Stepping into Step-Parenting (Struggles, Boundaries, Advice)

Guide to Step Parenting

Blending the family (new parents, siblings, spouses) is a complicated endeavor that takes time and patience to fall into a good rhythm. Until it feels like a well-oiled machine, there will be kinks and cogs along the way. Realistic expectations and setting boundaries from the get-go gives your blended family the best chance for sustainable success.

If you are new to step-parenting, keep these 12 simple rules and advice in mind.

Don’t overstep

Don’t overstep

In the discipline department, let the biological parent do the heavy lifting. Let them set the rules and be the rule enforcers. And absolutely, positively no spanking, cursing, or going ballistic on the kids (duh…but you’ll probably want to at some point).

Until you have established a solid, trusting relationship, the kids won’t view you as a credible authority figure. They will certainly resist your awkward attempts at discipline. Any crack at authoritarian behavior could even backfire – possibly jeopardizing your future bond.

Like a babysitter, you can remind the kids of the rules (set by the parent) and report any bad behavior, but do not administer the punishment.

The kids will surely test their boundaries with you, or take devious pleasure in attempting to work you up. Never take the bait. If you feel yourself going over the ‘cool, calm, and collective’ edge, leave the room immediately. Let their parent deal with the regulation of their law and let them determine the consequences.

When your stepchildren test you, don’t take it personality or too much to heart. The divorce and remarriage may be fresh, and they’re still coming to terms with their own feelings of loss, sadness, bitterness, and confusion. Negative feelings bubble to the surface, and are especially aimed toward the easy target – the step-parent.

But remember, be the rock. Even in the face of nastiness and blatant disrespect, maintain your sense of calm… you are the mature adult after all.

While you might not be able to discipline, your ultimate goal as a step-parent (or as any parent) is to help shape the children into kind, and conscientious adults who thrive in the world.

So what can you do? Experts recommend the carrot method over the stick. Simply put, rewarding their good behaviors encourages them to be good. Good for good, rather than discipline for bad. Much more pleasant anyhow. Find ways to give the kids props, kudos, compliments, and rewards when they are doing the right things.

Your job is to focus on building a healthy and solid relationship with the kiddos. There will be a lot of biting your tongue biting, inner turmoil, and holding back your two cents. Feathers WILL be ruffled. You may be the CEO at the office, but in this new home, you are NOT the chief disciplinarian.

But, think of it this way- it’s kind of the best part of parenting. You get all the fun, and none of the hassle. Or, more realistically, you get the responsibility but none of the power.

It’s heavy, complicated stuff. You can even consider joining a Step-Parent Support Group (yes, it’s a real thing) to help with the transition.

After a stable, sincere relationship has been established, and you have earned their respect and possibly their affections, you can, and should, enforce the rules. Yet do so still in watered-down manner, leaving the really messy stuff to their parent.


You can’t force a kid to love you, but you should warrant a basic level of respect from them. This message should be given to the kids, loud and clear, by their biological parent.

This is rule number 1. “Kids, you may not like him/her, but you MUST treat him/her with kindness, politeness, and respect”. The parent sets the expectation on how the stepparent is to be treated. Conversely, the stepparent will uphold the same standards of decency toward the stepchildren.

Just be because you have to take a backseat in the discipline department, doesn’t mean you have to be a placid pushover. If the children are mistreating you, or walking all over you, you aren’t required to ‘give them a ride to the mall, or help them with their project, or make them an ice cream sundae.” Respect begets respect. And until you get it from them, it’s okay to say ‘not until you treat me with decency and respect will I do XYZ for you.”

Boundaries are a must.

Boundaries should made explicit and be set from the start. For example, if you don’t want the kids to play in your office or man-cave, make that clear. If you don’t want them to jump on your bed, make that known. If it bothers you when they don’t knock, or play dress-up with your cloths, or leave their dirty soccer balls in the living room- be straightforward about it. If they don’t know the boundaries, how can they abide by them.

