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What you need to know about raising stepchildren

No one ever said that step-parenting would be easy, but with the right tools and knowledge, you can be a good one.

Stepmother with her two stepsons

Raising stepchildren is a multifaceted endeavor. It’s a gift in that you become part of an amazing person’s life. It’s a challenge in that you must learn to navigate new and uncertain territory. And it can be difficult, especially if the relationship doesn’t go quite as well as you want it to.

The best thing you can do is to learn as much as you can about being a step-parent, and then just let the relationship take its natural course. That worked for stepmom Desiree Vargas, president and cofounder of, who says she read everything she could on the subject and tried to implement all the strategies she learned. “After lots of fights, rules, broken rules and tears, I realized that none of that works. I honestly got too worked up about making our situation perfect from the beginning that I was stressing everyone out. Now, I just try to go with the flow. If my stepdaughter does or says something I don’t like, I tell her in a nice way that that is not how we do things at our house,” says Vargas.

Find a way to connect

You aren’t going to be close with your stepchild instantly. That’s okay, especially as long as you try to find a common interest with her. Whether it’s cooking, gardening, reading, a sport or movies, find something that you both enjoy, and let it bring you together.

And don’t worry if you don’t come together quickly. A step-parent/stepchild relationship grows over time. “I am a stepmother of a 12 year old. My best advice for connecting with your stepchildren is to take it slow when trying to establish a relationship. Take small steps to show them that your love and support is sincere,” says stepmom Evelyne Del Billingslea.

Another hint? Spend time on your relationship with your stepkids. “As time moves on, make efforts to spend one-on-one time with your stepchildren without your spouse. This will allow the children to get to know you better and establish a solid relationship with you. It will also allow you and your stepchildren to make your own memories together,” says Del Bilingslea.

Be a cheerleader

It’s tempting as a step-parent to help mold your stepchild, but he already has parents for that. What he really needs is someone to encourage and cheer him on. “Friend, parent, spiritual-advisor, life coach, road-block, critic… these are what a step-parent isn’t. Go ahead and try each one, and you’ll see the same result: A frustrating relationship between you and your stepchild. So what’s left? Cheerleader. As a step-parent, the best way to navigate is through the eyes of a cheerleader,” says Ellen Kellner, author of The Pro-Child Way.

So, how do you encourage stepchildren? “You’re there to cheer on a good relationship between them and their parents. You’re there to cheer on a good relationship between them and your children. And in doing so, you’ll be cheering on your own relationship with them,” says Kellner.

Affection will come

As with any new relationship, it’s going to take time to develop. Care, love and affection will come with a good relationship, but you have to give it the time and space to grow.

Most importantly, though, don’t force it forward. “Let the child take the lead on demonstrations of affection. Be warm in spirit, but don’t try to hug or embrace the child. If she wants to hug you — and you want to — hug her back. Know how to recognize, appreciate and acknowledge shows of affection,” says stepmom Melinda Mallari.

Mallari’s stepkids surprised her by doing something unexpected and thoughtful. “I was traveling for business, and the kids knew I liked an orderly home. They took the initiative to clean the house (without their dad’s knowledge or suggestion) before I returned from my trip,” says Mallari.

Include them

No one wants to feel like a third wheel, a guest or an outsider, so don’t let your stepkids fall into that place. Let them be a part of everything.

“Children should also be involved in making decisions. When the children feel they’ve been heard, they’ll be less resistant to family rules. If the children have a say in devising reasonable punishments for infractions, they’ll feel the rules are more fair. Consistency is important, and so is setting boundaries. Change is difficult for everyone, so understand that it will take a while for things to settle down,” says Tina B. Tessina, PhD, psychotherapist and author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage.

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