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5 Principles to Manage the Complex Bind of Step-Parenting

Step-parenting requires a unique type of patience and care.

Key points

  • Step-parents occupy a role that may be more complex than the role of the original parent.
  • Step-parents must resist working too hard to "win over" their step-children too soon.
  • Step-parents must be extremely disciplined to get certain emotional needs met outside of the step-parent/step-child relationship.

Parenting is widely understood to be a challenging experience: a decades-long endeavor that parents often lament is conducted without any perfect guidebook. While such conventional wisdom is true, society-wide validation of the difficulties of parenting far outweighs an experience that, in some ways, may be more difficult: step-parenting.

Metaphors can be helpful in illustrating the dimensions or parameters of a psychological experience. Because becoming a parent of a biological child allows for many months of mental preparation for the baby's arrival, the expectant parents start forming ideas and mental fantasies early on. Biological parents also operate from an acceptance—and, ideally, even pride—that the new baby is their own.

Vastly different from a psychological perspective, individuals who become step-parents lack the same sense of predictability and control. More importantly, step-parents understand that they have no choice but to accept the step-child if they want to make a home with their new partner. While not all experiences are positive between step-parents and step-children, many step-parents exist who come to develop positive and healthy, lifelong relationships with their step-children.

Principles of step-parenting

Because parenting is the subject of thousands of self-help books, the focus here is step-parents and, specifically, principles of effective step-parenting.

  1. The step-parent never tries to pretend that their role is to be the child’s primary parent. Before the step-parent came into the picture, the child and the original parent or parents formed the inner circle. The wise step-parent never forgets this, hoping that they may one day occupy an important role in the child’s life but simultaneously understanding that such a bond cannot be forced. Though a step-parent may ultimately become an important parent figure or even the primary parent a child relies upon, developing such a relationship takes time and should never necessarily be expected.
  2. The step-parent never competes to be better or more important than the original parent. Tremendous harm and anxiety can be caused when an insecure, needy, or ego-driven step-parent tries to become more needed by the child than the other parent. Sadly, step-parents often aren’t even consciously aware of how they fall victim to proving their worth or winning over the child. In the cases when they are aware, it’s often not until later that they realize they've done something behind the back of the other parent with the intention of being liked or accepted.
  3. The step-parent doesn’t feel shut out or threatened by the family’s history before the step-parent entered the picture. Step-parents don’t have to feel shut out or threatened by the history of the original family. Instead, they can accept and integrate the past by asking the step-child (very) occasional questions about past experiences in a gentle and interested way, rather than in a way that comes across as snooping, insecure, or jealous. One can never turn back time and the original parent and child have now and will always have their own special, historical dynamic that can never be replaced or upstaged.
  4. The step-parent is largely selfless in their interactions with the child. The step-parent who is successful understands the same cardinal rule that any successful parent follows: prioritizing the needs of the child over their own. Put another way, the step-parent focuses more on the feelings of the child than their own. Though the step-parent may feel frustrated or angry, at times, the step-parent sets higher expectations for himself or herself for coping than for the child, holding themselves to true adult standards.
  5. The step-parent is vigilant about getting their emotional needs met in appropriate ways. Step-parents who are successful aren’t saints and don’t aspire to such status, either. At root, they act as responsible adults. They present emotional maturity that includes consistently rational thinking, good mood regulation, and the capacity and practice of empathy that is required for successful interpersonal relationships. Successful step-parents have the mature awareness to know that they can’t set aside their needs all the time in service to others, so they build in regular exercise time to vent their frustrations and regular social time with trusted friends and others who can make them feel good and even stroke their ego when needed.

The ultimate benefit of focusing on step-children’s needs

The transition of blending a family is always complex, though a blended family can reach a state of positivity and balance over time. From the beginning of the blending process, the step-parent and original parent must focus on the child’s emotional needs as opposed to indulging their own anxiety or rushing to make the dynamics smooth as soon as possible. By doing so, the parents model the practice of patience which sets a foundation for the new family dynamic. The romantic relationship between the step-parent and the original parent will not be the focus until the family system is more balanced, but when that time comes, the emotional intimacy of the romantic relationship will be stronger and deeper as a result of going through such a major transition together.

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