“Family isn’t defined only by last names or by blood, it’s defined by commitment and by love.” – Dave Willis.
Are you venturing into the challenging role of a step-parent? Do you already find yourself in that role but can’t seem to be getting it right? Step-parenting comes with several challenges of its own, but with a little effort and commitment, it can be really rewarding. The quote above perfectly captures what it means to truly be “family” and as long as you’re committed to your spouse, you’re going to be willing to make it work.
That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy though. Step-parenting comes with a unique share of responsibilities that can sometimes seem like a blur and leave you confused about whether you’re doing the right thing. The following quote sums up just how tricky step-parenting can be.
“A stepparent doesn’t just marry a spouse: they marry their spouse’s entire situation. They have to find a balance between supporting and defending without overstepping visible and invisible boundaries.” – Anonymous.
Although finding the right balance isn’t easy, it’s possible for you to raise step-kids alongside the biological parents comfortably. You don’t have to lose sleep over the question, “Can I ever be respected as a step-parent?” Our guide can show you how to be a good step-parent without over-stepping your boundaries.
Don’t try to play the role of their biological parent
“Step parents are not around to replace a biological parent, rather, to augment a child’s life experience.” – Azriel Johnson.
Do remind yourself of the word BONUS. Often step-parents are referred to as bonus-parents for a reason. Your step-kid already has two biological parents. You don’t have to replace any one of them. While they may be your spouse’s ex, they’re still your step-kid’s parent and that’s a fact that will remain and cannot be denied.
Understand how the kids must feel
To maintain a good relationship with your step-kids, a good first step would be to try an empathise with them. Expect the natural desire for kids to hope that their biological parents will get back together. At the beginning, don’t be too surprised if they even consider you to be an “intruder” to their family dynamics and even blame you for the split. This can naturally make them hesitant to develop any association with you as they may view it as being disloyal to their biological parent. See if you can understand they’re perspective and try to work with vs. against on the path towards trust and affection.
Grow into your role
It’s alright if you don’t hit it off with your step-kids the very first time you blend the family. Building a strong relationship takes time, so grow into your new role. Instead of thinking you’ll hit it off with a quick one on one bonding session. Arrange to spend time together as a group. Kids are likely to feel a lot more relaxed when they have their parents around, so rely on that to spend some time with them. Plan activities together, observe what your step-kid enjoys doing, their interests/hobbies, and ease into the relationship before spending any one-on-one time with them. How to be a good step-parent isn’t something that you intrinsically know, but it’s something that you can develop over time.
Don’t insist on what they should call you
If they want to call you by name, let them. If they want to refer to you with a term of endearment, be happy about it. This will allow them to feel in charge and give them some amount of power, especially when they’re feeling helpless to change the situation between their parents.
“When we were dating, my 7 year old daughter often referred to my then-boyfriend as “Uncle” which is a word we use in Asia as a term of respect to older people. It was only YEARS later, when we were married for over a year, than she suddenly said that she wanted to start calling him “Papa”. Even then, she slipped back and forth for awhile, and now, it flows out so easily. No one pushed her towards it. She decided on her own.” – Sandra, a bio-mom to 7 year old girl.
Don’t get involved in the co-parenting drama
Parenting decisions will still be made by their biological parents, so see if you can remain respectful of that and as hard as it may seem, stay out of such discussions unless you’re explicitly asked for your opinion. If you must share your opinion, share it with your spouse first, in a careful way vs. imposing your ideas. If there’s conflict between your spouse and the ex, let them sort it out on their own. Your spouse will surely approach you if she feels she needs your help in the matter.
Don’t trash talk the biological parent
Feeling some anger or resentment towards your spouse or even their ex? That can be normal. But please do hold back from openly sharing your thoughts when your step-kids are around. The kids may even get angry themselves and share their thoughts with you. Even then, try to resist adding fuel to the fire. Kids can be fiercely protective of their parents and this is not a line you want to cross if your long-term goal is harmony in your newly blended family.
