Step Family Dynamics

Have you found yourself in the role of stepfather, tangling with an adolescent stepdaughter or son?  Here’s some friendly advice: be careful. It’s not your role to parent your stepchildren and, unless you iron out some ground rules right from the start, is likely to upset your new bride more than you imagine.

Blended families can be more difficult than what you may have experienced in your first go round, even if your relationship with your new spouse is a hundred times better. There is some fabulous research on step families, and I’d recommend two books in particular, The Smart Stepdad by Ron Deal and Step Families by Dr. James H Bray and John Kelly.

family-counselingToday’s blog post is about parent focus and the comfort of each parent in the step-family. I hope you find it interesting and useful. Moreover, raising your awareness around this topic could save your second marriage.

Let’s take a scenario where Mom has several of her own kids from her first marriage. Let’s further imagine that they’re teens by now; going through their own identity issues and further doing their normal share of rebelling. Step-dad moves in, perhaps as just a partner, or even as a spouse. Research tells us that parent focus is not symmetrical; and Step-dad’s temptation to parent is in fact a trap.

In this scenario, Mom knows her kids. She has parented them from the beginning, and is confident in her understanding of how to work with them. If, on the other hand, even she is becoming unsure of herself in this new realm of adolescence, she knows she still cares about her relationship with them and has tried to coax them. In contrast, she may be unsure of the relationship with her new partner or spouse. This relationship is something new to her, and research suggests she will typically be less sure of this new relationship, particularly as the new relationship impacts her children.

In dramatic contrast, Step-dad is confident about his relationship with his new wife. Let’s assume that he’s had a bad experience before. This experience is new and the relationship more compatible, but there are these kids that sort of came with the deal. Sure he likes them—maybe even loves them in his fashion—but they don’t behave, or give him respect like his own do.  They demand attention from Mom and soon the little things turn into big things.

This sets up one of the big issues that we can have in a second marriage. She’s kid-focused and confident of her relationship with them, while simultaneously unsure of her new spouse. He’s sure of the new spouse, and confused by the kids. His classic mistake is to act like a parent; particularly when it comes to disciplining without going through mom. That sets up a cycle where:

Step-dad punishes a Step-child who rebels and the Birth mom shields child, seeing her child hurting the Birth mom is further confused by new relationship with Step-dad, as she knows how to interact with her children—not like this—and feels more distance in the new partner relationship.

Things can go south pretty quickly when they’re this way. It’s worth remembering as a stepdad to:

  1. Establish your role. For the first two years, being in a blended family for the stepdad is more like being an uncle than a dad. Talk about it. It’s new—all the research says it’s difficult. Ask questions, engaging your partner and your step-children.
  2. Use House Rules as a way to influence order and discipline. “You are in this house and we have all agreed that we don’t roast marshmallows in the middle of the living room floor; indeed, you are aware of this house rule. Let’s work together on cleaning this fire thing up, so your mom doesn’t have to get involved in the mess.”
  3. Stay calm. See if you can explain what you want. Make an effort to convey how it seems to make sense to you. Reflect on the feedback you get. Listen. Does the child seem to have been heard? Have you asked if they have been heard?
  4. Be patient. They have their own father, they will be concerned about loyalty to him, as well as who you are and your loyalty to them.
  5. Spend time with your Step-kids. As you do try and praise at least 20 times for each correction. You will win their affection with positive reinforcement. (Though surely at times it will not feel natural, make the effort.)
  6. Don’t criticize their father in when communicating with the kids. If he becomes an issue, try and bring him up in private with your spouse.
  7. Respect your step-children’s space and privacy.
  8. Most importantly, engage with your step-children in the way that their mother requests. Communicate issues over parenting with mom first, as a couple and in private. There will be times when mom may not want to be the disciplinarian, and there will be times when she does. Work on how to make that work, without negatively impacting your relationships with her or her kids.
  9. A big part of modeling appropriate communication is to be very careful of how you communicate with your spouse in front of her children. You are modeling how partners communicate effectively against a background of what may be a history of failed communication.

Step-parenting can be rewarding. I’ve gained a son in my own process, but I’ve learned to respect how my three sons are all different. What motivates them, what concerns them and, indeed, how they have dealt with their respective mothers are all different. I’ve learned the most from them by listening to them, although it didn’t come naturally—I’ve personally held my tongue enough to give it finger marks!

If you have questions or comments please reach out. I am always reachable through