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Stepparenting: It Takes Two

Grow into Your Role

Stepparenting changes as relationships grow.

"Early in remarriage, the most successful stepparent-stepchild relationships are those where the stepparent focuses first on the development of a warm, friendly interaction style with the stepchild. Once a foundation of mutual respect and affection is established, stepparents who then attempt to assume a disciplinarian role are less likely to meet with resentment from the stepchild."Pasley, K., Dollahite, D., & Ihinger-Tallman, M. (2000). What We Know About the Role of the Stepparent. Stepfamilies Quarterly [online]. Available: www.stepfam.org.

Closeness and the authority to discipline develop over time, and neither should be rushed. For example, stepparents are often eager to build a relationship and commonly seek one-on-one activities with stepchildren. But for a time, stepchildren are often uncomfortable being alone with a stepparent.

  • Spend time in family group activities instead of intense one-on-one experiences.
  • After a period of time, one-on-one opportunities are received more openly. The length of time required for stepchildren to build a relationship with their stepparent depends on a number of factors. This is why it's so important to let the stepchild set the pace for their relationship with you.
  • Meanwhile, learn about the child's interests, share talents and skills, and engage in family group activities.
  • One of the most important stepparenting skills after remarriage is monitoring the children's activities. This involves knowing their daily routine, where the children are, who they are with, and what extracurricular activities they are involved in, but does not necessarily include being involved in the child's emotional life. Monitoring stepparents check homework and daily chores and befriend stepchildren, yet refrain from emotional closeness that is not welcomed by the child.

The research evidence suggests that the best stepparent initially works through and with the children's parent.

  • Initially, maintaining an emotionally non-threatening, distant relationship is best.
  • After a couple years stepparents can begin to spend more time in direct childcare and rule setting. Agreement between the spouses as to the timing of this role shift is important.
  • Marital consensus and mutual support always provide the strength a stepparent needs to become more authoritative.

Move Gradually into Discipline

The ability to lead and influence children comes the old-fashioned way — you earn it. Trust, respect and honor grow out of a relational history, and there is no quick way to establish that. Stepparents must be dedicated to building a relationship over time.

Effective stepparents gradually move into disciplinary roles. Power comes with relationship and grows over time. Let's look at three positive relationship styles that give way to parental authority.

1. The baby-sitter role. Baby-sitters have power to manage children only if parents give them power. When our favorite baby-sitter, Amy, comes to watch our three boys, I remind them in front of her that she is in charge while we're away. "She knows the rules and if you disobey her, you are disobeying me. She has my permission to enforce the consequences. Plus, she'll tell me about it later and you'll have to deal with me, too." After saying this before a number of date nights, my kids now finish the sentence before me. "We know, we know. Amy's in charge."

  • Biological parents must pass power to stepparents shortly after remarriage so that children will understand that stepparents are not acting on their own authority, but on the parent's authority. You might say, "I know Sarah is not your mother. However, when I am not here, she will be enforcing the rules we have all agreed on. I expect you to be courteous and respect her as you would a teacher or coach.
  • Parents and stepparents negotiate rules together behind closed doors and must seek unity in their decisions. The biological parent then communicates the rules to the children with the stepparent standing in support. If a rule is broken, as far as the children are concerned it is the parent's rule, not the stepparent's. If a consequence is to be enforced by the stepparent, to the children it is the parent's consequence. Baby-sitting stepparents, then, are extensions of biological parents. Plus, children have to deal with their parent later.
  • Complex stepfamilies, where both parents brings children to the stepfamily, still negotiate rules together, but each takes the lead role with their own children. Simultaneously they are the primary parent to their children and the "baby-sitter" to the other's children. It is important to note that this arrangement will not work if the couple does not adopt consistent rules. You cannot afford to have one set of rules for his kids and another standard for hers. Consistency without favoritism is key.

2. The "uncle/aunt" role. After a moderate relationship has developed, stepparents can move into the "uncle or aunt" stepparenting role. If my sister comes to my house and Nan and I are away for a few hours, she carries some authority with my children simply because she's their aunt. She is not a full-fledged parent but carries power through her extended family kinship. Stepparents can gradually gain a basic level of respect that allows children to accept them as extended family members by marriage. Stepparents can become more authoritative: clearly communicating limits and encouraging family discussion of rules. Furthermore, as personal bonds deepen, shows of affection and appreciation can become more common. One-on-one activities can become more frequent and personal connections increase.

3. The "parent" or stepparent role. Eventually, some stepparents will gain "parental" status with some stepchildren. Younger children tend to grant stepparents parental status much more quickly than adolescents. It is quite common to be considered a baby-sitter by an older child, an aunt by a middle child, and a parent by the youngest child. These roles can be confusing so be sure you and your spouse are a solid parenting team. Discuss circumstances often and work together to make changes over time.

  • It is important that stepparents not consider themselves failures if they do not achieve parental status with every child. Again, the length of time required to move into this role depends on a number of factors, most of which are beyond the stepparent's control. Enjoy the relationship you have now and trust the integration process.

Make Your Marriage a Priority

Stress in a stepfamily generally divides people along biological lines. When push comes to shove, the allegiance (or loyalty) between parents and children often wins out over the marriage unless the couple can form a unified position of leadership. If they cannot govern the family as a team, the household is headed for anger, jealousy, and unacceptance.

Unity within the couple's relationship bridges the emotional gap between the stepparent and stepchildren and positions both adults to lead the family. If a biological parent is not willing to build such a bridge with the stepparent, the stepchildren will receive an unhealthy amount of power in the home. All they have to do is cry "unfair" and their parent protects them from the "mean, nasty" stepparent. This almost always results in marital tension, conflict, resentment, and isolation.

