9 Things a Stepparent Should Never Do

Becoming a stepparent? Read these nine important stepparenting no-nos and what to do instead.

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Stepparenting can bring many joys—and many challenges. As a stepparent, you instantly grow your family but becoming a stepparent and creating a blended family can be far from simple.

"A stepfamily is a fundamentally different structure, and it makes a different foundation for relationships than a first-time family," says psychologist Patricia Papernow, Ed.D., a member of the National Stepfamily Resource Center's expert council and author of Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn't.

What Is Stepparenting?

A stepparent is a person who marries or partners with a child's parent and is not biologically or legally related to that child. Becoming a stepparent does not grant you legal parenthood unless you legally adopt your stepchildren.

One of these differences is that in a stepfamily, the partners do not have an equal relationship with the children or in the parenting process. As a result, stepparents often face challenges like adjusting to the existing family culture and dealing with tension from other parents and kids.

Likewise, stepkids face challenges like accepting someone new in a parenting role and potentially feeling like the new stepparent is trying to replace their other parent. These dynamics set up a web of boundaries that stepparents would be wise not to cross.

Read on for nine things stepparents should never do and alternatives for handling sticky stepfamily situations.

Try to Take the Other Parent's Place

Whether the re-partnering is a result of divorce, a breakup, or death, you can never replace the child's other parent and should not attempt to. "These children are not yours," says Derek Randel, parenting expert and certified stepfamily coach through the Step-Family Foundation in New York City. He adds that no matter what the ex-spouse or ex-partner has done, respect the child's need to love that parent.

The same goes for requiring that the stepkids call you "Mom" or "Dad." Don't ever demand it or even ask for it.

What to do instead

Be clear with yourself and your stepchild about your role in the family. A stepparent can become a loved, respected mentor to the child while realizing that they can't reconstitute the biological family, Randel says.

Remember that a stepchild can develop feelings of love and respect for you without using "Mom," "Dad," or another parenting term. And if the kids do decide, on their own, to use a parenting term for you, demonstrate quiet gratitude and a responsibility to live up to the label.

Physically Punish Your Stepkids

A stepparent should never cross the line of administering physical consequences to a child. "Always refrain from losing your cool and hitting, swearing or 'losing it' with your stepchildren," says JoAnne Pedro-Carroll, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author of Putting Children First: Proven Parenting Strategies to Help Children Thrive Through Divorce.

"It's hard enough when tempers get out of control between children and their own parents," says Dr. Pedro-Carroll. But the incident and the painful memories of physical discipline from a stepparent can last a lifetime. Plus, it can take a toll on any chance of building trust and respect in the new family.

Not only that, but research shows that physical punishment is harmful to children—it increases the risks of mental health problems, delinquency, future criminality, and negative parent-child relationships. Additionally, it increases the likelihood that the child will be physically abused.

What to do instead

Remove yourself from the situation if you feel yourself getting overly worked up. Michigan State University says that the stepparent's role is one of connection rather than correction. So, instead of trying to handle discipline, let the child's parent take the reigns while you work on building a relationship with the children.

Assume a Position of Authority

Young children under 5 or 6 may be more willing to accept a stepparent's authority in the new family, but school-age children and teens will often rebuff a stepparent's attempts at automatic authority.

Experts agree that an authoritarian parenting style is the least effective and has the worst outcomes. This parenting style is characterized by high expectations and little room for give and take or relational connection. Research has found that this approach can result in kids experiencing anxiety and depression. Plus, it can result in kids with low self-esteem and being emotionally withdrawn.

What to do instead

"For new stepparents, it is best to proceed slowly—not as a disciplinarian, but as a supportive friend to the child and a supportive resource to your partner," Dr. Pedro-Carroll suggests. You may have won the heart of your new partner, but if they are a package deal with kids in tow, you'll need to earn the love and respect of your new stepchildren too.

Basic respect is necessary, but you'll need to put time and effort into the relationship with your stepchildren if you want more. In contrast to authoritarian parenting, authoritative parenting couples high expectations with open communication. This style tends to produce kids with high self-esteem and a positive relationship with their parents. For stepparents, especially, this parenting style can help establish boundaries while centering relationship-building.

Interfere With Co-Parenting Discussions

It can be tempting to weigh in on a parenting discussion between your partner and their ex—but don't. "The ex didn't agree to co-parent with you and will likely feel ganged up on if you give unsolicited advice," explains Jenna Korf, a certified stepfamily foundation coach and co-author of Skirts At War: Beyond Divorced Mom/Stepmom Conflict.

