and even though the fog has cleared, I still claim that it’s one of the most difficult things I’ve done.

From the outset, there are things about a stepfamily that would likely hint at trouble if they happened in a biological family:

  • Another person (the other biological parent) has a hand in some of the big decisions that affect your family – the way the kids are raised (which will always have an impact on your home), weekends, holidays, family rituals, rules. Though you will have a say, there’s a third person with an investment who will potentially want to interfere be heard.
  • The alliance between the parent and child in a biological family is potentially stronger (understandably) than the couple. In a biological family, both parents have an equal say and big decisions are made by the couple. In a stepfamily, matters to do with the child will often be between the biological parents, or the biological parent and child. Potentially, the step-parent will have less influence in decisions that impact the family and the individuals in it.
  • The step-parent is an outsider. There are years of shared history, memories, connection and experiences between members of the biological family that the step-parent will never be a part of. Of course in time the stepfamily will grow into something new and wonderful, but first there will be a bit of compromise.

Being the second wife/husband/important person does have benefits, the main one of which is that your partner already has a realistic idea of the work that’s required to make a marriage work. There are no illusions the second time around in relation to the marriage, though there may be a few in relation to the family. 

The good news is that there are things that can be done to smooth the bumps along the way, even if you can’t completely disappear them:

  1. Let go of the fantasy.

    It sounds simple enough (it’s not!) but it could be the difference between your relationship working or not. That’s not overstating it. It really is that important.

    An abundance of research has confirmed that unhappiness is caused by the distance between expectations and reality. It’s not so much the situation that causes distress but that the situation is different to what’s expected. 

    In a stepfamily, everyone comes with their own fantasy. It’s completely normal and inevitable – but if you hang on to the fantasy too tightly, it could very well fall you. Most couples come into a stepfamily thinking that the family will immediately gel, the relationships will be tight, everyone will feel the love and the family will be a happy one. But it really doesn’t work like that.

    In a biological family, there would be problems if there was no expectation that you will love your children, they’ll love you back and all will be close. In a stepfamily though, these fantasies set up the potential for profound disappointment. Why? Because all family members come with their own fantasy, some of which are completely incompatible.

    Patricia Papernow is a leader in the field of stepfamilies. Her book, Being a Stepfamily, is the best I’ve read. (Juuuust in cast you were wondering, this is not an affiliate link – I just love the book. It was a game-changer for me in my own experience as a step-parent.) She identified the following fantasies which are typical in a stepfamily:

    •  Step-parent: ‘We’ll be one big happy family. The kids will love me. I’ll love them back. My relationship will be solid. I can’t wait for us all to be a family.’

    •  Biological Parent: ‘My partner will love the kids as much as I do and the kids will love him/her back. The kids will be so grateful for everything he/she gives this family. I just can’t wait to show everyone how happy we can be as a family.’

    •  The kids: ‘It’s only a matter of time before mum and dad get back together. They actually love each other a lot and as soon as they realise that we can be a family again.’

    Letting go of the fantasy allows for greater acceptance of the reality, more respect for what ‘is’ and more of the flexibility that’s needed to get to wherever you’re going as a family. A stepfamily can be as happy and successful as any other, but it will be different. It’s important to let go of the fantasy gently though, because your imaginings of what things would be like would have been a big part of the reason you decided to do this. And don’t worry, let go of the fantasy and reality will see to it that eventually something at least as good will take its place.

  2. See the rough patches for what they are – a progression not a fall.

    There are going to be rough patches and that’s okay. Accept them as a sign of progression towards a new kind of family – one with you in it. Your experience of the stepfamily might be different to what you expected but it doesn’t mean a happy ending isn’t coming.

    It’s likely that at some point you will feel like an outsider, as well as jealous, lonely, resentful, confused and inadequate. You’ll probably experience hostility, indifference or rejection from your stepkids and more than likely you’ll fight with your partner more than you expected. This is normal. Accept it, let it unfold and most importantly don’t take it personally, though I know that’s easier said than done.

    It feels like a shake up, and it is, but it’s all part of the adjustment the family has to go through to get to something better.  The family is recalibrating and changing shape to make way for you. That sort of adjustment was never going to be easy. Sometimes things have to fall apart a little so they can come back together in a different way. See the rough patches for what they are – a remaking, a realignment, a progression towards something new, rather than a threat.

