The Smart Stepparent

By Ron Deal
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email
Focus on the Family
How to discover your place in your stepchild's life.

We all like to know what is expected of us, especially regarding our family roles. Stepparents often discover that the ambiguous nature of their role leads to great frustration. Being a smart stepparent starts by knowing your place in the family.

Jennifer, now a 28-year-old mother, reflects on how awkward it was at 13 to embrace her mother’s new marriage and the family’s move to a small Arkansas community. “It took me years to appreciate what my stepfather did for me,” Jennifer says. “He provided for us and loved me — even when I wouldn’t give him any credit. I just couldn’t let myself love him for a while. But eventually I relaxed and let him in, and now we have an awesome relationship. What a blessing he has been in my life.”

Finding your fit may not be easy, but take time and be patient. As your role becomes clearer, you can confidently begin building a closer relationship with your new children.

First, recognize that you are an added parent figure in the child’s life; you are not a replacement parent. A child who feels that his biological parent is being displaced will resist your influence. Honor and encourage the biological connection.

Second, realize that a child’s openness to you determines the pace at which you are allowed into his heart. While acting in loving ways facilitates bonding, the child’s level of openness largely depends on factors that are out of your control: the age of the child, his relationship with the other parent, the amount of time spent in the stepparent’s home. So flexibility is the key to finding the right stepparenting fit. Listen to the child’s openness cues and respond in kind. For example, if the child calls you “Mommy” or “Daddy,” by all means allow it; if that label isn’t comfortable for the child, don’t demand he use it.

As the emotional connection with a child develops over time, stepparents move through a progression of roles.

The baby sitter role

An adult can enjoy relational authority only after a child has developed an emotional attachment. Stepparents must earn this level of influence over time; it cannot be demanded. Until then, accept that you are limited to positional authority like that of a teacher, coach or baby sitter.

A baby sitter has influence only if it is given by parents who tell the children that the sitter is in charge while they are away. The same is initially true for stepparents. A biological father, for example, can empower a stepmother by saying, “She knows the rules, and if you disobey her, you are disobeying me. She has my permission to enforce the consequences.” This borrowed authority allows stepparents behavioral management of children while they initially focus their energy on relationship building.

The uncle/aunt role

When a moderate relationship has developed, stepparents can relate to the child like an uncle or aunt. When my sister Cherilyn visits, she carries some authority with my children because she’s their aunt. She is not a full-fledged parent in their hearts, but she carries a unique influence because she’s family.

When stepparents achieve this level of connection, they can become more authoritative, deepen emotional bonds and share greater affection with the child.

The parent role

Eventually, stepparents may gain significant parental authority with some stepchildren. Younger children tend to grant stepparents this status more quickly than adolescents.

The friend or mentor role

Stepparents who have limited visitation or have adult stepchildren often find that being a friend or mentor works best. Their role is much like a father-in-law who seeks to encourage and support without overstepping boundaries.

Like the gradual acceleration of a train, stepparents slowly gain momentum, moving from a minor role in a child’s life to progressively more influential ones. The challenge is to accept your current level of relationship while optimistically moving forward.

This article first appeared in the Parents Edition of the June, 2007 issue of Focus on the Family magazine. Copyright © 2007 Ron L. Deal. All rights reserved.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email

About the Author

Ron Deal

Ron Deal is the founder of Smart Stepfamilies and one of the most widely read and referenced authors on stepfamilies in the world. His best-selling books include The Smart Stepfamily, The Smart Stepdad and The Smart Stepmom. Ron is also a popular conference speaker, the host of a 60-second daily radio feature and the director of FamilyLife Blended, FamilyLife’s ministry to …

You May Also Like

Thank you [field id="first_name"] for signing up to get the free downloads of the Marrying Well Guides. 

Click the image below to access your guide and learn about the counter-cultural, biblical concepts of intentionality, purity, community and Christian compatibility.

(For best results use IE 8 or higher, Firefox, Chrome or Safari)

To stay up-to-date with the latest from Boundless, sign up for our free weekly e-newsletter.

If you have any comments or questions about the information included in the Guide, please send them to [email protected]

Click here to return to Boundless

Focus on the Family

Thank you for submitting this form. You will hear from us soon. 

The Daily Citizen

The Daily Citizen from Focus on the Family exists to be your most trustworthy news source. Our team of analysts is devoted to giving you timely and relevant analysis of current events and cultural trends – all from a biblical worldview – so that you can be inspired and assured that the information you share with others comes from a reliable source.

Alive to Thrive is a biblical guide to preventing teen suicide. Anyone who interacts with teens can learn how to help prevent suicidal thinking through sound practical and clinical advice, and more importantly, biblical principles that will provide a young person with hope in Christ.

Bring Your Bible to School Day Logo Lockup with the Words Beneath

Every year on Bring Your Bible to School Day, students across the nation celebrate religious freedom and share God’s love with their friends. This event is designed to empower students to express their belief in the truth of God’s Word–and to do so in a respectful way that demonstrates the love of Christ.

Focus on the Family’s® Foster Care and Adoption program focuses on two main areas:

  • Wait No More events, which educate and empower families to help waiting kids in foster care

  • Post-placement resources for foster and adoptive families

Christian Counselors Network

Find Christian Counselors, Marriage & Family Therapists, Psychologists, Social Workers and Psychiatrists near you! Search by location, name or specialty to find professionals in Focus on the Family’s Christian Counselors Network who are eager to assist you.

Boundless is a Focus on the Family community for Christian young adults who want to pursue faith, relationships and adulthood with confidence and joy.

Through reviews, articles and discussions, Plugged In exists to shine a light on the world of popular entertainment while giving you and your family the essential tools you need to understand, navigate and impact the culture in which we live.

Have you been looking for a way to build your child’s faith in a fun and exciting way?
Adventures in Odyssey® audio dramas will do just that. Through original audio stories brought to life by actors who make you feel like part of the experience; these fictional, character-building dramas use storytelling to teach lasting truths.

Focus on the Family’s Hope Restored all-inclusive intensives offer marriage counseling for couples who are facing an extreme crisis in their marriage, and who may even feel they are headed for divorce.