Becoming a stepparent is a bit like stepping onto a roller coaster. One minute, you’re excited and getting high-fives; the next, you’re navigating through a sea of moody silences and disrespectful behaviors.
Stepkids have seen their birth families disrupted, so they're on a tough ride, too. They’re processing massive feelings and trying to find their footing. And then, on top of all this chaos, you and your partner might not see eye-to-eye on how to parent. Phew!
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Cultivating Understanding as a Foundation of Stepparenting
Blended Families Require New Parenting Skills
Competition for Love
Stepchildren's Disrespect and Rejection Can Be Discouraging
A New Perspective about Behavior to Help!
Reasons Stepparents and Stepchildren Don't Get Along
What Is Your Role as a Stepparent?
The Blended Family: Rules of Engagement
Keep Communication Open at All Times!
Find Common Ground with Your Partner
What If I Don't Like My Stepchild?
You're Not the "Evil" Stepmother or Father
How to Deal with Disrespectful Stepchildren
Stepparenting Tips for When You're Discouraged
Frequently Asked Questions
So, how do you effectively navigate stepparenting with all the many blended family challenges?
Of course, you love your partner, but you probably haven’t built a relationship with children inherited by love and marriage—yet.
The blended family dynamic and relationships confront parents and children in ways they never could have anticipated.
Some of the questions and comments I’ve heard from parents in my coaching sessions:
- "How do you balance being a stepparent with giving your own children attention?"
- "I feel so guilty but I find myself ignoring my stepchildren."
- "How do you deal with stepchildren’s disrespect?" (i.e., entitlement, rudeness, or indifference)
- "What if I don’t like my stepchild?"
- "How can I get my spouse to set better boundaries for her/his kids?"
Navigating a blended family and being a stepparent takes time and effort—and a lot of love—to navigate new relationships and blended families.
And if you didn't have children of your own and married your partner who has children, it can be even more tricky. (I salute your courage!) You probably lack parenting experience altogether and the increase of activity and noise alone might feel overwhelming!
Cultivating Understanding as a Foundation for Stepparenting
Let’s start by clearing the playing field.
Don’t expect an amazing or close relationship with your stepchildren right out of the gate. (Although this connection is possible, it’s not the norm.)
You have little to no history in the parent-child relationship. Your stepchildren are most likely grieving the loss of their biological parent and the disruption of their birth family. You may still be rebounding from a divorce, and if you are a birth parent, you may also be struggling to find your ground within this new dynamic.
So, there might not be a lot of positive feelings flying around—YET.
Relationships take time.
Building a loving one with your partner’s children is an act of love—and not easy, no matter how committed you are; and no matter how well-mannered your stepchildren are! Learning how to interact as a blended family requires immense patience and steadfastness.
Related reading: “Your Expectations Are a Big Problem in Blended Families.”
Blended Families Require a New Set of Parenting Skills
Understanding the challenges that you may face will help develop effective strategies. There are distinctive issues that most parents face when blending their families. It will take work and consistent attempts to connect and get to know your stepchildren.
And yup... many times, your overtures will be rebuffed, sometimes when you thought you've really nailed it.
Don't take the rejection personally!
Do not expect yourself, your partner, or the children to have it all figured out. Trust me, you won’t!
Regardless of your challenges, the first step is to ACCEPT WHAT IS.
Acknowledge that there will be bumps and it's a major undertaking to blend families. Don’t make it harder than it already is by adding unrealistic expectations—accept that this is your life by love and choice.
In our last blog, "The Blended Family and Parenting Survival Guide," we outlined three parenting challenges for blended families: Conflicting parenting styles, increased sibling rivalry and emotional upheaval, and a stepparent overstepping boundaries.
Let’s review a few more challenges you may encounter that are equally difficult.
Stepparents can feel like they're competing for their spouse's love and attention.
In divorce, children's worlds are turned upside down so they often demand far more from their birth parent when a family blends. Simultaneously, they often exclude their stepparent, not allowing them to help.
Most stepkids will compete for your spouse’s attention until they feel more secure. In fact, sometimes it can feel like the stepchildren get most of your spouse's attention so you may find yourself wondering, "What about me?" So you might feel a little resentment toward your stepchildren who often complicate a spousal relationship.
Remember it's temporary; the stronger your relationship with your partner and stepkids becomes, the less they will vie for their parent's attention. Until then, it can feel confusing and a tad lonely when time gets devoured by kids.
Be sure and speak up for yourself by saying, "I need... (fill in the blank)" when you're feeling ignored or love-starved. And have conversations with your partner about how to find the right balance, too. Supporting each other is critical.
The stepchildren's disrespect and rejection can be discouraging.
One common challenge many stepparents face is the continual ignorance, snubbing, disrespect, and disdain of their children by marriage. Some of the most difficult behaviors come from family relationships within a blended family.
