Navigating the Blurred Lines of Step Parenting

by Debby Derioan, Student-Therapist under the Supervision of Meredith Keller, LPC, ACS

Keeping your cool


Our culture has shown us only two possible extremes for being a step-parent—effortless as in the Brady family from TV or torturous as in the wicked stepmother.  Who doesn’t recall The Brady Bunch—the iconic television example of the happy couple who easily blended their two families? Sure, they had some small problems along the way, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed in under a half-hour. On the reverse side of that, fantasy in children’s fairy tales and movies portrays the evil stepmother. Yet somewhere in the middle of these two extremes lies the reality.

The reality is: step parenting is hard, takes time, and the stresses can challenge even the strongest of relationships.  But, with a lot of love, compromise and communication, you can find the middle ground that will keep your relationship strong and your blended family together. So, how do we walk that fine line that represents the middle ground?

  • Make sure your expectations of step-parenting are realistic.
  • Communicate with you partner and set your protectiveness to the side.
  • Be on the same team as your partner.

First, false expectations can set us up for disaster! Most of us dream about getting remarried and starting a new life with that false vision from TV. It is easy to think we will love a stepchild just as much as our biological children.  After all, we deeply love their parent.  And, of course, we hope and expect they will love us in return.

It is important to remember that developing a blended family is a slow progression.  Developing a relationship with a stepchild takes time as well and a good dose of patience. Remember that a biological parent begins their bond with their child from the day they enter the world, and regardless of the age of a stepchild, you are starting behind to build a relationship. In addition, loyalty issues children have toward their other biological parent that may inhibit them from wanting to get to close to you. Or perhaps there will be jealousy because they’ve had their parent to themselves for a while, and they feel threatened by having to now share him or her with someone else.  Heading into step parenting with realistic expectations of the time and patience it will take to develop a new family unit and a good relationship with your stepchildren will go a long way in easing the pressure you will likely feel for an instant love and bond.

Communication with your partner on this subject is crucial!  This subject can be especially touchy between partners. As parents, our instinct is to protect and defend our children. So often, this could lead to defensiveness when discussing discipline or a conflictual conversation with your partner regarding the children.  A conflictual conversation can then lead to the sense that the child is being prioritized over our partner. While our child needs will often come first, it is possible to balance that with our partner’s needs if it is being discussed with open and honest communication. Listening to understand is key. Feeling heard and understood can ease a lot of the defensiveness and allow for more constructive conversations about touchy topics.

Be on the same team and work together with your partner to navigate the difficulties you may run into in the day-to-day duties of step parenting. When it comes to parenting a stepchild, roles can be very fuzzy, not clearly discussed in advance, and not necessarily agreed upon.  For example, can a step parent feel comfortable with discipline if it’s not their biological child? Perhaps you and your partner want to divide roles following the rule ‘your child, you make the decisions and handle all discipline’; or perhaps you want to truly co-parent and both are responsible for all children regardless who is a biological parent and who is a step parent. There is no right or wrong answer, and each couple must decide what works best for them. The key is for you and your partner to be on the same page regarding roles and other aspects of parenting.  Be on the lookout for the tendency to automatically defend ‘your’ child and instead make every attempt to stay united with your partner.

It’s by being realistic, communicating, and parenting together that you’ll have the best chance of creating a healthy blended family.

If you are having trouble navigating the complexities of a blended family, we can help teach you strategies like these. Call us at 908-246-3074 or email at to schedule an appointment.  Doing it sooner rather than later could save you years of unnecessary hassle and make your current relationship stronger than ever.

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