Kids, biological or step, will act out. Even once you’ve established solid clear boundaries, kids will still push them. They will attempt to play both parents off each other. Don’t get discouraged- this doesn’t mean your family is doomed and that your stepchildren will hate you forever more. It’s all just a phase (isn’t everything in life!?).

Then there are the emotional boundaries. These should be discussed between partners and set before entering into the new marriage. How you’re expected to behave with whom, how to approach ex’s, in-laws, and extended family and friends.

Stay informed, but stay out of it.

It’s up to your spouse and their ex to determine how the kids should be parented. And as much as you may be itching to, don’t weigh in.

If you do have an issue, talk about it with your spouse and have them discuss with their ex. Never get involved in an argument, either between the children and your spouse, or between your spouse and their ex; the children will feel like you are butting into their business and could get bitter about it. And you surely won’t win any brownie points with the ex.

Know the rules (set by your new spouse and their ex) and don’t attempt to override them, even if think the rule is silly. If all parents are in cahoots, and the boundaries are set and agreed upon, the transition will be easier for everyone.

House Rules


Things get tricky when both spouses each bring their own set of kids into the new marriage. There should be at least some common, cohesive, and standard rules of the house, governing all children at all times.

Rules that apply to one set of kids that don’t to another could pit the kids against each other. If Tom’s bedtime is 8pm but John can stay up until midnight, or Jane is allowed one sweet treat of the day but Mary gets a free for all in the sweet’s pantry – you could see how resentment would build. Either all kids must be required to make their beds in the morning, or no kids at all. House rules are house rules.

Don’t be overly critical about parenting styles. If you’re used to parenting one way, but your new spouse doesn’t think it’s the best way to parent, tension will brew, and build, and take on a life of its own. Open communication is key. Be your spouse’s best support system.

But if something really isn’t working for you, voice your concern (in a non-critical or condescending manner). Talk about what’s working and what needs work.

Everyone is coming from different cultures and different family backgrounds. You’re not going to agree on everything, or be able to implement changes right away. It takes a decent amount of time to ease everyone into accepting a new rule or new way of doing things. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

During this ‘under construction’ phase, it is imperative to stay open, kind, caring, and sharing until things start to meld. As long as you’ve expressed yourself, you were heard, accepted, and the effort is there…cut everyone some slack and offer comfort when things are difficult.

If parenting styles cannot be agreed on, this is recipe for disaster. Find some common ground and compromise on a style that works (enough) for everyone. For example, if one partner is military-style strict and one other is lax, settle on something in the middle.

Regarding a step parent who has never parented before – just remember: everyone thinks they know everything about parenting- UNTIL they actually become parents.

It’s a lot going from living the solo life to life with kidlings. It’s like walking out of a frat house into a mad house- everything seems foreign. Welcome to the Upside Down (just a little Stranger Things refence).

At least the parent got the chance to gradually ease into parenthood – they’ve raised another human being from infancy. They are used to being slaves to the kids’ busy schedules and used to their inopportune tantrums or mood swings.

Cut your new spouse some slack and let them adjust too. It’s new territory for everyone, juggling the kids and the new marriage too. Kids! We sure love em’ but they aren’t rainbows and unicorns ALL the time. And as a rule, kids are always more tolerable when they’re own.

But you’ll get there, after you’re crash course of parenting, you’ll start to feel more and more connected to the children and to your role as a step-parent. Then one day, things will just seem normal…dare I say easy.

Don’t have too high expectations

You can never take the place of the biological parent, and you shouldn’t attempt to try, nor should you feel threatened by their relationship.

Instead, try to fulfill the role of beloved mentor and fun, helpful uncle/aunt who is always there for them should they need a hand. Their love and respect for you should develop organically. Don’t try to rush or force bonding with them. Coming on too strong could make them retreat.

Also, be prepared to hear a lot of “you’re not my mom/dad” and other not-so-nice commentary. Again, nothing personal, the kids are adjusting too and sometimes spew just as nasty remarks to their biological parents as well, especially teenagers (there’s nothing scarier in the world sometimes lol).

