Being a Stepdad Is Hard—Here Are 5 Ways To Make It Easier

Black families are no strangers to bonus fatherhood, which can be both challenging and rewarding.

Shot of a young girl playing video games with her father at home
Photo: Getty Images

Getting divorced is not an easy experience, especially when children are involved. One thing I told myself after my own divorce was that I wouldn't date anyone with young children. My children were teenagers, and I didn't want to feel like I was starting over again.

I'm a person who enjoys being in relationships and knew there was a good chance I would get married again. I spent two years dating post-divorce, but those relationships didn't feel right. I often considered how our families would blend and what my role would be as a future stepdad.

Five years ago, the stars aligned when a long-time friendship blossomed into something more for my now-wife and me. We dated, got to meet and know each other's kids—my wife has two children, I have three—and decided to create our version of the Brady Bunch as we married and blended families.

I became a stepdad to two beautiful daughters, a son-in-law, and a year post-marriage, a step granddad. Taking on this new role has been a challenge but it has also been an incredibly rewarding opportunity.

I've had to learn how to be a parent without trying to take the place of their other parents. I've felt the emotions of my bonus children processing their feelings about me being their mother's husband. I went through a period of my children disliking me as they adjusted to me moving to another state and then traveling full-time.

Being a stepdad has been a delicate balance between understanding the transition all of my children are going through while also being able to be me, authentically. Now, on the other side of this growth, I know what I need to do to be the best stepdad possible. Here's how I adjusted:

Get therapy.

Regularly getting therapy is one of the best things I've done to grow as a person, address my mental health struggles, and be a better parent. It's especially important as a stepdad.

You'll be dealing with many emotions and situations that are out of your control—you'll feel powerless many times. Having an outlet to address what you're going through will help.

Therapy can be a safe space to work through what you're feeling as you navigate the complexities of being a bonus parent. It can also help you recover from old wounds and not bring those into your new relationships.

"Becoming a stepparent in a blended family can be pretty challenging for all family members. The adults in this new family are navigating their relationship with each other, as well as their relationships with the children of their significant other, " says Dr. Samantha Madhosingh, a psychologist who has spent 17 years working with children, adolescents, and families.

She says to be open to getting some extra help. Individual therapy is useful but, as a member of a blended family, you may need to do more. "Couples counseling may also be useful in helping you and your partner navigate the quagmire together and make important decisions jointly," says Dr. Madhosingh. "Also, if younger or teenage children are involved, family therapy will help everyone work through all the changes to the family culture and dynamic and give kids an objective third party to help them articulate their needs and concerns."

Understand that your role is to hold space.

As a father, there's a natural inclination to want to solve problems—at least that's been my experience. In the early days of becoming a stepdad, I learned that I'm not meant to solve all the problems I may inherit—my role is to listen and hold space.

Sometimes people want to feel heard. You will be presented with opportunities to be the safe space your stepkids come to for support. Your role isn't to solve their problems; it's to listen and offer advice—if it's sought.

Holding space means you don't disparage birth parents and don't try to force your views on your stepchildren. A child is a human being whose views on life and other people are shaped by what they learn—especially from their parents. Be mindful of what you're contributing to your stepchildren's life education.

Show, don't tell.

Words are a great start, but children want to see action. Show you are steady and aren't going anywhere when things get tough. You do that by staying and addressing conflict head-on.

Show you are a good person by being a good person. Show that you love your stepchildren by demonstrating love through holding space, acts of service, and doing everything in your power to help.

Carve out your own role.

Communicating in more than words is crucial to establishing trust as a stepdad.

"Personally, my bonus daughters call me by my first name, and my kids call my wife by her first name. It made it clear that neither of us was trying to take the place of the father/mother, though we've both earned the respect and love that goes with those titles," says Dr. Wayne Pernell, who holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology.

From his personal experience in blending a family, he says to communicate some ground rules or working agreements, but not in a harsh way. "Let them know that to you, they're a bonus and not a step away."

He notes that being different than their birthparents means having different rules and expectations, which should be communicated clearly.

Be present and aware.

One of the greatest gifts I can give to my bonus children and grandchildren is being fully present in their lives. I know what's going on, listen—without distraction—when they're talking, and try to be present in as many of life's events as possible.

Your presence, awareness, and ability to pay attention to verbal and nonverbal cues is how you'll adjust and be a welcomed stepdad. In a world full of distractions, your consistent presence stands out.

The experience of becoming a stepdad will be different for each person reading this, but everyone's path will require navigating a potential landmine of emotions. Therapy, clear communication, and a commitment to working through the challenging moments are how you'll earn the trust and love of your bonus kids.

Love is felt and seen when it's demonstrated through action. You'll get that opportunity as a stepdad.

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