Tips for Step Family Success


When biological parents split, these parents often move on to other relationships. These partners are most commonly referred to as step parents if they live in the home and/or assume some care giving responsibilities.  Almost every day there are stepparents and their step kids who are at their wits end with one another. They argue and even violently fight because each does not understand what role they are to play in the family.

Many times the stepchild may feel betrayed by their parent replacing the other parent with this strange person. The new stepparent, who may pickup on the negative emotions of the child, does not know what role they can play with their spouses’ child.

Yet, contrary to myth, stepfamilies have a high rate of success in raising healthy children. Eighty percent of the kids come out fine.

What trips step kids up has little to do with stepfamilies per se. The biggest source of problems for kids in stepfamilies is parental conflict and lack of a plan to integrate. Here are some tips to help create a plan and integrate a new parent more smoothly:


1. Understand the differences between stepfamilies and first families.

Stepfamilies are formed out of a loss, resulting in the dissolution of the first family. Children, at any age, may assume their stepfamily will be a re-creation of their first family, often resulting in expectations impossible to fulfill. The key to re-defining “family” is to develop an identity as a group. Hobbies and interests encourage bonding. Whether it is rock collecting, traveling, or Sunday get-togethers, develop a unique identity for your group.

2. Don’t expect an instant relationship.

While you cannot expect instant attachment or love, you can expect to be treated respectfully. Model respectful behavior towards your stepchildren and let them see you set the example. Encourage trust by never making negative comments about the biological parent or siblings around your stepchildren.

3. Discipline by the biology book.

When it comes to discipline for stepchildren, biology is the key!! Once you and your spouse have set the rules in your home, let the biological parent take the lead, especially with older children. If the biological parent is absent and the stepparent must discipline, take the position of “adult in charge,” or mentor, not parent.

4. Get the “You’re Not My Parent” conversation out of the way quick!

No matter the age, this topic is inevitable. When it happens, be confident and clear about who you ARE. You may consider actually saying: “You’re right; I’m not your parent. You have a mom and a dad and I do not intend to replace them.” If the child has overstepped one of the rules and the biological parent is unavailable to handle the situation, you may need to add, “At the moment, I am the adult in charge. Here is the rule you are expected to keep in this house.”

5. Keep a united front.

When problems arise the kids need to see you and your co- or stepparent as a team in agreement. This helps prevent splitting. Develop an expected code of behavior for the entire household that applies to ALL children present, no matter who the bioparents may be. If you and your spouse are having a disagreement over discipline, go for a walk and air your differences. But when the kids are watching…you two are one!!

6. Recognize the kids may do things differently at other parent’s houses.

Sooner or later, probably sooner, you will hear “But at my dad’s house…” and this is a good time to take a deep breath and pull out the handy phrase, “You may be able to do that at your other parent’s house but you can’t do that here.” Period. No disparaging comments about the other parent, and no changing the rules on the spur of the moment. To avoid splitting, you will need to decide later if you want to change the rules. Most importantly, empathize with your child about how confusing this may be sometimes, particularly if they appear to be having a hard time emotionally with the transitions

7. Carve out one-on-one time with each child.

While creating a group identity is key to becoming a family, one-on-one time is key for developing a good relationship with your stepchild. Find time to spend alone together. Where possible, get yourself into their world. Consider volunteering on your stepchild’s sports team or rearrange your schedule to drive to or from school. Drive time in the car can be a good time to communicate.

8. Avoid creating competition.

Your biological children crave your undivided attention and it is important to spend special time with them. Help your stepchildren to avoid feeling left out by keeping your special times with biological children low key. Don’t make a big deal out of what you do when the step kids are away. And find out everybody’s love language so you can really make expressions of love count for each individual (www.5love

9. Make a daily attitude check.

When it comes to your step kids, become the poster person for a positive attitude!! Every day, make a conscious effort to forgive the small hurts that eventually add up to a big grudge. No matter how stressful the situation gets, never resort to criticism or sarcasm when communicating with your stepchildren. Perhaps a dinner round where everyone expresses sunshines (good stuff) and clouds (bad stuff) of the day.

10. Avoid the split personality approach to step parenting!

Scheduling step life can be brutal. Two days here, one night there; the whole family can end up with a spilt personality! Remember, your kids may be important members of two households. When schedules clash, put the child’s needs first even if it means extra driving, inconvenient timing, or a missed opportunity for you. Your child will remember your cooperative attitude more than anything else.

(Adapted from Gigi Cook)

For Therapy Services: The Key Counseling of SA


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