Recently, I finished Helen Oyeyemi’s book Boy, Snow, Bird, which, among other important themes, updates the fairy tales to show how a woman with no prior ill intent can find herself in the role of the wicked stepmother.   Reading this book has me reflective of my work with clients in managing step family life, and also on my own experiences of growing up in a blended family.

Obviously, no one sets out to be the evil stepparent, but it happens. The fact is, much like parenting in general, being a stepparent is tough.  Negotiating the boundaries between stepparent and stepchild (and biological parents) is difficult.  And particularly if your partner’s biological parent is still in the child’s life, it can be difficult to know exactly how much parenting is expected or appropriate. Below, I discuss some basic guidelines that can help your family accept and deal with the challenges of blended family life.


There is No ‘Insta-Family’

One of the common problems that arises in blended families is this idea that you need to become a close knit family right away. In reality, it takes a significant amount of time to build a relationship between a stepparent and a stepchild, and it is a process that cannot be rushed.  I encourage families to dedicate time together that includes the stepparent and stepchildren, and then, as both are feeling more comfortable, to also have stepchildren and stepparents engage in activities together on their own.  This does not have to be big or expensive outings, but can be as simple as playing board games together, or grabbing something to eat.  The bottom line is that there is no family without effort; more than anything else, the quality and quantity of time spent together will determine whether or not your blended family is able to bond.


Dealing with Discipline

How you manage discipline will depend on many factors, but it is particularly important to consider the child’s age. If a stepparent enters a child’s life when they are in or approaching adolescence, they are better served by refraining from disciplining the child directly, particularly in the beginning of the relationship. This is due to the fact that a parent establishes their authority over a child through the care and time they’ve spent with them.  But with a stepparent, the child will often have difficulty viewing them as an authority figure. To the kid, this person is a stranger, who simply walked in and started telling them what to do; they have not earned the child’s respect or trust. Until a better bond has been established, the stepparent should take a more backseat role.

For younger children, a stepparent may have to step in to correct more frequently, simply because younger children are more given to daily ‘kid’ behaviors, such as leaving toys out, squabbling with siblings, etc.  When the biological parent is otherwise occupied, a stepparent can intervene for an immediate problem; however, meting out any sort of punishment or consequences should be left to the biological parent.  Until the child views the stepparent as someone who genuinely cares for them, they will only be resentful of discipline, and it will make it more difficult to establish a relationship.

That said, even if a stepparent does not discipline the child directly, both parents should talk about what is expected of the kids and what kinds of discipline they consider appropriate. This will decrease conflict both between parents and children, and the parents themselves, if you’re largely on the same page about what sorts of behaviors are okay, when intervention is necessary, and what types of punishment are appropriate.


Accepting What Is

Along with giving these relationships time to grow is accepting that they may never quite be what we would imagine.  Particularly when a stepparent enters a kid’s life late in childhood, or the child’s other parent is very active, mutual respect between stepchild and stepparent may be the most hopeful outcome. They may never share a feeling of closeness or comfort with each other, but most, with some effort, can learn to treat each other with dignity.


Bringing together stepparents and children requires time, effort, and flexibility.  Not surprising, as those are the behaviors that help all families create trust and connection.  What’s key is for blended families to take their time, and to provide opportunities for relationships to grow, without imposing expectations.