Don’t counter the wishes of the biological parent
You may want to win some brownie points with your step-kids or appear cool by allowing them to do things that their biological parent doesn’t, but think twice before doing so. It can only lead to conflict. Always be supportive of your spouse’s parenting decisions, but feel free to make gentle suggestions and ask if they’re open to listening.
Be there for them, wholeheartedly
While you can’t take the place of their biological parents, you can be there for them when they need a parent figure or even just a friend they can depend on. Show up to events that are important for them, whether it’s a poetry recital, a school play, or a football match. Cheer them on and let them know that you’re on their team and you value what’s important to them and are there to be part of their growth.
Encourage one on one time with their bio-parents
Several step-parents feel like if step-kids spend one on one time with their biological parents, it may negatively affect the equation with them. This is far from the truth. When you encourage one-on-one time-spending with their biological parents, you establish that it isn’t a competition and that you care about their overall wellbeing. This will also win you the respect of their biological parents and lay the foundation for healthy family bonding.
Balance out the good cop/bad cop act
You may not get involved in co-parenting or take on the main role of disciplinarian for your step-kid, but there are times when you’ll have to step in. You do, after all, want the best for them and correcting them at times is in their best interest. This is a balancing act and must be treated with care. You need to appear approachable enough for them to trust you, while still being firm. The main message should be that they can’t walk all over you just because you’re the step-parent in the equation.
But what if the real mom/dad interferes in my step-parenting? That’s a reasonable question to ask. The best way to find the right balance is talking to your spouse as well as their ex about expectations from the step-parenting equation. While you may not be thrilled about this, it’s important to do this so that your spouse’s ex doesn’t make things difficult for you.
Kids are more likely to take you seriously when they feel like you’re acting on behalf of their parents. So, a good way to reinforce this is – if the real parents tell the kids that you’re in charge when they’re not around and therefore, they ought to listen to you.
Maintain open communication with your spouse
In all of this, don’t forget that your relationship with your spouse is extremely important in determining how everyone gets along. Openly communicate your expectations of each other with regard to your step-kids and work on finding solutions to problems faced together. Always remember that it’s not you versus your step-kid when it comes to your spouse’s attention. It’s up to both of you to communicate openly and make it work.
Real Step-Parents Speak: What People Won’t Tell You About Step-Parenting
You may receive a lot of advice on how to be a good step-parent, but here’s what some real-life step-parents have to say about what people don’t always tell you.
“Falling in love with someone doesn’t automatically guarantee you’ll love his or her kids and it’s not a prerequisite for a happy, successful stepfamily. As a step-parent, strive to act in loving ways by practicing kindness and respect. And if love develops? Consider it a bonus!” – Brenda Ockun.
“No one tell you that being a step-parent will put your self-esteem to the ultimate test.” – Jenna Korf.
“Do I try and be the cool parent and handle it on my own and keep what they say to me in confidence, knowing that their dad or mom should know about it? If I tell the kids’ dad or mom, then they will feel as though I betrayed them and their trust.” – Kerri Mingoia.
“One of the biggest mistakes step-couples make is putting the needs of their relationship last. A stepfamily can’t survive without a strong, connected couple steering the ship. Prioritizing your relationship isn’t done at the expense of the kids; it’s done for them.” – Brenda Ockun.
“No one tells you that all your stepchildren really need is a friend, not a replacement parent. More importantly, an adult they can trust but who doesn’t project needs onto them.” – Bleakney Ray
Just remember, as challenging as it is, it’s possible for you to raise step-kids alongside real parents in a healthy, wholesome way. Here’s a little quote that will hopefully bring a smile to your face:
“The only steps in this house are the stair steps and the only half in this house is the half & half creamer.” – Al Hodson.
We hope you’re able to embrace your new family dynamics just like this using the tips we’ve laid out for you above.