"Exes who are still holding on to anger or hurt from the divorce can cause a world of pain for you and your spouse, so try to avoid inserting yourself into their discussions," she adds.

What to do instead

Although stepparents can undoubtedly provide their input, it should be done privately with their partner, not during the conversation with the ex. Korf says your partner can then share any decisions or information with the ex. Make a concerted effort to build a positive relationship with your partner's ex so that your interactions and input can be well received.

Interfere With Conflicts Between Kids and Their Parent

"If you want to preserve your relationship with your stepchildren and partner, it's best to let them work conflict out on their own," Korf says. "Unless the stepparent and child are well bonded, the child will likely feel that the stepparent is butting into their business, and this can cause the child to feel resentful of their stepparent."

Even if you have the best intentions, Korf says, your interference can prevent your partner and your stepchild from learning how to resolve problems on their own and can have a negative impact on your relationship.

What to do instead

Be your partner's support system, Korf suggests, giving them feedback only if and when they ask for it. Sometimes just being a sounding board can be invaluable.

So, when your partner wants to vent about a conflict, asking what kind of support they need upfront may be helpful. Perhaps they need a listening ear, or maybe they want you to help them brainstorm ways to handle the situation. In short, if they don't come to you for help, assume they've got it covered.

Actively Counter the Other Parent's Wishes

There's no doubt about it: Co-parenting is difficult. There will likely be different rules and expectations between your home and your stepkids' other home, and that's OK. But, if you have feelings about some of the other parents' rules, it's usually best to keep them to yourself.

"Realize that there are no ex-parents, just ex-spouses," Randel says. Your new partner may no longer be with the ex, but the ex is still their child's parent.

What to do instead

Your partner needs to co-parent with the ex. "The more helpful and understanding you are, the easier it will be for the entire family," Randel says. If you have serious concerns about the stepchild's health, wellness, or safety because of the ex-spouse's rules, talk with your partner about it. But, if you just don't like the rules the ex-spouse has made for the child, step back and try to let it go.

Bad-Mouth the Ex

As tempting as this may be, talking poorly about the ex is always a no-no—even if the stepkids are doing it. "It is important for a stepparent to listen with empathy and kindness but not put down the parent to the child or allow the child to hear negative comments about their parent," Dr. Pedro-Carroll says.

After all, kids can experience negative comments about a parent as an attack on themselves. "Children can be damaged by exposure to ongoing conflict and repeated negative messages that put them in the middle of conflict," says Dr. Pedro-Carroll.

What to do instead

Be a sounding board if your partner or stepchild needs to vent, but don't contribute to the bad-mouthing. Instead, when possible, contribute to the quality of family life by helping to contain conflict between your partner and their ex.

"You can be a tremendous support to your partner and your stepchildren when you maintain some objectivity and do not enter into every conflict," Dr. Pedro-Carroll says.

Pressure Your Partner to Put You First

Children often worry that a parent's love for a new partner will mean less love for them. "This fear may cause children to behave with anger and resentment that seems unjustified," Dr. Pedro-Carroll explains.

If a stepparent does not understand the need for a child to have a deeply connected bond to their parent, problems in the family and between partners can arise.

What to do instead

First, understand the importance of a strong parent-child relationship and have confidence that their relationship does not undermine your relationship with your partner. A jealous attitude towards your stepchild will negatively affect your marriage.

"Because parents have strong bonds with their own children, they instinctively protect them against harm," Dr. Pedro-Carroll says. That means hurt feelings or problems between a stepparent and stepchild can easily undermine a romantic partnership. "Stepparents and stepchildren developing positive relationships is critical to the new family's success."

Play Favorites

In a blended family where you both bring kids into the relationship, it can be difficult not to play favorites with your own kids. This might happen not just with the stepparent but also with the stepparent's extended family. So, avoid situations where your child may get a more expensive gift from you or where your kids' grandparents dote on them but not on your stepkids.

What to do instead

It can help to talk openly with your partner about the complexities involved in blended families. Find out the norms in both of your parenting to ensure you have similar expectations regarding gifts, discipline, and household expectations.

You may each have to compromise so that things are consistent and fair. Likewise, explain to your extended families that when sharing gifts or quality time, they need to include the stepkids—after all, they are part of your family now, too.

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  1. Spanking and child development: We know enough now to stop hitting our children. Child Development Perspectives. 2013.

  2. Authoritarian parenting and youth depression: Results from a national study. Journal of Prevention and Intervention in the Community. 2016.

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