Tips for Co-Parenting Stepchildren

Michele Meleen
Child with parents

Forming a blended family can pose many challenges for everyone involved. The stepparent role is often confusing for all parties, but there are many strategies blended families can use to create a peaceful environment. Getting in touch with the emotions involved in blended families can help you decide which tips and strategies to try first. Good strategies, combined with open communication and a willingness to work hard, can help new families blend successfully.

Be Proactive

Ideally, couples in a serious relationship should discuss parenting styles and family roles before making the commitment to create a blended family. Couples should also discuss plans to live together with children before the move. This can give everyone some additional time to process the impending changes and voice opinions.

If you are already living together, planning ahead involves initiating discussions with your partner, away from the children. Important issues that affect the entire family should be addressed early on. It is important for a parent and his partner to be on the same page before presenting information to children. Discuss things like:

  • Family roles - Who is responsible for discipline, chores, meals, rides to school and activities.
  • Rules and expectations - Make it clear how children are expected to behave toward adults.
  • Discipline - How will you decide on house rules, what punishments do you find acceptable, and how will each adult help enforce rules?
  • Living arrangements - How will living space be divided?
  • Schedules - Compare work, school and activity schedules between you, your partner, and the children to plan for transportation and attendance.

These topics should be discussed in private by the adults. Once the two of you have reached a consensus, you can present the information to the children and ask for their input.

Plan Ahead With the Other Biological Parent

Stepparenting requires you to not only support your spouse, but also the wishes of the other biological parent regarding her children. When possible, coordinate schedules with the non-custodial parent and open communications by keeping each other informed of potential changes. One way to keep daily life running smoothly between all households is to create a shared calendar.

  • Print monthly calendar pages for the whole year or create an online calendar.
  • Discuss and write in visitation arrangements, holiday obligations, school schedules, vacations, and other extracurricular activities for the children from the perspective of each biological parent.
  • Make a copy or share the calendar online to be kept in all households.
  • When opportunities arise that affect the schedule, consult the non-custodial parent before making changes.

Taking the time to plan ahead for the year can make transitions for the children much easier. Everyone will know what to expect which can help decrease stress levels.

Open the Lines of Communication

As with any type of relationship, open communication is the foundation for building trust. To move the relationship in a positive direction, it is important for you to be honest in sharing feelings and opinions with your partner and stepchildren.

Express Your Feelings

Everyone in a blended family is apt to feel sad, insecure, or nervous in the beginning. Sharing your feelings with your spouse and the children can help everyone see this as a shared experience, not an isolating one. Healthy and appropriate ways to share your feelings include:

  • Use "I" statements. For example, "I feel a bit nervous about sleeping in a new house, are there any funny noises this house makes you can tell me about?"
  • Sharing a personal story from your past that relates to this situation, including how you dealt with it.
  • Be honest without passing judgment or blame. If a stepchild says he doesn't like you, a good response might be, "I feel very sad you don't like me because I like you."

Demand Respect

Children need to understand they are expected to be respectful toward all adults, stepparent included. The biological parent can explain that children can view you as they would a teacher, coach, or uncle and should treat you in a similar way. This can take away some of the confusion about your role. When a child's parent makes these requests they are better received because it is clear the expectations come from the parent, not the stepparent. Tell stepchildren you are not trying to replace their mom but do want to be their friend. Taking that misconception off the table from the start is also helpful for children trying to define your role.

Keep Adult Issues Between Adults

Differences of opinion and other problems should be discussed amongst the adults. These discussions should happen in private and be resolved whenever possible. This includes disagreements between you and your partner, you and the other biological parent, and both biological parents. Although it can seem difficult in the moment if you disagree with something your partner or his ex says:

  • Remove yourself from the situation with a believable excuse such as needing to use the restroom.
  • Think about what it is you actually disagree with so you can be clear.
  • Wait until you are alone with your partner to bring up the issue again.

Take a Backseat

Being a stepparent often involves putting the needs of everyone else before yours. Your partner will be in need of a lot of support as she helps her child through this difficult time. Children are not always equipped to deal with negative emotions and major life changes, so they are in need of extra support as well. By following the lead of your partner in terms of discipline and your stepchild in terms of bonding, the child can feel more in control of his life with less blame to place on you.