Know sometimes it doesn’t work: Some kids are more receptive to step parents than others.

Some are open, inviting, and welcoming of a new bond into their lives and hearts. Some, just aren’t.

And no matter what you do or say, it just ain’t gonna happen. As tough as it is, this is something you should just accept and even respect. The child is most likely still healing from the divorce of their parents. Have some sympathy and give that child some space, they will either come around… or, they won’t. Be patient and give it time.

It does happen, and it’s hard on everyone, and complicates family dynamics even more- with no real good solution.

Perhaps that child is better served spending more time with their other parent for a bit – so they can adjust at their own pace.

Time, Time, and More Time.

DON’T orchestrate too many changes too fast. Separation, divorce, moving, remarriage, moving again, new stepparents, perhaps new step-siblings, it’s a lot as it is. Now they’re getting a whole new set of rules on top of a whole new way of life- too much. Ease into it.

If new rules are forced upon too soon, they may resent the stepparent for trying to uproot their lives once again, and blame them for yet another thing going wrong in their lives.

Respect that they had a life before your entered into it, and that life was washed away by change after change, like waves crashing on the shoreline.

Don’t come in hot with your list of new rules. Instead, let everyone settle into their new life, then slowly implement one change at a time. Remind everyone along the way that all members of the new family are making compromises and this is new for everyone under the roof- parents, step-parents, kids, step or others, and even the family dog.

In fact, research indicates that it can take up to seven years for a blended family to finally feel ‘blended’.

Spend quality time

quality time

The new family will take root and form once you put in the time and effort for it to gel.

Get to know your stepchildren. I mean really get to know them – who they are, what they’re about, they’re likes and dislikes.

Be your genuine authentic self with them. Kids have a way of sniffing out phoniness. Usually the ‘let’s sit down and talk’ approach isn’t welcome, especially by teenagers. Just make an effort to be around and be involved any chance you get. They’ll let you know when the door is open.

Attempt to bond at pace that the kids feel comfortable with. Let them be your guide and don’t force it, Eventually the relationship will take form organically through shared experiences.

Plan fun, intimate things to do as a new family. Doesn’t have to be anything extravagant. Family dinners or family game nights are great ways to bond, and laugh together. Later you can plan extended vacations or camping trips if you’re brave.

One on one time. You should also spend one on one with each child to get to know them as individuals. Try planning activities they like and do them together.

If they like sports, offer to throw a baseball with them, or shoot hoops. If they’re into the performing arts, maybe take them to a play or performance. If they’re a budding fashionista, take them shopping. And everybody likes ice cream outings and days at the beach!

If you put in the time, effort, and open your heart, your relationship with your step children will eventually take root and blossom.

Teenagers are a different breed completely.

Puberty blows – zits, BO, awkward growth spurts, self-consciousness – I sure as heck wouldn’t want to go through that again.

In their defense, their hormones are going bonkers. Hormones responsible for puberty provoke their brains to have intense reactions, like cranking up the volume on a boom box. Their brains and bodies are under construction, well into their early twenties, so it’s no short phase.

Daily Forecast!? Expect major mood swings. Is it Jekyll or Hyde who is about to get off that school bus every day!?

They are learning how to manage and communicate their emotions so give them the right amount of space as a parent, and even more space as a step-parent.

Approach teens gently, like approaching a wild animal who could bite your head off in a moment’s notice and without warning; teens stand ready to sink their claws and teeth into you at the slightest offense.

Rarely is sharing their feelings via communication an option; teens are more fluent in grunts and eye rolls. Though it’s very easy to know what the teenager is feeling by these clear gestures (growl = frustration, eye rolls mean the adult ‘sooo annoying’ and they know everything anyways, crying = who knows, they might not know themselves, possibly just a reaction to those very mysterious, capricious hormones).

When you notice a teen experiencing intense anger, remind them to take a break for a moment to give them a chance to get calm – deep breaths for everyone.