  3. Understand and respond to the loyalty bind.

    It’s normal for children to worry that their acceptance of a step-parent might betray their biological parent. They might worry that if they like you, accept you or love you, their biological parent will be hurt or angry. This may increase their need to show loyalty to the biological parent by rejecting you or being hostile to you to ‘prove’ their love and loyalty to their parent. 

    If you suspect a loyalty bind might be at play, see it for what it is and don’t take it personally. Let your stepchild know that you aren’t trying to replace his or her biological parent and that you know nobody could ever do that. Let them know it’s okay to feel as they do and that you will work through it together.

    Next, gently put the idea out there that they can care about you and love their other parent at the same time. Acknowledge that you know that their relationship with their biological parent will always be special and different to anything else. Let them know you would like to try to have a relationship that is good for both you and the child, and that you’ll follow their lead as to what that looks like.

  4. When your stepchild is ready, work on creating the new relationship.

    Don’t try to replicate the relationship your child has with their biological parent. This runs the risk of inflaming the loyalty bind but it also takes away the opportunity for you to create something new. You have qualities, wisdom and experience that will be different to those of the other adults in the child’s life. It may take a while for your stepchild to appreciate that, but be patient. Find new things to share that are different to what the child has with his or her biological parent. 

  5. Decide on what’s important. And let the rest go.

    There will be plenty to argue about. The fact that a stepfamily is in the making means that nobody’s story has ended the way they thought it would. Nobody goes into marriage anticipating divorce and children don’t look forward to the day their parents live in separate houses. There’s a lot going on – broken hearts, endings and angry people. People won’t always be on their best behaviour.

    Decide on the things that are important to you and let the rest go. Push gently for the change that needs to happen but at the same time, respect the rest of the family’s need for stability.

    The balance will get precarious at times but it’s an important part of getting to where you need to be. You won’t be able to function as a new family until differences are worked through and people have enough of what they need to not feel compromised. Without a doubt, your new family can be phenomenal but it will take time.

  6. Appreciate the small stuff.

    Understand that it may be difficult for your stepchild to accept you or show affection for so many reasons, none of which will have anything to do with how they feel about you. The upheaval, their own grief and loyalty binds all make for shaky ground. Appreciate the small moments of contact. It’s easy to overlook them but when they happen, know that it’s big.

  7. Respect that it will take time.

    In her extensive work, Papernow has found that stepfamilies take about 7-12 years to adjust and to exist as a healthy, well-functioning system. Quicker families might do it in four but some families never really get there. I wonder how much of the time frame has to do with the stepchildren reaching independence and establishing a relationship with their step-parents as adults, rather than children.

  8. Be open to letting go.

    Be open to the possibility that you may never be close to all or any of your stepchildren. One may have less need for another adult in their lives or may feel the conflict of a loyalty bind more than the others. You might also just be too different from each other to make it work. The most important thing is that when they are younger, you are committed to making it work, but that doesn’t mean it will work out as planned. There is enormous grace and courage in being able to let go, which is different to giving up.

All stepfamilies are different but they share common vulnerabilities. They can be as rich, warm, loving and wonderful as any other family. No family is smooth sailing all the time but the dynamics of a stepfamily present challenges at the start that are unique. Within that is the potential to rise to the challenge and come out with something extraordinary.

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Firstly, thank you for writing this article as it has some key points that have been a bit of a light bulb moment for me. As I write this today, I have had a very difficult morning and have some challenging thoughts surrounding being a step parent (or blended family as I like to think of it!). I am in a same sex relationship with no children of my own. My partner is Mum of a 6 year old girl. We all live together half of the time and half of the time her daughter lives with her Dad. In my situation I am not emulating being a ‘Step Mum’ as there is already a Mum and Dad in the equation. I like to think that I don’t ‘parent’ as such, but I am a responsible adult who can sometimes lay down house boundaries but not really anything else. I find it so hard. I am not naturally authoritarian and I struggle with how my partner parents her daughter, as we have different views sometimes. However, we talk regularly and come up with ways to help each other which is so important. It certainly is a learning curve that I expect will be there forever! Today I feel downbeat and flattened by the challenges, but I know tomorrow I will feel differently. Thanks for your article!x

Karen Young

You’re very welcome Emma. I hear you. Step-parenting can be difficult for the even most loving, open hearted people. It sounds as though you and your partner are working through the challenges of stepparenting well. Know that it will get better. It might take a while, but the challenges won’t always be so tough. Hang in there and keep doing what you’re doing x


Thank you for your article, it’s a refreshing read and takes the pressure off a little.

