How to Approach Being a Stepparent
If being a parent is difficult, then being a stepparent
is nearly impossible. Yet in the United States half
of all first marriages break up. More and more people are
finding themselves in the position of being a stepparent.
This article will describe for you what you are up against
as a stepparent and what you should do to succeed.
The Stepparent from Child's Point of View
If the child is young when his parent remarries, then things
usually go smoothly. The child grows up living with his
stepparent and sees the other natural parent outside of the
home. Such a child usually views having multiple parents
as normal and often develops a closer relationship to the
stepparent than the other natural parent.
The problems begin if the new stepparent appears on the
scene when the child is older. Older children rarely
view the new adult as a true parent. More often they view
the new adult as an intruder into their home.
There are a number of reasons for this:
All of these things give a child a lot of reasons to resent
- When the first marriage breaks up, the child had
to make a major adjustment to live in a single parent
household. With time the new living situation became set
and normal. The appearance of a new adult disrupts everything.
This is particularly true if there are also new siblings in
- Up until now the child had the undivided attention
of the parent. Now the child has to compete with an outsider.
- When his parent brings a new adult into the household,
the child may feel that the original "contract" with his
natural parent has been violated. He feels betrayed. It
was his home and his parent brought in an intruder. Such a
child may react to the stepparent like any native whose
homeland was violated.
- Children often fantasize that their parents
will get back together. The new stepparent destroys all
possibilities of this happening.
- A child feels loyalty to his natural parent. He
may think that it was he that caused his other parent to
leave the household. This will be especially true if
parent's visits are rare or erratic. As a result he may feel
guilty, angry, and abandoned. He may feel that showing
affection or developing a relationship with the new
stepparent will be a betrayal of his natural parent.
The Stepchild from the Stepparent's Point of View
It is not only the child who has problems with the new
relationship. A stepparent also may find creating a connection
with the stepchild difficult. The stepparent entered into
a marriage with the child's mother or father. He or she may
never have anticipated or considered the difficulties
that the spouse's children would cause.
The stepparent may experience loyalty conflicts.
He or she may feel guilty over not living with his or her
own biological children. Also, it might be difficult adjusting
to these new live-in stepchildren.
Sometimes the stepparent is not really interested in the
stepchild. He or she never intended to become a parent
to the child.
What You Can Do
Okay, so you are now in a new marriage. There are
stepchildren involved and it is not turning out like
The Brady Bunch. This is the reality. There are a number
of things you can do to make it go a bit smoother.
- Your goal is to create a new family:
There is no natural bond between a stepparent and a
stepchild. The way to develop such a bond is by doing
things together as a family. Sharing common interests
and activities increases bonding.
- Try to create a personal connection:
In order to create a personal connection, the stepparent
should try to spend private time with the stepchild. Such
a bond may never develop but this is how you approach it.
- Insist upon respect from the stepchildren:
You may never get attachment or love, but you should expect
mutual respect. The way you get respect is by giving respect.
- Try to minimize the changes in the child's lifestyle:
Children need some things to remain the same. Keeping the
child's daily schedule the same can help to lessen the
disruption of the new family. Do not make unnecessary
- The natural parent must act as the arbitrator:
Conflicts will inevitably arise between the stepparent
and stepchildren. The natural parent must be the peace
maker. Sometimes all that involves is giving recognition
to the injured party. This will do a lot to take down
- The natural parent is in charge of discipline:
The stepparent has enough going against him. He
shouldn't make it worse by taking on the role of
disciplinarian. Once the rules of the house are agreed
upon, the natural parent is the one who enforces them.
If the stepparent has to discipline, for example when
the other parent isn't around, he does so not as a
"parent", but as the "adult in charge".
- Get the "You're not my parent" conversation out of the way:
It is going to happen. When it does, just state quite clearly,
"You're right, I'm not. You have a mommy and
a daddy and I do not want to replace them."
- Tell the child it is okay to like the stepparent:
The child may feel he is betraying the parent that
left by liking the stepparent. The natural parent
should make it clear that it is alright for the child
to like the stepparent. It does not mean that he is
being disloyal to his other parent.
- Your marriage comes first:
This is paramount! The most vulnerable relationship
in the house is your marriage. Do whatever it takes to
keep your marriage in good shape. One of the main
causes of divorce in step families is the stress from
children. Set aside "private time" with your spouse and
guard that time carefully.
Fortunately, it is not essential that stepparents
and stepchildren like each other. It is nicer when it
happens, but they can still live together when it does not.
However, you should insist upon an atmosphere of mutual respect.
There is no "instant" love. Adjusting to the new relationships
takes time. Although the adults have fallen in love and have
decided to live together, the children may not like the
new setup. You need to have realistic expectations
concerning the children's periods of adjustment. It will take
time to adjust to the loss of the former family structure
and to accept the new situation. It may be months or years
or never. That is just how it is. If you stay focused on the
steps outlined here it should make things better. In the end
you may not have one big happy family, but you can have a
Anthony Kane, MD
ADD ADHD Advances
"If Child Behavior is an Issue in Your Home,
it is definitely Worth Your While
to check this out."
Child Behavior Help