Parenting is tough as is. Being a stepparent? Well, that comes with its own set of challenges. Not only are stepparents trying to figure out their own roles as parents and as members of a blended family, but kids are also adapting to — and/or often resisting — those changes. That said, it’s absolutely possible to have a healthy, positive, happy relationship with your step-kids. It’s a slow and steady road both parents and children must navigate together — handling the speed bumps as they come.
So we spoke to stepmoms as well as parenting experts for their advice and tips for newbie stepparents to take to heart. Here are a few things that a stepparent should avoid doing at all costs.
Don’t bad-mouth the biological parent
You are going to have your opinions. Perhaps the ex is way too lax about the rules. Perhaps you don’t like her. Whatever it is you are feeling and thinking, don’t mention it. Your stepchild has the right to love their parents — even if you see them as imperfect.
It’s also simply not your place to get involved in disputes between the biological parents. “Voicing your disdain for the other parent’s actions will make the child feel as though she has to choose between you and her biological parent. Make it clear to the child that the relationship she has with her biological parent does not have to change just because you are present in her life,” advises stepmom Evelyne Del Billingslea.
Don’t be a disciplinarian
Without a doubt, being a stepparent is hard. You are treading in uncertain territory. One of the keys to maintaining your footing is to resist taking on the role of disciplinarian.
“‘Stepparent’ is a misnomer: Parenting has nothing to do with it. It is your stepchild’s parents’ job to be the parents, not your job. When the parents are not doing the job that you think they should be doing, you should be extra vigilant in getting out the pom-poms, not the soapbox,” says expert and author Ellen Kellner. “Use your creativity and positive thoughts to create environments where relationships with your stepchildren are encouraged, not stifled.”
That said, you still need to set rules for your house. Just do it in concert with your spouse, and don’t be afraid to enforce those rules.
Don’t be a replacement parent
Again, the challenging role of a stepparent is tough and uncertain. But no matter how bad the biological parent’s behaviors, you aren’t supposed to take their place — or try. It could lead to big-time resentment. “Don’t try to replace your stepchild’s biological parent. Be there as a support system, role model, mentor and caring ear,” says Rosalind Sedacca, CCT, author of How Do I Tell the Kids About the Divorce?
Don’t play favorites
Step or not, a child is a child and shouldn’t have to face the fact that she may not be your favorite person. “If you do have your own children, try not to show blatant favoritism to them,” urges stepmom Marifran Manzo-Ritchie. “Chances are you are never going to feel the same way about your stepchild as you do your own children. Kids know this on some level, but they do not need to see it blatantly played out in front of them, which can wreak serious havoc on self-esteem and set up an antagonistic relationship between bio kids and your stepchild.”
Don’t expect things to be perfect
When you and your stepchild’s parent signed a marriage certificate, it didn’t flip a magical switch that would create a lovely family dynamic in your home. Sure, it would be nice if that were the case, but it simply isn’t.
Expect some rough patches and wait for the love to develop over time. “Don’t expect [the step-kids] to love — or even like — you. They must treat you as kindly and respectfully as they would any other acquaintance or friend of the family. I figured I was going to be around for the rest of their lives, so they had plenty of time to get to know me. I could grow on them,” says stepmom Melinda Mallari.
A version of this article was originally published in February 2010.