Episode 12: The Do’s and Don’ts of Being a Good Step Parent

We’re all human, but starting a blended family sometimes asks us to be superhuman.  Parenting in a blended family is a different animal all together: new rules, new dynamic, new houses, new kids!  How can a person not make mistakes?

Step parents make mistakes, and we all make mistakes.  We are figuring this out as we go.  There is no one right way to do things, but I think there are things that we can avoid doing that can make our lives, and our kids’ lives, better.  In this episode, I’m going to look at often-asked questions about having a healthy blended family relationship without breaking the family balance you’re working so hard to build.

In this episode, we talk about…

[1:48] Not bad mouthing the other parent

If you listened to our earliest episode, you’ll understand that my take on keeping the peace between divorced or widowed families is to keep your mouth shut as far as the other parent is concerned.  No kid needs to hear you bad mouthing their mom or dad.  Whether you are the step parent or the other parent, do NOT badmouth other parents.  I know it can be tempting, especially when there are late drop-offs, plans get foiled, or someone else’s drama is affecting your home – but seriously, zip it.  Do not let your feelings about the people in the other home slip out.  Kids will remember it, and they will have a hard time trusting someone who does not understand that they love their other parent very much.  So keep a tight lid on this one issue, and that alone will build trust among you and the kids in your home.  Trust is the foundation upon which all good things are built, where kids are concerned.

[3:05] Navigating silent expectations and creating house rules

I would also recommend not doing things AT anybody.  A wise friend of mine once told me, when I was moving in with my partner, “Darlin’, when you are cleaning the sink or cutting melons for breakfast, don’t do it at him.  Do it for yourself.”

I did not for the life of me understand what this meant.  It didn’t make sense to me at first – why wouldn’t I do it for myself?  But then, I began to understand what she meant.  It’s the silent expectations that I might have of my partner that are dangerous.  Maybe I think he should be cleaning the sink, or that I’m cutting melon for him, and doesn’t he owe me one?  

I’m going to take this advice into the step parenting realm.  It’s wise to recognize when there are silent expectations that you might have for a kid in the house – like that they should love and respect you, because you do things for them, or that they should follow the rules that you’ve always had.  But how would this child know how to do this?  And is it really the right thing for the new family you have created?

So in this scenario, I would recommend having a family meeting; maybe over a board game or an ice cream outing where casual conversations about the rules of the house can be established in a casual and fun way.  It’s important to say important things like this, and when these things are said then house rules can be made organically.  Those expectations get out of your head and into the world.  They might not get met, but at least there are now some agreed-upon house rules.  When people make a mistake, then, it’s understood that the rules are there to make everyone feel safe and they should be honored.


[5:20] Building trust and cultivating a parenting relationship

Let the child come to you.  Yes, you engage and are there for them, but like a wild animal, a child will sniff you out and figure out if they can trust you.  Don’t assume a child will automatically be on your team just because you live in the home, and don’t act like you’re their parent.  That trust and relationship takes time, and it’s a big one – so it deserves a lot of time.

Be your authentic self.  Kids trust people who don’t try too hard.  Don’t make promises you can’t keep and don’t make empty threats.  Just be honest, keep it simple, and be vulnerable.  Don’t be needy or act like it’s the child’s fault if you’re having a bad day.  You can, however, share that you aren’t having a good day. Let them know that you need a few minutes to pull it together.  Not only are you modeling honesty, but you’re being human and kids can relate to that.  


[6:35] Not being jealous of your partner’s need to spend time with their kids

Don’t be jealous of your partner’s need to pay attention to their kids and to spend time with them.  For example, I’ve always read to my daughter and spent time with her at night.  My partner knows this, and I’ve never felt like he’s standing outside the door waiting for me to come spend time with him.  That makes me feel free to parent the way I always have, and it makes my daughter feel free.  She feels like she can have some ‘mom time’, we’re still a team, and there’s a time and a place for everything.

Kids are so confused when the family dynamic changes.  This is absolutely natural and very predictable.  Can you take the time to really care for yourself?  To offer some space to the other parent?  To be the easygoing step parent? (as opposed to the controlling, fly-off-the-handle step parent?)  That is going to make everyone feel safe and good.

Being a step parent isn’t easy, and we shouldn’t expect it to be.  We can, however, do things to avoid doing damage.  We can take the time to observe, settle in, and let the kids suss us out while establishing boundaries so everyone feels safe.

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About author

Joly Herman

Editor-In Chief, Founder, and CEO of Solo Parent Magazine, Joly Herman is a writer and educator, who has been writing professionally for print and web publications since 1998. She was among the first television review editors at Common Sense Media, where she also served as a movie, DVD and book reviewer from 2004 to 2014. Having earned an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan, Joly was a recipient of the Rackham Fellowship and taught undergraduate Creative Writing. She is a Montessori Primary Teacher who has headed classrooms in San Francisco, Kansas City, Berlin and Düsseldorf, Germany. An advocate for healthy children and healthy families, Joly founded Solo Parent, LLC in 2014 to promote the vision that all families be viewed as normal, that all families be seen as whole.

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