  • The biological parent in stepfamilies maintains a relationship to both insiders (their children) and outsiders (new spouse and his or her children), and therefore must position the stepparent as his or her teammate.
  • The couple should give time and energy to the marriage and not let their children keep them apart. Including the new spouse in parenting decisions, setting a date night and keeping it, and taking a few minutes each day to connect without interruption as a couple are a few simple but significant ways to communicate the unity of the couple to the children.
  • If the biological parent doesn't help the stepparent into a leadership position, the stepparent is likely to try to force his or her way in. This almost always results in resentment and resistance from the insiders. Again, jealousy, rejection, and anger are common resulting emotions.

Now let me balance this truth by noting that biological parents must take a "both/and" stance with their children and new spouse. They must invest time and energy in both. Early in the remarriage, for example, it is especially important to stay connected with your children. But eventually the marriage must be made a priority, even in front of the children.

  • Waiting for this to happen is difficult for many stepparents. Again, it is important that they are affirmed by the biological parent, and also that time and energy are put into the marriage.
  • But instead of competing for time, stepparents need to encourage their spouse to be involved with his or her biological children. Stepparents who get in the way of the parent-child relationship are asking for trouble. Try to keep in mind that biological parents in two-parent nuclear homes frequently make marital sacrifices on behalf of their children. Your home must do the same. Be unified in your sacrifices for the children and find time to be alone.

Key Points to Remember

  • Early in remarriage biological parents need to remain primary caregivers and disciplinarians. Handing off the children to the new stepparent sabotages his or her ability to build a relationship.
  • Early in remarriage parents should empower stepparents by communicating to the children their expectation of obedience. Later, even if you disagree with what the stepparent has done in your absence, support his or her position with the children. Then take your disagreement behind closed doors and work out a unified plan and consequences for the next offense.
  • Stepparents need to grow into their relationship with stepchildren. Be friendly at first and support the house rules. Seek to be mutually suitable with your stepchildren and enjoy the relationship you have now.
  • Encourage and insist that children maintain regular, consistent contact with the parent living in the other home. Do your best to have a functional co-parent relationship.
  • Let children set the pace for their relationship with the stepparent. Consider each child individually. Give and expect affection, nurturance, and emotional sharing only to the degree children appear open to it.
  • Parents should consider the stepparent's input into child rearing. It is easy for parents who are used to having complete control over their children to discount the stepparent's perspective. Keep in mind that, as outsiders, stepparents can see things your blind spots prevent you from seeing. Listen and consider their input.
  • Stepparents need to learn to be a nonjudgmental sounding board for parents. When parents get frustrated with their own children, they may confide in the stepparent. However, stepparents who begin to agree and add their own frustration may find their spouse reversing position to defend the child. The parent-child bond is indeed a protective one. Stepparents would do well to listen and affirm without criticizing the child. "I can see you are angry at Jane for lying to us. What do you suggest we do?"
  • Finally, but most important, effective parent-stepparent teams begin with healthy marriages. Take time to nurture your relationship, date on a regular basis, learn to communicate and resolve conflict, and enjoy a healthy sexual relationship. Make your marriage a priority!

Recognize the Losses of Your Stepchildren

No one in stepfamilies experiences more loss than children. This truth is difficult for most adults to recognize simply because they are consumed with their own losses. It's human nature to notice our own wounds more than someone else's. Yet children, because of a lack of maturity and coping skills, need more help processing their grief than adults.

The death of a parent or a parental divorce means children lose control of their lives, lose contact with parents, grandparents and siblings, and lose continuity to living arrangements and routines.Visher, E. B. & Visher, J.S. (1988). Old Loyalties, New Ties: Therapeutic Strategies with Stepfamilies. New York: Brunner/Mazel. Life in a single-parent family and stepfamily is full of transition and change.

Here are just a few changes that bring loss to children:

  • not wanting parents to divorce
  • not wanting to change residences or move between two homes
  • a new stepparent they didn't ask for and the death of the dream of parental reconciliation
  • new stepsiblings
  • having to share a room with a sibling or stepsibling
  • loss of a role in the family when remarriage brings other people to the household
  • loss of familiarity with a school, teachers, neighborhood, friends, activities and traditions
  • financial pressures; and changes in rules and expectations from their parent and stepparent

This list doesn't begin to capture the kinds of changes (losses) forced upon children when families end and begin. And some changes have greater impact than others.

For example, couples need to realize that marriage for them is a gain, but for their children it is another loss. This important truth — that remarriage often disrupts the parent-child bond and produces insecurity in children — is not intended to make you feel guilty. If you are a parent, you need to understand the impact loss has on your children. If you are a stepparent, you need to empathize with — not resent — your stepchildren's grief.

I believe that one of the hardest things children in stepfamilies must learn is to share a parent with a stepparent or stepsiblings. They've lost so much already, it's understandable why they would resist "losing" another parent. To protect their relationships, children may push away a stepparent. This brings about competition and insecurity, especially if a stepparent takes the threat personally.

I wish I could count the number of stepparents who have described their stepchildren as "jealous" and "trying to be manipulative." I respond with, "I know that's what it looks like on the outside, but what they are on the inside is hurt. These children have experienced a great deal of loss in the past and that makes them scared of more hurt. One of the things they fear most is losing their parent to you. Don't get hooked into competing for time. You're the adult. Back away every once in a while and give them exclusive time with their parent so they don't fear you quite so much. Someday, when they allow you in, you can share time with their parent more equitably."

Respect and be aware of how previous losses creates fear in children.

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Adapted from The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family by Ron L. Deal, Bethany House Publishers, 2002. Used with permission. smartstepfamilies.com*

Next in this Series: The Smart Stepparent