When they are overtaken by overwhelming feelings, they should be encouraged to write down their feelings and grievances in a journal or in a letter. By having them write down their feelings, everyone gets a better understanding of why they feel the way they do.

Like anyone, they want to be heard. Hear them, and give them space and time to accept being 1. a teenager, and 2. a step teenager with a new step-parent.

If your step-teen is having a particularly hard time, a counselor or other experts should be called in.

NEVER talk smack about the step children’s biological parent.

NEVER talk smack

Even if you’re being baited into it, don’t do it. Sometimes your stepchild will be peeved at their parent and want to sound off, calling them all sorts of names. Though you may agree, do not partake in the trash-talking session.

It’s like teasing your sibling when you’re a kid, only you’re ‘allowed’ to do it. If some other kid bullies your little brother or calls your sister a mean name, you won’t stand for it. This also applies to mothers-in-laws. Only your spouse is allowed to vent about their mother. Listen, lend an ear, maybe throw in a nod, but do not dare say an unkind word about Mamma or there will be HTP (Hell to Pay).

Listen to your stepchild with kindness and empathy, sometimes they just want an ear to vent to. Remain objective and neutral. And as rule in general, try to stay out of conflicts that don’t involve you.

And remember, kids are like sponges. If you’re bad-mouthing their mother or father in the kitchen, but don’t worry the kids are in the living room…sounds travel to little ears. Plus they have way better hearing than us adults (too many concerts and clubs). Do all your trash-talking out of the house or not at all (is a lousy ex really worth your time, thought, head-space, and mental energy anyhow!?…mine isn’t).

His, Hers, and Theirs – Baby on Board.

You and your new spouse may be excited bring a new little addition into the blended family. And who could be mad at a baby!?

You’d be surprised. Some children are ecstatic over the idea of becoming a big brother or sister to an adorable, wee bundle of joy. Others, not so much.

They see this new baby as a physical embodiment of betrayal to the family they once knew and loved.

The baby represents the hurt and anger they feel about the divorce and ultimate realization that things will never go back. This baby is a permanent change, and one that will ‘mess with’ their life even more. They already have to share their parent’s love with the new spouse, but now an ‘attention hog’ baby threatens further. And this innocent baby can be a target for blame.

You can hope they come around, and they might – most do. The pure innocence and utter sweetness of a baby can be very enticing, although it could take years for them accept their new half-sibling as their own. Some don’t have a change of heart until adulthood. And this is, in turn, difficult for the new addition/additions throughout their childhood as they take the rejection personally.

My son fell in love with his baby half-sister the moment he laid on eyes on her in the hospital. My daughter refused to even visit the hospital at first, and it took her a full year to come around. She told everyone that the new baby wasn’t her ‘real’ sister because she was only half and that didn’t count.

Stephanie, my best friend growing up was constantly bullied by her older half-sister Lisa. The parents let it happen because they felt guilty and bad for Lisa – the child of divorce.

Now that they are grown, Stephanie and Lisa are very close and have a wonderful relationship. Lisa lives with the guilt of how badly she treated Stephanie. Stephanie doesn’t blame or resent Lisa for the nasty things she did to her growing up, but she does however blame her parents.

Bullying, name-calling, and malicious taunting are NOT okay and should not be tolerated. A basic level of respect and decency should be required among all siblings – halves, wholes, and steps.

Give the kids and their parent room to breathe.

Even though, yes, you are a family now – realize that sometimes kids will want quality time with only their parent. And parents will want solo time with their kids. And that’s OK. Let them have it.

If you have to sit out on something fun, don’t take it to heart. It doesn’t mean they don’t like you around. Solo time with their parent reminds kids that they are still just as loved and cherished. That parent-child bond is everything and must be respected and nurtured.

Working towards a positive, healthy relationship with stepchildren is crucial to the new, blended family’s success and longevity.

Through it all, keep being positive, keep an open line of communication with your partner, keep your sense of humor, and keep going, and keep at it – things will fall into place!

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