Being a step-parent means occupying a unique place in a child’s life. Every step-parenting situation is different and there are no exact rules on how to get it right. Lots of step-parents experience contradictory emotions about their role, and that’s ok. There will be times when things go well and times when things go badly. Here are a few step-parenting tips to keep you going forward, no matter what.
Have realistic expectations
Step-parenting and blended families can be very messy. There are lots of people involved, all with their own needs and sensitivities and all carrying their own hurts and trigger points. So expect lots of bumps. Forget about the fairy tales and be pragmatic. Nothing about parenting is ever perfect, and for step-parenting that’s one hundred times more true!
Take it slowly. Allow the relationships to develop slowly. Don’t expect your step-children to love you (or even like you!) to start with. Keep trying to find ways to connect but understand that those bonds will take time to grow. You can’t make them happen.
Take a back seat
Accept that your partner’s first responsibility is to his/her children. It’s not all about you. Children need time alone with their actual parent, so be prepared to step aside and encourage that to happen.
Don’t try to be the parent
Your primary job is to support your partner’s parenting not to be an extra parent. Aim for a relationship that is more like an aunt or uncle – i.e. a responsible and caring adult who deputises for mum/dad when they are not around but who is not the primary authority figure.
There are lots of individuals in this situation all of whom have valid viewpoints and needs (even if poorly expressed). So don’t play the blame game. Try to see the world from your step-child’s/partner’s/partner’s ex’s perspective. Things are seldom black-and-white when you do that. Blame is always alienating and seldom transformative. Especially, don’t criticise, complain about or joke about your step-child’s other parent (your partner’s ex) in front of the children.
Children often act out their feelings through behaviour and being a successful step-parent involves managing your own emotions and controlling your reactions (even when deliberately provoked). Children can go through a range of contradictory emotional responses when a new partner is introduced. They might feel jealous, sad, angry, insecure, resentful – allow them space to have their reactions. You can help children cope with change by naming their emotions and walking away from confrontations (see How do I cope with Teenage Tantrums).
Agree some house rules
You might want to use family meetings to give everyone an opportunity to have their say and help build your new family life. Having clear, agreed rules in place helps children know what is expected of them. It also makes step-parenting much easier and will start to build a family team spirit. No need for a detailed rule book, just try to agree the big stuff.
If you have different perspectives on the children, don’t jump in and tell your partner he/she is wrong. Take ownership of the problem (“I find it difficult when you…“) and invite collaborative problem-solving: “Could we find a way to manage that differently?” (See When parents disagree about parenting for more advice on this.)
Find somewhere to offload
Being a step-parent isn’t easy. There will be things you want to say that it’s unwise to say to your partner. Criticisms of the children, fears about your own role, exasperations with your partner’s parenting. Find a friend or forum where you can offload without fear and express your step-parenting exasperations. And, hopefully, laugh about it. Look after yourself.