Donate Child Support Calculator
Skip navigation

The Smart Step-Parent: Knowing Your Place in Your New Family

Add Topic

Step-parents often discover that the ambiguous nature of their role leads to great frustration. Being a smart step-parent starts by knowing your place in the family.

An article FYI and discussion.

The Smart Step-Parent: Knowing Your Place in Your New Family
By Ron L Deal

Focus on the Family
2007

We all like to know what is expected of us, especially regarding our family roles. Step-parents often discover that the ambiguous nature of their role leads to great frustration. Being a smart step-parent starts by knowing your place in the family.

Jennifer, now a 28-year-old mother, reflects on how awkward it was at 13 to embrace her mother's new marriage and the family's move to a small Arkansas community. "It took me years to appreciate what my stepfather did for me," Jennifer says. "He provided for us and loved me - even when I wouldn't give him any credit. I just couldn't let myself love him for a while. But eventually I relaxed and let him in, and now we have an awesome relationship. What a blessing he has been in my life."

Find your fit

Finding your fit may not be easy, but take time and be patient. As your role becomes clearer, you can confidently begin building a closer relationship with your new children.

First, recognize that you are an added parent figure in the child's life; you are not a replacement parent. A child who feels that his biological parent is being displaced will resist your influence. Honour and encourage the biological connection.

Second, realize that a child's openness to you determines the pace at which you are allowed into his heart. While acting in loving ways facilitates bonding, the child's level of openness largely depends on factors that are out of your control: the age of the child, his relationship with the other parent, the amount of time spent in the step-parent's home.

So flexibility is the key to finding the right step-parenting fit. Listen to the child's openness cues and respond in kind. For example, if the child calls you "Mommy" or "Daddy," by all means allow it; if that label isn't comfortable for the child, don't demand he use it.

As the emotional connection with a child develops over time, step-parents move through a progression of roles.

The babysitter role

An adult can enjoy relational authority only after a child has developed an emotional attachment. Step-parents must earn this level of influence over time; it cannot be demanded. Until then, accept that you are limited to positional authority like that of a teacher, coach or babysitter.

A babysitter has influence only if it is given by parents who tell the children that the sitter is in charge while they are away. The same is initially true for step-parents.

A biological father, for example, can empower a stepmother by saying, "She knows the rules, and if you disobey her, you are disobeying me. She has my permission to enforce the consequences." This borrowed authority allows step-parents behavioural management of children while they initially focus their energy on relationship building.

The uncle/aunt role

When a moderate relationship has developed, step-parents can relate to the child like an uncle or aunt. When my sister Cherilyn visits, she carries some authority with my children because she's their aunt. She is not a full-fledged parent in their hearts, but she carries a unique influence because she's family.

When step-parents achieve this level of connection, they can become more authoritative, deepen emotional bonds and share greater affection with the child.

The parent role

Eventually, step-parents may gain significant parental authority with some stepchildren. Younger children tend to grant step-parents this status more quickly than adolescents.

The friend or mentor role

Step-parents who have limited visitation or have adult stepchildren often find that being a friend or mentor works best. Their role is much like a father-in-law who seeks to encourage and support without overstepping boundaries.

A gradual move forward

Like the gradual acceleration of a train, step-parents slowly gain momentum, moving from a minor role in a child's life to progressively more influential ones. The challenge is to accept your current level of relationship while optimistically moving forward.

Ron L. Deal is president of Successful Stepfamilies and author of The Smart Stepfamily.
Thanks for that Matrix. I would like some information with regards to step parents and being called "Mum" or "Dad."

In our case my partners son resides with his mother for the majority of the time (despite numerous court cases over the past 10 years (the son is 11) and has only now just got an increase.

The Mother has recently married and within a year the boy is calling the new step dad "DAD."

We have also heard the mother in the background of phone conversations to my partner - "don't call him dad his name is BLAH" (edited out).

And on a couple of visits the boy did call his Dad by his christian name, although previously and since then has called him Dad.

The Mother insists that she doesn't "encourage" him to call the step-dad "dad" but we really feel that she has.

The boy allegedly said in a family report he doesn't have a problem calling step-dad "dad" because everyone else in the house does.

I just find it really upsetting as does my partner and feels the mother is devaluing his role as a Dad to his son. Any thoughts? PLEASE?
It's normal for a child to call their father dad and not usual to call their step-father dad. Especially at that age. The mother must be doing some serious aligning.
Thanks Fairgo.

