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A Therapist's Tips for Stepparents

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Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD - Blogs
By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhDPsychologistJuly 31, 2019

Stepparenting can bring a lot of joy – and a lot of challenges, too. Just as a parent-child relationship evolves over time, so does a stepparent-child relationship.

Consider these six tips to help nurture your connection with a step-child:

The relationship is a two-person job. You cannot build any relationship alone – including this one. Of course, with young children, your approach has a tremendous influence. While the same can be said for older children, these relationships need the child’s conscious buy-in more.

Nurture the relationship, rather than trying to force it. Go slowly, taking time to get to know the child. Connect with who the child is as a person, appreciating their humor or intellectual curiosity or love of music. 

Keep in mind that although love will hopefully grow over time, you do not need to love your stepchild. However, it is essential that you respect them, your role with them, and that you treat them with kindness.

You are a stepparent, not a parent. Talk with your spouse what your role is and how you would like it to develop. You may be more of a babysitter (being in charge while Mom or Dad is not available), a respected adult (such as an aunt, uncle, or mentor), or a full parent figure with all the authority that this entails.

The younger the child (under age 6 or so), the more likely you will become a parent figure. However, whatever the age of the child, you may develop more authority over time.

You cannot replace the missing parent. This parent has a place in the child’s psyche whether that parent died, the parents divorced, or that parent abandoned the family. This is even true when you take on the full parent role. So, it is important not to talk badly about them. By respecting the place that parent has in the child’s heart and mind (if not actively in their current life), you allow the child to have their own feelings toward that parent, as well as to develop their special relationship with you.

Supporting your spouse as a parent is essential. Share your thoughts about how to raise the child, but respect that your spouse is the ultimate decision-maker.

If your spouse and their ex are fighting about parenting, do not get between them. Doing this oversteps the boundaries of your role –likely angering the other parent – and undermines your spouse’s authority. Instead, when the two of you are alone, support your spouse in standing up for themselves.

Be mindful that parenting is a learned skill. If you have not raised children or been around them much, it’s okay to get some coaching. Not only is raising children difficult, but being a stepparent can be a particularly tough gig. So, consciously acknowledge that this is new to you. And be kind toward yourself as you take on this challenge. Such compassionate self-awareness can unburden you from unrealistic expectations and make life much easier!

This way of thinking will also free you to ask for help from your spouse or other experienced adults – especially those who know the child well. When you are feeling unsure of yourself, look to them – not the child – for emotional support and encouragement.

Finally, as important as nurturing the connection with your stepchild is, prioritize your relationship with your partner. This will strengthen that relationship and your roles together as a parenting unit – whether you personally are co-parenting or in a more of a supporting role.

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About the Author
Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

Dr. Becker-Phelps is a well-respected psychologist, who is dedicated to helping people understand themselves and what they need to do to become emotionally and psychologically healthy. She accomplishes this through her work as a psychotherapist, speaker and writer. She is the author of the book Insecure in Love.

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