How to Be a Good Step-Parent

Dr. Carl Pickhardt, psychologist and author of Keys For Successful Stepfathering, fields questions about navigating the often tricky world of step relationships.

Q: What are some of the most common problems that arise in stepfamilies?

A: The most common problems are:
1. The intolerance of new differences in the household (in personality, temperament, habits, values and lifestyle) that must now be adjusted to in the step family.
2. The competition for parent/partner attention between stepchild and step-parent.
3. Conflicts between stepchild and step-parent over the new adult’s family authority.
4. Conflicts between parent and step-parent over parenting practices and family discipline.

Q: How is the step-parent role different from a parent role?

A: A step-parent is an outsider with no historical, biological, or loving standing with stepchildren. There are three viable roles for the step-parent: non-parent (where all dealings with the children are left to the parent), consulting parent (where the step-parent shares perceptions and problem solving with the parent, but the parent actually implements these decisions with the children), and co-parent (where the step-parent assumes full parental standing and involvement with the stepchildren).

Q: What do stepkids and step-parents need to keep in mind about each other?

A: Parent, step-parent, and stepchildren need to anticipate tensions that are nobody’s fault, that are simply built into the nature of stepfamily relationships.

The parent will sometimes feel frustrated about not being able to make everybody happy, will feel caught in the middle of competing demands between children and partner, and will feel in conflict over divided loyalties that cannot be cleanly resolved.

The stepchildren will sometimes feel like they are being forced to live with a stranger, may experience discomfort seeing parent and step-parent being affectionate with each other, and may resent the step-parent’s influence on the parent and how traditional parenting in the family has changed.

The step-parent will sometimes feel like he or she is giving too much and getting too little in return, will feel exposed to offensive differences in the stepchildren that the parent accepts, and will feel taken for granted, taken advantage of, and unappreciated.

Q: Do you have any concrete tips for being a good step-parent?

A: For the beginning step-parent, it really helps not to over-give at the outset because when stepchildren do not reciprocate with comparable effort, the step-parent can feel resentful. Don’t give more than you can emotionally afford. Don’t invest so heavily that you develop a high expectation of return. Go slowly. Take individual time with each stepchild to get to know them. Until the step-parent has build up up enough strength of relationship with the step children, let the parent do the supervision and correction. Act as the “good” authority – providing permissions and resources and fun that the stepchildren appreciate. And for sure, carve out enough separate time with the new partner to nourish the growing marriage.

Written by Sarah Treleaven

My Personal Opinion:

A few more points. Every kid is different and parents (including step-parents) should adjust their parenting style to what children need. There is no one-size fits all. Some step-kids need a light touch and go slow is good advise. However, others have been “under-parented” and need some firm, kind, clear parenting. Also take into consideration what your partner needs. They may not want or need you to step back and let them do all the discipline and you get to be the good guy/gal. Talk to them, he/she may need you to be firm, step up and take a stronger role with one or more of the kids. This is supportive of your mate and if done well, likely to strengthen relationships with your step-kids. Backing off and going slow may, in certain circumstances, be a mistake. Look carefully at the situation and use good judgment (which is what good parenting always is about anyway).