Navigating Stepparenthood

Stepparenthood is a difficulty skill to master. It seems deceptively straightforward. Get married or move in then become a parent. Done. But so many stepparents find that it’s not actually all that simple.

That isn’t to say it’s always hard. For some stepparents, the transition into stepfamily life may be relatively smooth. Others may find themselves driving over some very jarring ruts, only to get back up again and move forward. Still others may face months or even years consistent rejection by their stepchildren.

Unfortunately, There are no guidebooks, compasses, or clear-cut rules waiting to help you as you start (or continue) this rather difficult and sometimes precarious journey. So, what can you do? Where do you start on the long road to becoming part of the family you are living with? Here’s some ideas that might help you get started.

  1. Learn the expectations of your role

It is important to understand the expectations that you and your partner have for the role you will fill in your stepfamily. For example, do you all agree with how much you will play a part in disciplining the children? Do you agree with how much you will be involved in their education, and activities? How might you be involved with rituals regarding a deceased parent or activities with a nonresident parent?

Discussions about these expectations should occur with your partner before you marry or move in. However, it is never too late to talk about these things. You and your partner will need to be on the same page so that you can support each other in your roles.

  1. Take your time

One of the most important things for you to realize is that it will take time for your stepchildren to adjust to you. They will respond best as they experience your consistent efforts to connect with them. This is how they will learn to trust and eventually rely on you.

So, start with the little things. Maybe learn about their interests and find ways to support them like attending their games or bringing them snacks when they have to stay up late studying. Try to discover what you have in common. Depending on your relationship with your stepchildren, it might even be appropriate to sit down with them a make list.

  1. Remember it’s not always about you

In many instances your efforts may feel useless even after months and years of trying. In these cases, when you have been making efforts on your stepchildren’s behalf, remember that it isn’t always about you. Your stepchildren have experienced a lot of upheaval in their lives. Do you best to be patient and realize that, like you, they are still just trying to figure things out.

  1. Be open to change

Upon entering your stepfamily you may have found that family life was not what you pictured. Be willing to be flexible with your expectation. Also, remember that your role may change over time as your stepfamily learns to readjust its rules and expectations. Be careful that you don’t become so resigned to the way things are that you aren’t open to change. You may find that that stepchild who opposed you so harshly for so long, is subtly trying to reach out to you. Try to be carefully optimistic so that you can be open to these potential changes.

You may look at this list and think, “That’s it?” or maybe even “There’s no way it’s that easy.” Well the truth is, it isn’t easy. Life in stepfamilies is complicated. The road to success is not well pave or clearly marked. There are lots of things to discover and unexpected landslides to navigate around. But it is possible to develop good relationships with your stepchildren. As long as you are willing to try, your relationship with your stepchildren and your partner will benefit from your patient, consistent efforts.



Hetherington, E. M., Cox, M., & Cox, R. (1985). Long-term effects of divorce and remarriage on the adjustment of children. Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, 24, 518-530.

McBride, J. A. (2008) Quick steps: Information to help you stepfamily thrive. Retrieved from

Sanner, S., & Coleman, M. (2017). (Re)constructing family images: Stepmotherhood before biological motherhood. Journal of Marriage and Family, 79(5), 1462-1477.

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