By Christine Murray, PhD, LPC, LMFT, Director of the Healthy Relationships Initiative

Our Healthy Relationships Initiative (HRI) team is excited to partner with Triad Moms on Main on this blog series. In this series, we offer general guidance to relationship or family questions submitted by TMoM community members. If you’ve got a question to ask, please share it anonymously on the form at this web-site:

Question: I would love some advice or tips on being a stepparent. I don’t want to be a “step-monster,” but it’s been a challenge! ~ Stepmom in Training

Dear Stepmom in Training,

Congratulations on finding a new love in your life and making the choice to become a stepmom! As you’re probably discovering, creating a new stepfamily can feel like a roller coaster—sometimes, things are going great, and you’re excited about the new family you’re forming. At other times, it may feel overwhelming as you work toward integrating into your new family culture. It’s even normal for parents in a stepfamily to wonder at times if they made the right decision. But, even if the road to becoming a stepfamily has been difficult, there are proactive steps you can take to move toward building a strong foundation for this new phase of family life.

First, carve out some dedicated time often and regularly, such as once a week, for you and your new spouse to talk about how things are going. Just as in any marriage, its important in a stepfamily marriage to work through challenges you face together as a team. With the number of potential challenges that may arise within a stepfamily, you’ll both need to bring your A-game relationship skills to the table. If you need some brushing up on basic communication and conflict management skills, be sure to check out the Tip Sheets in our HRI Toolkit for Couples.

Second, consider the age and developmental needs of the children as you figure out how to build strong bonds with them. As a general rule, younger children may be quicker to adapt to new family circumstances and welcome new family members. However, what’s most important is understanding each child’s unique needs so you can talk with them at an age-appropriate level about the changes in your family and consider good opportunities to build connections as a new family.

Third, be mindful of the children’s relationship with their other biological parent (if applicable). Step-parents have a unique role to play in the lives of their stepchildren. If your spouse shares custody with the children’s other parent, it’s important to be respectful of the boundaries between your spouse and the other parent as they co-parent together. As a stepparent, you certainly can have input into decisions impacting your stepchildren, especially if these decisions impact your life and home. However, unless everyone is in clear agreement otherwise, ultimately the custodial parents will have the final say in these decisions. This can be a major area of conflict between couples in stepfamilies, so check out our HRI E-Learning Center program to help couples grow through conflict if conflicts arise in this area for you.

Fourth, take advantage of your unique role as stepparent and work toward playing a positive, supportive role in the life of your stepchildren. Typically, it’s beneficial for stepparents not to be the primary disciplinarian of their stepchildren, as this can be confusing for the children and place a strain on stepparent-stepchild relationships. (Of course, it’s still important to set the expectation that children will be respectful and kind toward their stepparents!) Therefore, in your role as stepparent, you can focus on building a positive connection with your stepchildren, such as by supporting them in their interests and activities, helping them work toward goals they have for their lives, and enjoying fun activities together.

Finally, draw upon resources to help you build a healthy, happy stepfamily culture! You don’t have to go this road alone. Consider joining a support group, taking a parenting class, seeking help from family or friends, and even speaking with a professional counselor to help you navigate the challenges that arise as you all adjust to your new roles and family life. Another great resource to check out is the National Stepfamily Resource Center, which offers some great online resources to help stepfamilies thrive.

Even if you follow all the tips above, it can take some time to adapt to your new role as stepparent. So, be sure to mix in a lot of patience with the strategies above. Trust that, even if it takes some time, you can work with your spouse to build great relationships with your stepchildren that can flourish over the course of time.

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