Trying to Parent Your Stepchildren – Is It a Good Idea?

Ask any step-parent and they will tell you, creating boundaries with your partner regarding step-parenting is essential for a happy blended home.

Parenting advice regarding how to deal with stepchildren can be confusing. You don’t want to overstep any boundaries with your spouse or step-children. At the same time, you want to ensure that you’re able to provide guidance and receive respect from your partner’s children.

Each child is unique,  so your step-children may welcome you into the family with open arms or they may rebel against you. Regardless of how you are received by your spouse’s children, there are important parenting tips to keep in mind once you become a blended family.

Ask questions.

Ask your spouse specific questions to get the answer you want. For example, they may not want you to punish the children or scold them, but what if you are witnessing them deliberately breaking house rules – such as in the case of them sneaking out at night. Should you step in?

Other questions to ask include:

  • Am I allowed to discipline the children? If so, are there any topics or situations that you would prefer to handle on your own?
  • How are my individual relationships doing with the children? Do I favor one over the other?
  • What should I do if I grow frustrated with the child’s behavior?
  • If both parents have children, how will they ensure no one feels neglected?

Being clear about your questions will lessen the chances of having misunderstandings.

Communicate with your partner about boundaries.

The best parenting advice you can follow regarding how to deal with stepchildren is to communicate with your spouse. How do they want you to move forward as a stepparent? Odds are they will have strong opinions about whether you should be involved with the discipline process.

It’s beneficial to talk about the core issues that you and your spouse agree on and narrow down your differences in how you approach parenting. Doing so will help you further define your role.

In the end, it is up to your spouse to decide what role you will play in their child’s life regarding discipline.

Support your spouse’s parenting choices.

You may not be able to discipline or mentor your stepchildren, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help the process to be pleasant.

While it is up to your spouse to deliver consequences for wrongdoing, you should play an active part in supporting their parenting choices. This will help your stepchildren to view you as their parent’s ally, instead of their co-parent.

Involvement with both biological parents.

It may be in the best interest of all involved if you are able to have a conversation with both biological parents about how to move forward as the stepparent. This allows everyone involved to voice their expectations and concerns.

When the children involved hear that you have discussed this topic with both of their parents, they will feel more comfortable with the situation. This will make things feel more like a collaboration of adults and less like you are trying to replace their loved one.

Of course, this is only possible if your partner has a cordial relationship with their ex.

Encourage biological parent bonding.

Overcome any jealousy you might feel for the ex by supporting their relationship with their child. By taking this road you will lessen any resentment the child may feel toward you for ‘replacing’ their parent.

What happens if your spouse doesn’t want you involved?

If your spouse decides that they would prefer you not play a role in disciplining, guiding, and supervising their children you may feel like your hands are tied.

Their decision may seem unfair and it might hurt your feelings, but you must respect your spouse’s decision regarding the care of their children. Over time they may allow you more responsibility when it comes to childcare, but until then you must follow their lead.

Think about what you can do.

It can be difficult if your spouse would prefer you take a step back from disciplining their children. But instead of thinking of what you can’t do for them, think of what you can. Such things may include:

  • Encouraging them to pursue their dreams.
  • Teaching them a skill.
  • Being a listening ear.
  • Celebrating their achievements.
  • Studies show that a parent’s mental outlook can have a direct effect on their child’s behavior. Set a good example by having a positive outlook on your blended family and you may see your stepchildren follow suit.

Focus on spending time individually with your stepchildren and creating your own special bond with them. Support their decisions, make jokes with them, create family hobbies together. These things are what will help you grow together as a new family.

Consider the child’s age.

How you approach building a relationship with your stepchild will have a lot to do with their age.

If you are coming into a marriage where your stepchild is five years of age or younger, you will have a much easier time getting them to adjust you as a stepparent. If your stepchild is a teen or approaching their teenage years, things can get a little trickier.

In either case, it is important for you to try and establish a respectful relationship without seeming like you’re trying to replace their biological parent.

Be patient.

Being a stepparent is hard work. You will have days where you love your new kids to bits and others where you will wonder why you ever signed up for life as a blended family.

By assuming a role of authority in the house, you will have your self-esteem put to the test. Your new children may question you, rebel against you, or try and sabotage your relationship.

Just like any new parent, learning how to deal with stepchildren in a blended family is going to take patience. As can learning what your role is in their lives.

There is a learning curve, but with time you will develop your own relationship with your spouse’s children.

A final word …

Step-parenting comes with many challenges. In order to be successful, your partner must be open with you about the role they would like you to play in their child’s life. Encourage your new children and let them know that you want the best for them. And above all else, don’t give up!


About the Author: Rachael Pace

Rachael Pace is a relationship expert with years of experience in training and helping couples. She has helped countless individuals and organizations around the world, offering effective and efficient solutions for healthy and successful relationships. She is a featured writer for Marriage.com, a reliable resource to support healthy happy marriages.

 

One Comment

Erika

Im sorry, but this philosophy of “step back and let their bio parent raise them” does not work in a household with yours, mine, and ours kids. You will obviously be forced to treat your stepchildren differently (and they will notice trust me) if you are only permitted to be involved with the good and the bad and ugly you are excluded. they know you have no power and use that to make your life miserable. So you end up being a prisoner in your own home.

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Deborah

Im 60 and for first time am a step parent. Wasn’t allowed to have children before, in my past married…..but now… I have been married 1 year…. to a sweet man who has a 15 year old son, has 1/2 custody. The issue is that I am also the survivor of 27 years domestic violence. “I” am having a hard time dealing with the step child. I think your article hit it on the head, the child feels loyal to his biological mom and is either hostile towards me of coldly indifferent. And that is Okay…I understand that…His dad makes excuses and or doesn’t see it. I want this to work as I love my husband..but having difficulty with my past experiences, PTSD and dealing with the hostility at home. I am not sure I will be able to survive not taking this personally….any ideas?

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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