Follow the Child's Lead

Often times, children are the ones required to undergo the most change when a parent remarries. They may not have asked for this to happen and might not want to be involved in such a major change. The child's pace in creating a relationship with a stepparent should be your guide.

  • Wait until the child initiates affection.
  • Accept whatever (respectful) name he chooses to call you.
  • Look for natural opportunities to connect.
  • Offer time for discussions or shared activities.

Allow Biological Parents to Be Leaders

The biological parents will hold that title for the entire life of their children. Regardless of custody schedules or personal feelings, the biological parents are in charge of their children. While you are certainly encouraged to share your opinions and desires with your spouse, the biological parents have the final say on how to parent their children. Your role in the family is to act as an additional support for your spouse and the children.

Encourage a Group Mentality

As you work to form a new family, thinking with a group mentality can be helpful. In a group, you consider what is best for each individual and the group as a whole.

Involve the Children in Decision-Making

While the adults should be the authorities within a household, allowing the children a voice in rules and activities gives them a greater sense of importance. Depending upon your family type, decision-making can be either formal or informal.

  • Hold regular family meetings. Choose a specific schedule and make it a priority. Family meetings can be held in a formal manner around the table or informally through shared activities like family game night.
  • Ask each family member to think of a house rule and appropriate consequences for breaking it.
  • Use a voting system to decide on family vacations, weekend activities, or what's for dinner.
  • Allow children to choose or decorate their bedrooms.

Look for Shared Interests

Each member of the family is likely to have different hobbies and interests. Use these as guides when planning regular activities for the entire family to engage in.

  • Offer to teach stepchildren something you are good at.
  • Ask children to teach you something they are good at.
  • Make an activity bowl by writing different activities on pieces of paper and placing them all into a bowl. When you are looking for something to do together, have one person randomly choose from the activity bowl.
  • Look for new experiences you all can share. Something like cooking a meal using ingredients none of you have eaten before can be fun and simple.

Honor Traditions and Create New Ones

Your stepchildren had some other kind of family life before you came along. Holiday and annual traditions can be big or small. Ask your stepchildren about important events or activities they would like to continue participating in and find a way to make it happen. By going out of your way to help them keep some sense of normalcy, you are showing how much you care.

Honoring old traditions is important as is creating new ones. Finding something your new family can do together year after year will help create new memories and a new history.

  • Celebrate StepFamily Day.
  • Pick an annual vacation spot.
  • Celebrate obscure holidays like President's Day or National Chocolate Chip Cookie Day.
  • Volunteer as a family.

Proceed With Patience

Blending a family takes time, often years. Family and Marriage therapist Ron Deal suggests stepfamilies don't think or act like a family, with intimacy and authentic relationships, until around the third year. While this may seem excessive, take into consideration you are forming a new bond with children who may be hesitant to accept you.

Be Flexible and Make Sacrifices

Being a stepparent requires sacrifice on your part to show children your true intentions. When a child sees you putting him first, especially in spite of your desires, it can help create a sense of trust. Look for ways to change your schedule or skip your event in favor of supporting the child's interests. You certainly have obligations in your life, and you should take care to fulfill them, but leisure-time activities can be sacrificed in the short term to build respect and trust. If your stepchild's school play falls on the same night as your book club, choosing to attend the play would be a worthwhile and simple way to show support.

Factor In Age

The age of your stepchildren plays a major role in how willing they are to accept you. Young children are more likely to respect your authority and treat you as they do other trusted adults. Stepfamily specialist and Psychologist Patricia Papernow shares children ages 6-18 typically take longer to accept the authority of a stepparent.

When to Seek Professional Help

Sometimes issues experienced by blended families are beyond what each individual is capable of dealing with. Given the nature of blended family dynamics, professional help for the entire family can be crucial. If you feel you have tried all you can and things still are working, consider talking to a family therapist. Signs your family may be in need of outside help include:

  • Clear favoritism of one child over another
  • Complete lack of co-parenting
  • Any family member feeling overwhelmed with stress
  • Child feeling alone, torn, excluded, or uncomfortable around specific family members
  • Family members having difficulty enjoying activities they normally like

The Golden Rule

If parenting is the hardest job on the planet, stepparenting can seem impossible. Open communication, respect, and building trust are the foundations of any healthy relationship. Treat your stepchildren in the way you expect to be treated and you are more likely to see those actions reciprocated.

Tips for Co-Parenting Stepchildren