This disrespectful behavior often stems from the fact that the children didn’t choose you!
They’ve been thrown together with you and possibly some stepsiblings, regardless of how they feel or what they want. Imagine if you were them. Not easy.
Just because your partner has fallen in love again and has the right to remarry doesn’t mean the children are on board. So expect some push-back. Why should they accept and trust you? They've already been through loss; it's understandable they may be reticent to open their hearts and trust again.
A question that frequently arises for many parents in this situation is, "Who comes first in a blended family?" Because parents feel guilty that their children’s original family was disrupted without them having a say, they naturally side with and give children their attention first.
Is this wrong? There is no wrong; there is only the question at any given moment: "What is most loving?"
If you want a positive relationship with your stepdaughter or stepson, it will require the whole family to work together. And it's essential that you respond calmly and maturely with firm love. Right now, it's about building trust.
A major obstacle to nurturing the new stepparent relationship is the misconception about "misbehavior." Even if stepchildren don't accept, like, or love their stepparents, they should at least respect them, right?!
A New Perspective About Behavior to Help!
Redefining misbehavior and clarifying what motivates it is imperative, specifically within the blended family setting.
“Misbehavior” has been misunderstood for a very long time. We've come to see behavior only through the lens of what is good and bad, appropriate and inappropriate, respectful and disrespectful. I'd like to extend a new perspective that will help you respond to your stepchildren with less judgment and more compassion.
When a child acts out and misbehaves, there are several factors at play:
- No matter their age, the children are most likely experiencing big emotions they might not understand or be prepared for. And they may not know how to process and express their feelings appropriately.
- They have core needs that feel threatened.
- They are trying to communicate the best way they know how.
- The “misbehavior” is their pain talking.
- Resentment has flared toward the stepparent because there is competition for attention from their biological parent from both you and their stepsiblings, if any.
- Developmentally, the drastic change might interrupt or hinder their natural growth and normalization.
- Children have been trained to be dependent and helpless.
For example, suppose your spouse’s parenting style leans toward overprotective, such as helicopter parenting, which stunts self-reliance. In this case, the children might be too dependent and it's likely that learned helplessness could be intensified during such a significant change.
Or if a parent has a people-pleasing personality, children might expect their parent to make them feel better. Misbehavior might have been overcompensated for, unnoticed, or overlooked since the parent would deeply feel their children's pain going through a separation and divorce.
If you value self-reliance, kids whining or asking for help unnecessarily (capable of doing for themselves) might be irksome to you. Don’t say anything; just take note to have an open dialogue with your partner about what might be better in the future.
- There may be missing skills necessary for your stepchildren to act the way you’d like. Possible missing EQ skills: how to process emotions, emotional regulation, self-control, assertiveness to speak up for what they want, and resiliency.
Knowing that behavior is communication allows us to see “disrespect” or “rudeness” differently.
How birth parents have repeatedly responded to a child’s behavior trains them to act a certain way. You might have a very helpful perspective, but change won’t happen overnight.
It’s much more crucial that you as parents are unified than for behavior to be corrected immediately. And it’s much more vital to nurture your relationship with your stepchildren than to correct or discipline them.
Reasons Stepparents and Stepchildren Don't Get Along
There are many reasons for family members not to get along, but here are a few I’ve heard personally from my parent coaching sessions:
- A child is angry that their mother (or father) has been replaced.
- Conflicting parental styles and disciplines confuse children.
- Children are jealous of their stepsiblings getting help, attention, and money.
- Some children didn’t feel heard before the blend; now, they must compete with more people for less availability.
- Stepchildren feel indignant because it looks like birth children get their way or the lion’s share of attention. They are the “favorites.”
- Various personalities clash between children or the stepparents and children.
- Unresolved problems originating from previous families.
- Stepparents disapprove of how their partner disciplines the children.
Take a deep breath.
Get in touch with the vision of a cohesive and loving family.
Then flex your love muscles right through the noise... with regular self-care!
What Is Your Role as a Stepparent?
This role clarification is one of the most critical things for you to accept and commit to: your primary priority is spending time with your stepchildren and focusing on building a solid relationship with them.
Secondly, your parenting role is to be a healthy role model. Children always carefully observe their parents and what they do and say, but in this new relationship, they watch your every move with a magnifying glass.
- When they rebuff you, do you shrink and go away?
- When they misbehave, do you withhold your love?
- How are you treating their primary parent?
- Do you make an effort to spend time with them?
- Are they treated differently from your birth children?
- How do you self-regulate when you’re angry or frustrated?
Be prepared to run a parenting marathon with lots of adventure.
The Blended Family: Rules of Engagement
Even though blended families are the new norm (now outnumbering first marriages), it is still new territory for most people remarrying. There are a few rules of engagement that will help to make the parenting journey smoother.