Both my partner & I feel the same way. BUT how can one prove it?

After a family report that was so mother biased it was ridiculous, we seriously wonder at the integrity of the family law system.

I can assure you that if 'the boy' decided to call ME mum, well Armageddon would have nothing on the mother!

Personally I don't want to be called mum by my step-son, I am not his mother, however if in the future he feels comfortable doing that I would have any objections.

But it is a title I feel is very personal, a pivotal part of a child's life and shouldn't be banded about like a loose clothing tag if that makes sense.
Dirkepitt any suggestions on how to get a good family report?
Kalimnadancer - I sincerely wish we knew - ours was probably destined to be against us as from the outset the family reporter stated "I don't believe in 50/50" which was what we were aiming for. He also got quite hostile towards us. as he had previously done another family report with regards to ANOTHER child in the mothers care, and was biased towards her - we didn't really know that when he turned up. However that was us & we live in a very small (minded) town. See what the solicitor says. Sorry it's not very positive. however with any family report - honesty is important - even if the reporter ignores it - we knew we were honest.
I recently had the experience of my ex husband telling me that he was hoping that his "partner" would replace me as our children's mother.

I myself have remarried. The children call their step father "Dadda namewithheld" by their own choice and have done so for 4 years. It was only a few months ago that they were reprimanded by their natural father "I don't want you calling him that. He isn't your dad." Naturally they were upset with this.

The children were 18 months and 3 years at the time I remarried. By coincidence my ex has the same first name as my husband. This confused the children to no end.

"But that's Daddy's name!"

*sighs*

The point is merely that the children felt a wonderful connection with their step father so much so they saw him as a favourable father-like figure. In no way were they replacing their father.

I'm so glad matrix posted this information about knowing your place in your new family.
In short I think it comes down to what the children feel comfortable calling step parents.

I do think that when one parent is saying to the child don't call your father DAD you call him by his first name. That is when it can become destructive. As for your ex saying I hope my partner replaces you - so not cool on many levels.

My partner expresses those same concerns, given that as he only gets to see his son for 48 hrs every two weeks the title of dad is very precious to him.

When there is another man being substituted into that role by the mother and she is actively encouraging the child to call that man Dad then it can be very confusing for the child.

There is varying schools of thought on this but basically if the kids are happy then go with what the kids say

In our house if I am referring to the step-father it is by his first name & Dad is Dad, and his mother is his mother. Keep it professional. I don't know what terms are used on the other side. Although we get the impression that step-dad is 'dad' and real dad is 'first name.'
@dirkepitt wow what a worry. I think that if the child has chosen to call his stepfather 'dad' then maybe try to take a new attitude toward it.  He's 11, why not ask him why he likes to call his step father dad. If you do so don't get emotional, or tell him he's wrong. Just open up the line of communication with him, then maybe your husband can say "ok, it's just a little hard for me to hear. Because I am your dad." Or not say it at all whatever works.
I have stepchildren and a child of my own, my child see their father and stepmother etc. My child refers to my partner as "my other dad" but does not call him dad. My stepchildren do not call me Mum but refer to me in conversations as" she's like my mum, but she isnt my mum". I don't allow them to call me Mum either. I always say "Being a mum is special, but being a step parent is really special'
I also make a point of making the distinction as a matter of fact, more as a respect thing.
Talk to your step son ask him why he likes to call his step father dad. Just dont push him because he will shut down.
Just don't allow the step son to call your husband by his first name. That is when Dad needs to step in and go Darth Vader  "I am your father and you will refer to me as such" except without the cutting off of hands and such.
Would like to make a quick comment on step-parents. A few months back I went to the wedding of a lovely young girl whose father walked out on her and her 2 year old sibling  when she was only 1 week old. "Dad" left his young family for the bosses daughter. Mum met another man when both kids were still very young and this man brought the kids up. Both  are lovely well adjusted young adults.

Now at the wedding, step dad gave the bride away and shed tears during the speech as he told of his love for his step daughter. Real "dad" sat stony faced with his other family and  didn't have much to say at all.

So to all the step parents out there who are doing such a wonderful job, bringing up children like this  all I can say is thank heavens for people like you.
1 guest and 0 members have just viewed this.

Recent Tweets