How to Co-Parent as a Stepparent

Two Healthy Homes | Co-Parenting Classes

by Dr. Erica Ellis

Founder of Two Healthy Homes. Licensed psychologist, best-selling author, and a leading global expert on co-parenting and child centered divorce.

Research shows that it can take up to five years to create a blended family that is functioning well. This suggests that the process of learning to co-parent as a stepparent needs to slowly evolve over time and cannot be pushed or hurried. There are ways to do this well and there are many mistakes that can be made that have the potential to emotionally damage both you and your children. The goal of this blog is to lay out strategies to help you do this right. When you do so, this can be the start of a wonderfully happy new phase in your divorce journey.

The Process of Blending Families

Respecting the Grieving Process 

All family members have experienced the loss of a relationship prior to the establishment of this new family (either through death or divorce). Therefore, you are all probably still dealing with some aspect of the grieving process which will have an impact on your willingness and comfort level to enter new relationships. Each person will need to be given the time that they need to feel safe, build trust, and allow themselves to be vulnerable again

Honoring and Blending Lifestyles 

Every family has its own unique lifestyle and way of doing things. Blending two families, therefore, poses the specific challenge of figuring out how to create a new lifestyle that respects and incorporates each family’s old way of doing things. Finding the balance between holding onto some of the familiarity of the past while establishing a new blended lifestyle is the goal at this time. It requires a great deal of dialogue, mutual respect, and patience from every family member to do this successfully. 

Negotiation and Compromise about Parenting Styles 

There are many challenges related to power and authority with newly blended families. The parents need to determine how they are going to deal with their differing parenting styles and what their roles will be with their new partner’s children. This is often the area in which the greatest mistakes are made. 

It is very common at this time for the stricter parent to step in and try to establish new rules and expectations for the other parent’s children. This inevitably results in anger and resentment for both the children and their parent as well as conflict between the co-parents. It is very important for the biological parent to maintain their role in the family as the primary disciplinarian in their child’s life

It is also going to be necessary for the adults to negotiate a set of mutually agreed upon family rules and expectations and to slowly incorporate them into the children’s lives. Immediately trying to impose a whole new set of rules for the children will inevitably result in anger and resentment for them and may serve to poison their relationship with both the stepparent as well as their biological parent. It will probably also result in a lot of conflict with your new spouse. You need to respect your spouse’s previous relationship with his/her children and not try to impose your parenting style. 

Establishing New Roles 

Everyone may be feeling confused about their new family roles. Children are often experiencing confusion about the parenting role that their new stepparent is going to be playing in their life. They may also be unclear about the nature of their relationship with new stepsiblings. At the same time, the adults are trying to figure out what their roles should be with their new stepchildren as well as in their new shared role as head of this newly blended family. This role confusion can be very stressful for everyone involved and must be acknowledged and addressed openly, honestly, thoughtfully, and frequently 

Managing Conflicting Loyalties 

This is often the time when conflicting loyalties and allegiances become problematic. The children may be struggling with guilt about establishing a loving relationship with a new stepparent. For example, they may feel disloyal to their dad if they start feeling close to their stepdad or that they are betraying their mom if they enjoy doing things with their stepmom. Parents often either subtly or overtly contribute to this guilt by their words or actions. They may remind their children that “you only have one mother” or “he is not your dad, remember that!” 

Giving your children permission to have a close loving relationship with their new stepparent is one of the greatest gifts you can give them at this time. It will free them up to establish a healthy relationship with their new stepparent while at the same time maintaining a positive relationship with their mom or dad. You need to trust that you can never be replaced as your child’s parent, regardless of how much they love their new stepparent. 

Adjusting to Changing Family Structure 

Another potential challenge for children as families blend is the change in their ordinal (youngest, middle, oldest) position in the family. For example, your daughter may have been the “baby” in your family, but she will now become the middle child in the newly blended family given that your new spouse has a younger son. This can be disorienting for the children since it can change their own self-perception as well as the way in which they are treated by others. This is not something that can be avoided but it must be an issue that you are all aware of and sensitive to. Giving your children frequent opportunities to talk about the emotional impact that this change is having on them is crucial. 