Both you and your partner will need to unify and define the ground rules from the get-go!
Initially, the Biological Parent Is the Only One that Disciplines.
You must get on the same page with your partner and back them up—even when you disagree. The goal is to soften the transition and make developing the relationship more important than getting the stepkids to obey or behave.
Keep Communication Open at All Times.
Talk to your partner about things that happen, get curious about how they would deal with behaviors, and ask how they would like you to handle similar situations.
Respond lovingly and firmly to your partner’s child when they misbehave. Do not react punitively by taking away privileges, their favorite game or denying them access to a good friend.
Let them know you want to understand and support them because you know how new your family relationships are, and you desire a close relationship, but there is no hurry. You’re not going anywhere.
For continuity, especially for children older than five, your most cherished job is to invest in the parent-child relationship with your partner’s kids through 1x1 time together, alternating with family time.
Make time with your stepkids a high priority—especially if you have negative feelings toward them! Cultivate regular fun and quality time together to get to know each other. They might resist and refuse at first, if so, start small.
Follow this one rule as a stepparent: Leave the discipline to the other parent, and your challenges will lessen. Invest in nurturing the relationship with your stepkids!
Find Common Ground with Your Partner.
So, here’s a thought: Instead of getting bogged down by disagreements, blaming, or thinking your way is the right way, what if you both took a moment to have a real heart-to-heart?
Dive into the stories behind your parenting styles. Maybe you’re the “strict scheduler” because that gave you security as a kid, or perhaps they’re a tad more “go with the flow” because they had parents who were too rigid. Sometimes, these deeper stories and memories shape our parenting tone.
These open discussions are not about pointing fingers or winning arguments but more about saying, “Hey, I get where you’re coming from.” This understanding can be a game-changer. It creates a safe space to blend your styles, ensuring you’re both on the same team, looking out for the kids.
Remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all in parenting.
But with empathy, patience, and a dash of humor, you can create a home where family members feel heard, understood, and cherished. So, hang in there! Keep those conversations going. You’ve got this!
No matter the conflict, you can find a way to work together and have a good relationship with your stepchildren.
What Do I Do If I Don’t Like My Stepchild?
While parenting a stepchild, you may not have a natural affinity for their personality. However, it’s essential to approach the situation with maturity, curiosity, and empathy.
Make a list of the things that annoy you or that you don’t like. For instance, “My stepchild is too emotional.” After you complete the list, write down what’s GOOD about each trait. Using our example, being emotional is good because they experience life deeply and passionately.
Or if you don’t like how they demand what they want, you could say that it’s an excellent quality (even if out of balance) because they can speak up for their needs.
Focusing on what you admire about your stepchildren or what is good about what you find aggravating will help take the edge off. Look beyond behavior and get to know them genuinely.
Examine how you might be contributing to conflicts.
Using honesty to understand your emotions as a stepparent can help you respond better. Looking at our side of how we might be contributing to reactions or conflicts will assist us in strategizing more helpful responses. And the one thing you can control is your responses.
Sometimes, the best solution if you’re struggling is getting support. A parenting coach or family counselor can help you weed through the challenges and equip you with enhanced understanding.
You’re Not the “Evil” Stepmother or Father.
Sometimes, it’s easy to feel like you’re failing in stepparenting.
First off, a virtual hug is coming your way!
Being a stepparent can sometimes feel like you’re walking a tightrope, and on certain days, even the tiniest wobble can make you feel like you’re about to tumble. But trust me, the feelings of “Am I the evil stepparent in this story?” are way more common than you think, but only your own pain speaking to you.
When kids react intensely and perhaps even disrespectfully, it’s tempting to take it personally, isn’t it? Don't!
Their reactions are often less about you and more about the big changes they’re dealing with. Kids, in their unique, raw, and unfiltered way, are just trying to voice their own struggles, fears, and feelings.
So, when the storms roll in, instead of seeing it as a personal setback, view it as a signal that they need a little extra love and understanding.
How Do You Deal with Disrespectful Stepchildren?
Stepchildren can sometimes have difficulty with their stepparents. Some may think you're replacing their birth parent and may feel guilty if they do like you.
It’s natural for a stepchild to express disrespect towards the new stepparent because they feel powerless in the decision. Although it's an unproductive assertion of power, it may help them to feel like they have some say.
Be as kind as you are able. Reflect back to them on what hurts using "I messages" such as, "Wow, that hurt. Looks like you're hurting." rather than saying "Stop mouthing off" or "Don't you speak to me disrespectfully"
Remember, they are your spouse’s children, and your spouse loves them.
Stepparenting Tips for When You're Discouraged
For those moments when you feel like you’re floundering, here are a few tricks to have up your sleeve:
Team Huddle. Sit down with your partner and chat about what’s going on. Share those feelings of doubt and seek their perspective. They might offer insights into their child’s behavior that you haven’t considered.