I think I’ve clung on to a fantasy for long enough, my husband has a 7yr old son a although he was 3 when we first got together and I met him when he was 4. Trouble is he lives about 3hrs away so whilst my husband sees him every other weekend due to financial reasons I don’t see him as often only when he comes to stay a couple of weeks a year or we have him for the weekend. I think because of the infrequency of spending time with him there’s now friction when we do see each other. He understandably just wants to see his dad and I think sees me as getting in the way of that. So there have been times where he’s told me I don’t need to be there on days out etc.
I’ve become very much an outsider for which I blame myself for not making a more active role for myself. In addition to this I feel like a nag because my husband’s parenting is very much live and let live whereas I’m a bit stricter. I think it’s a sense that he obviously loves him regardless and so doesn’t mind if he wrecks the house whereas I’m learning to love him and so do care if he wrecks it because the knock on effect is me liking him less. I have tried to set boundaries but I think there’s a case of I’m not a parent so he won’t listen to me.

Now I’m pregnant (40weeks today as I write this) and I worry that this is going to drive a further wedge between us. Plus he gets away with alot more than I expected to let our new addition to.

Just feeling very lost and confused. It really is one of the hardest things I’ve done.


I find it difficult that my husband (who has custody) thinks that he is the only one that can ask anything of his child, or provide guidance. Does this now teach him that he only has to be told by his father? Doesn’t that then lead to the slippery slope of not having to listen to anyone but his farther?

Some days are better than others and at times I want to throw my hands in the air and just accept that this is the way it’s going to be so I’m turn don’t ask me to be responsible. Then I remember that this is my home and I am an adult and I make rules that guide the betterment of all of us.

That said I just want to wish all the step moms a happy Mother’s Day.


Love the points brought up in this article, so here’s a scenario, married for #3, my son is from #1, he was primarily raised by me and my 2nd spouse, who met him at 4yo and we were married 10 years. We fought a lot about parenting, I always felt bullied so I would undermine her quite a bit and call the Mom card frequently. Now in marriage 3, my son was 14 at its inception, he is almost 17, my wife and I had twins, she wants to have a say or decision with items such as his car privileges as well as household chores, I don’t mind the weight in on house stuff, but things like taking the car to a sleepover just isn’t something I feel she need to “help” me decide on…? She feels disconnected, I feel loss of control and my son is indifferent and wants nothing to do with ANOTEHR stepparent.. HELP!!!


Wow. That was a real eye opener for me. My husband and I married and he had a three-year-old stepdaughter. I raised her until she was 18. We have done many many things to help her throughout the years. With no show of gratitude or even a thank you. She was not raised to be like this. It is just who she is as an adult, and I’ve always had the expectation that we could possibly have a relationship because we have a grandchild. But I believe that we are just too different. Our values and beliefs system are so very different that even though I love her I don’t necessarily like her. I’ve actually always thought that we were so very different people. Just reading it in print from someone else’s opinion has given me a sense of relief that it is OK. Thank you for your article it actually gave me some hope. I think my expectations were too high from the beginning, and I didn’t stop to consider how she might’ve felt and listening to what her biological mom was telling her throughout the years. So sad. But I think I can move on and have a different type a relationship with her and my grandchild.


I can relate to what you’re saying although I’m only a part time stepmother as my stepdaughter doesn’t actually live with us. She’s only 10 but has been in my life 5 years and I have always tried to build a sort of motherly relationship with her but her lack of gratitude and selfish attitude in general upsets me. I have had to step back and detach myself from the maternal position I felt I was in to avoid upsetting myself in future. It’s very difficult being a stepmother and would advise anyone looking to enter a relationship with someone who has a child to think long and hard as I’m only 5 years in and struggling!


I have recently fallen completely in love with a guy who has a 3 year old son from his previous relationship. He and the mother also share custody, we only have him every other weekend and two days during the week. At first I guess I had that fantasy expectations as well, but it gets harder at times. Currently this is still new to me regarding what my position and authority is towards the little boy, causing some hick ups. But, I agree with just facing the reality and taking it as it comes. I love his dad above all the hard times. And as soon as he is old enough, he will have to accept that I am a part of their lives, whilst I will give him all the love and attention that is needed.


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