Maintaining Alone Time with Children 

Children can become very worried about whether their parent is going to have enough time and love left for them given all the new competing relationships. They might start to feel resentful about the time that their parent spends with the new spouse or stepchildren. They could start acting out as a means of getting negative attention which they might perceive as preferable to no attention at all. It is important to be proactive about this and create frequent and predictable times that you and your biological children can have special time together (and your spouse can do the same with his/her children). It is essential to nourish this relationship when your children are feeling that it is most threatened. 

Accepting Parents Will Never Reconcile 

Young children can hold onto fantasies of reconciliation for many years. The re-marriage of a parent presents a stark reality that this is not going to happen and that their parents are never going to be together again. As a result, this transition can trigger an increase in sadness and grief in a child. It is important to be aware of this possibility and to be there to emotionally support your child if it does occur, even when their grief is manifested as anger. 

Allowing Time for Relationships to Develop 

Parents often unrealistically expect that there will be instant love among the new family members. They hope that their children will love the new stepparent given that this is how they feel toward them. They want badly for the children to all get along and quickly develop a strong family bond. They expect that they will love their new spouse’s children based upon their love of their spouse. Developing a loving healthy relationship takes time and cannot be forced or rushed. It must develop slowly, over time, and be built upon the foundation of many shared positive experiences. Attempting to force these relationships will inevitably backfire and doing so should be avoided. 

Honoring the Biological Parents 

It is important to always respect the fact that children only have one biological mother and one biological father and that nobody can or should try to replace that parent (except under certain unique circumstances such as when a biological parent dies when a child is very young, the surviving parent quickly remarries, and the stepparent is the only mom or dad that the child has ever known). Children should not be asked or required to refer to their stepparent as mom or dad when they already have a mother or father present in their life. That puts them in the uncomfortable position of feeling like they are betraying their biological parent and that needs to be avoided if possible. 

Developing New Styles of Communication 

Communication can often be a challenge in newly created blended families. The two families come into the relationship with differing histories of communication styles and rules and often struggle to create a new shared style of interacting with each other. It takes a lot of time and concerted effort to accomplish this, and the parents need to be tasked with creating the proper environment for this to happen. 

Structuring weekly family meetings can be a powerful tool in fostering positive, honest, and open communication. Children and parents can both have input regarding issues of concern that they would like to discuss at the meeting and parents set the ground rules for respectful communication (everyone gets a chance to speak, no one can interrupt, everyone treats each other with respect, no hurtful or demeaning comments). This can be the time to openly discuss such topics as family rules, relationship challenges, expectations regarding chores, where to go on vacation. 

It is also important to build some fun into these meetings. Perhaps they can end with a family activity that each child gets a chance to pick. The very act of regularly holding these meetings communicates that the parents deeply care about how their children are adjusting to this stressful new family dynamic, and that they are committed to doing everything possible to make this new family a happy and healthy one. 

Adjusting to a New Baby 

The birth of a new child into this blended family can be a source of distress for the existing children and can throw off the new and fragile equilibrium that has been created. They can feel threatened and displaced by the new baby who is now the only child who is fortunate enough to get to live with both of their biological parents. They can feel jealous of the attention that this child is getting from their parents and extended family. They might feel resentful of being asked or required to take on caretaking responsibilities for the new baby (and parents need to be sensitive to this and not over-burden children with parental responsibilities). Again, it is essential that the children be given ample opportunity to talk about these feelings and feel heard and understood by both parents. 

Maintaining Stability 

As always, consistency and predictability are very important for your children during this time. Given that re-marriage may involve a physical move, try to keep your children in the same school district if possible. Try to avoid moving very far from their other parent which would serve to make the transitions between homes more stressful. 

Given all these challenges, I hope you can now see why it can take years for new stepfamilies to successfully blend and for the adults to ease their way into a new stepparent role. Hopefully, it is also clear that it is not just the passage of time that results in a healthy new family. It takes a lot of effort, work, patience, understanding, support, and love to successfully navigate your way through this major life transition. It can be done and can result in the start of a wonderful new chapter in your and your children’s lives. Hopefully, you now have a clearer sense of the steps that you can take to get to this positive place in your divorce journey. 


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