Guide to Successful Stepparenting

While parenting can be challenging for the best of us, stepparenting can take “challenging” to a whole new level. 

When you’re trying to blend a new family from disparate parts, be patient. The end result can be years in the making and full of stops and starts. Give yourself a good dose of grace and a larger one of grit as you try to figure out who you are to your spouse’s kids and how you fit into each other’s lives. 

Is stepparenting harder than parenting?

Stepparenting requires a non-biological “parent” to step into a child’s life and create a meaningful and responsible relationship where there once was none. That’s a tall order. Expectations are high, and stepparents are often measured by a different set of standards.

You and your partner may not appreciate how long it can take to forge an authentic relationship with a child as a stepparent. Research suggests that, depending on the age of the children, it can take a stepparent two or more years to establish a working relationship. And when that happens, it may look nothing like what either of you envisioned. 

Take your new role as a stepparent slowly and methodically. 

  • Be intentional. The most important time to talk to your partner about your role as a stepparent is before it happens. Open communication about roles and expectations is important before you ever say “I do.” 
  • Don’t put unreasonable expectations on yourself or the kids. Your stepchildren may not immediately love or even like you. Give them space, and let them work through their emotions. 
  • Make it clear that you’re not there to take the place of their biological mom or dad. Encourage time spent with that parent, and always be respectful when talking about the other parent. 

When you’re facing a future as a new stepparent, rule number-one is to let the kids set the pace for your relationship.

Stepparenting when you don’t have kids of your own

Being a parent means you’ve already developed a tolerance for children in general. You’ve already survived the crying and the meltdowns and the eye rolls and the sarcasm and all the other wonderful moments that erase the challenging ones.

But if you’ve never had children of your own, you don’t have that well to draw from. In this case, stepparenting can be a confusing adventure indeed. You and the kids are both new to this. Move into your relationship slowly. 

  • Take time to listen closely and understand their perspective. 
  • Let them know you truly like and appreciate them. 
  • Reiterate that you’re not there to take their biological parent’s place.
  • Engage in group family activities before taking on one-on-one activities. 

Don’t take things too personally. Everyone will make mistakes and say hurtful things. Try to understand where it comes from so you can let it go. 

Stepparenting when you also have your own kids

When you enter a new marriage with kids of your own, it can present a unique set of challenges. In a blended family, not only are you trying to connect with your new spouse’s children, but you are also trying to figure out how you fit into this dynamic. 

Differences in parenting styles, discipline, and general lifestyles will surface quickly. Your kids and stepkids may have been brought up in very different households with different rules. Before you and your spouse try to parent everyone as one big happy family, create a set of cohesive family rules that focus more on respect and safety than disciplinary measures, and get clear on how each of you sees your stepparenting role. 

Your role as a biological parent may also present some new challenges. Your children may need reassurance that your new spouse will never replace their other parent. They may need to be reminded that your ex-spouse will continue to love and be there for them. If your kids are only there during visitations, they shouldn’t feel like strangers. Make sure they get your focused attention when they’re there and have a separate, secure space for their personal items. 

Pay attention to your own behavior as well. Do you play favorites with your own kids? Or do you overcompensate and hold your children more accountable to the rules than your spouse’s children? These are common mistakes made by stepparents. The kids will notice, and it can create needless animosity. 


Stepparenting around your spouse’s ex

Your spouse and stepchildren share a history with your spouse’s ex that will always be part of their lives, and you may feel like an outsider. But, like any of the other new relationships you’re navigating, you can decide how you want to interact with this person. While you’re probably not going to be best friends, civility, respect, and even a small dose of warmth can go a long way for the kids’ sake, your spouse’s sake, and your own. 

Your spouse’s ex may have difficulty sharing their children with you, even if they have the best intentions. They may be struggling with you as their ex’s new spouse. No matter how you frame your relationship with them, they may still be uncooperative or even hostile. 

While you have the power to choose a positive relationship with your spouse’s ex, they may not be able to return that. The bottom line is that the quality of your relationship with them is primarily up to them. Take the parenting backseat while you’re together.

Read: How Often Do Fathers Get Custody?

Stepparenting when child discipline is needed

One of the trickiest things for a new stepparent to navigate is discipline issues. Kids in a remarriage situation are already feeling vulnerable and may start to test boundaries. What works for a biological parent simply won’t work for you as a stepparent. 

Your focus as a stepparent should be on building a positive relationship, not disciplining your stepkids. Mental health professionals suggest letting the biological parent handle disciplinary enforcement until the kids are ready to accept it from you. While you don’t want to be a pushover, if you feel it necessary to say something, you can remind them of the rules without overstepping your role. Then, you can leave it to your spouse to issue the consequences. 

Make sure you and your new spouse are on the same page. Clarify your shared household values and rules out of earshot of the kids. Even in blended families, it’s crucial that both spouses feel supported and that kids see their parents as a united and consistent front. 

If your stepchildren don’t seem to like you

You can’t force anyone to love or even like you. But liking you may not be the issue with your stepchildren. 

Children can feel torn when a new stepparent enters the picture. Your presence emphasizes that things aren’t how they used to be and can bring up all kinds of emotions for kids. It’s normal for stepchildren to worry that if they like you, they are somehow betraying their other parent. By rejecting you, they are proving their loyalty to their biological parent.

Let them know it’s okay for them to feel the way they feel and that you have no intention of replacing their mom or dad. You care about them and will try your best to work through their feelings together. 

At Hello Divorce, we understand that divorce and stepparenting can pose significant challenges, and we are committed to providing our users with helpful resources to help simplify the transition. We also offer plans and services that can make the divorce process easier and more affordable. 


Senior Editor
Communication, Relationships, Divorce Insights
Melissa Schmitz is Senior Editor at Hello Divorce, and her greatest delight is to help make others’ lives easier – especially when they’re in the middle of a stressful life transition like divorce. After 15 years as a full-time school music teacher, she traded in her piano for a laptop and has been happily writing and editing content for the last decade. She earned her Bachelor of Psychology degree from Alma College and her teaching certificate from Michigan State University. She still plays and sings for fun at farmer’s markets, retirement homes, and the occasional bar with her local Michigan band.