“Me” Moments. When the weight feels too heavy, give yourself permission to take a break. Do something that recharges you, whether it’s a quiet walk, a few chapters of a good book, or even a mini-dance session in the living room.
Open Dialogue. Consider creating a safe space where your stepkids can express themselves without judgment. Maybe it’s a weekly check-in where everyone shares one high and one low from their week. It’s amazing what you can learn when everyone shares.
Celebrate the tiny wins. Have you had a good chat and enjoyed a quiet evening together? Celebrate these moments! Over time, these little building blocks create the foundation for a solid relationship.
Lastly, cut yourself some slack. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is the bond with stepkids. It’s okay to have hiccups along the way. What matters is the love, effort, and patience you’re pouring in. You’re doing better than you think, promise! 💪🏼
Do Things Together as a Family
When it comes to families, we need some rules on what we can do together. It would help if you had guidelines to establish routines, such as on Wednesday night, you all watch a movie. Family time is essential for children. They learn how to act together as a family and respect one another.
Related listening: Dr. Phil on blended families.
Work on building trust.
Winning trust takes time. The more time, patience and love you invest, the more likely you will build trust and establish a good future relationship with your stepchildren. When dealing with a difficult stepchild, listen carefully and ask questions. Build trust one brick at a time.
Love them despite their lack of acceptance.
In the beginning, your stepchild is likely unable to accept the situation, and therefore, you. You’re in this for the long term. Spend some quality time with just them. It could be a short walk, a baking session, or working on a DIY project. These moments become new memories that strengthen the relationship.
Treat them like part of the family—show them love, even when it's hard.
If you want to build a happy family and great relationship with your stepchildren, don’t give up!
Let’s be real: blending families can sometimes feel like mixing oil and water. You’ve got all these different personalities, histories, and quirks coming together under one roof.
But if there’s one magic ingredient in this mix, it’s genuine care.
Depending on the age, for younger children, take them to a nearby park, play a hide-and-seek game, or take them out for ice cream or a frozen yogurt. For preteens and teens, you can play catch or an X-Box game with them. Attend a match for their favorite sports team. Or you can also surprise them with tickets to a concert for a band they enjoy. (Sometimes, include your biological child so the stepsiblings can also bond.)
If the older stepchild accuses you of trying to buy their love, kindly say, “I’m just trying to provide opportunities to get to know you with things you enjoy.”
The Heart-Felt Parenting Guide
So, if you’re wondering how to make your stepchildren feel like they’re an integral part of the family fabric, here’s your heartfelt guide:
Start with the little things. Sometimes, it’s the small gestures that speak the loudest. Leaving a surprise note in their lunchbox, listening intently to their school stories, or remembering their favorite ice cream flavor can mean the world to them. Pay attention!
Create new family rituals. Introduce fun family rituals or traditions. It could be as simple as “Taco Tuesdays,” a monthly game night, or cozy weekend movie marathons. These rituals create shared memories and instill a sense of belonging. And since they’re new since your blended family joined, the credit will be yours!
Open ears, open heart. Simply listening can be a powerful tool. Allow them the space to share their feelings, worries, and dreams. They may not open up right away but create a safe haven consistently until they do. Being heard makes a child feel valued and cherished, and they need that more than ever!
Make inclusive decisions whenever possible. When it’s possible, involve the children in family decisions. Whether choosing the next vacation spot, deciding on the weekend activity, or picking the living room color, help them feel like their opinion counts.
Celebrate every milestone. Celebrations foster a sense of unity and shared joy, be it a minor achievement at school, mastering a new hobby, or even their half-birthdays. And there’s the added benefit of your children knowing you care.
Consistency is the key. As a stepparent, relationships will take time. Try to maintain routines. Don’t one day ask about their day and then go two weeks without talking with them. Although it takes a lot of fortitude to keep loving when your stepchildren may push you away, it’s crucial!
At the heart of it all, it’s the genuine intent that matters. Every child, stepkid or not, craves love, attention, and a sense of belonging. By continually making efforts to connect, you send a simple yet profound message: “You matter to me.” And trust me, they’ll feel it.
Frequently Asked Questions
How can I build trust and relationships with my stepchildren over time?
Building trust with a stepchild is a laborious task. Find out about their hobbies and interests so you can get involved. Introduce your stepchildren to new activities they’ll like that will be associated with you and new beginnings.
Encourage honest communication. Respect their feelings while respectfully expressing your thoughts. Repeatedly show them your love is real. Each small action adds up.
Prove to them you're trustworthy by showing up!
Get Parenting Support
Heartmanity's mission is to support parents to create loving homes and families. If you need help in your blended family or want personalized parent coaching, contact Heartmanity at firstname.lastname@example.org.