Dos and Don’ts of Step Parenting
Learning the dos and don’ts of step-parenting can help you avoid so much conflict and heartache, and set your new blended family up for success. When you become a step-parent, you’re walking into a tricky situation. You may have the warmest feelings for your step-kids and a heartfelt desire to be a positive figure in their lives, and still find yourself thrust into the role of “wicked step-mother” (or step-father), with the pain of their parents’ broken marriage heaped onto your back… while your partner stands by helplessly.
As a longtime couples counselor, I know blended family problems like these are common, and incredibly challenging to overcome. It’s one of the reasons I advise couples to seek blended family counseling as a preventative measure, before problems arise. I also advise taking a very thoughtful approach to blending your families, and examining your expectations for what the role of step-parent will look and feel like.
This article is about an approach to step-parenting that helps you release unhelpful expectations so you can create a happy, harmonious blended family. I’ve also created an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on this topic. My guests are Lori and David Sims, a married couple with five children between them from previous marriages. Lori and David are the founders of the Nacho Kids Academy, and today, they’re sharing the step-parenting method that helped their marriage survive and thrive through the blended family experience. If you’re struggling with step-parenting, it will help you too.
Our authentic relationship experts know how to help you learn, grow, and move forward into a bright new chapter.
The Dos and Don’ts of Step-Parenting
If you’re having blended family problems, you’re far from alone. The difficult dynamics between step-parents and step-kids are one factor that contributes to the nearly 60 percent divorce rate for second marriages. Many blended families need the help of a marriage and family therapist, and/or a blended family counselor, to keep their relationships intact.
Understanding the challenges of your blended family system — plus the dos and don’ts of step parenting can help you start taking steps to improve it. Here are some of the things our experts shared on this episode:
Going through a divorce with kids creates a great deal of stress for both parents, and can change relationships between parents and their children in complicated ways. Mom might hesitate to enforce bedtimes or table manners, not wanting the kids to associate her house with rules and discipline. Dad might feel guilty that he’s only with his kids part-time, and try to “buy their love” by over-indulging them while they’re together.
For the kids, coming to terms with their parents’ divorce can be a long and painful process. They may act out their feelings of grief and anger by adopting some bratty behaviors that both parents are reluctant to curtail.
Enter the new step-parent. The kids often feel like he or she is trying to replace one parent and steal away the other. This feeling is reinforced when the step-parent starts behaving like a parent, telling them to do their homework, brush their teeth, or to stop playing baseball in the living room; this interloper starts to feel like a safe target for all of their angst over their parents’ divorce.
The step-parent is left feeling rejected or even vilified, and wondering why their spouse can’t make their kids follow some basic rules and treat them with respect. The biological parent feels torn between their children and their partner, and like there’s no viable path to making everyone happy. If they’re both bringing their own children into the mix, relationships between step-siblings can be yet another source of friction. Not to mention blended family holidays, which are notoriously fraught.
Luckily, there’s a lever step-parents can pull if they find themselves caught in dynamics like these, and that is adopting the “Nacho Method” approach to step-parenting.
The Dos and Don’ts of Step Parenting From Nacho Parenting Academy
The Nacho Method is a method of step-parenting developed by Lori and David Sims, who learned what to do (and what not to do) as a blended family through their hard-earned experience. Their philosophy hinges on this mantra: Your step-kids are not yours. In other words, they’re nacho kids.
The act of parenting — telling children what to do, guiding them as they develop into the healthy, well-rounded humans that you hope they’ll become — is only possible when you have a certain kind of relationship with those children. That relationship is formed slowly over years of caring for a child, building love, trust, and a secure attachment bond. It’s simply not present when you first enter a child’s life.
And yet, step-parents often carry the expectation into their relationship with their step-kids that they should be like another parent figure. They often don’t even realize they have that expectation, let alone interrogate whether it’s necessary or even possible. They may take on the job of a third parent because they assume that’s what would be most helpful to their partner, and that’s what the role of step-parent entails. They’ll find plenty of parenting tips online that reinforce the idea that they should treat their step-kids “like their own.” When the step-kids push back, disappointment, hurt feelings, and conflict abound.
Step-parents can avoid a lot of problems by taking a hands-off approach to their partner’s kids. The Nacho Method advises treating your step-kids like you would a friend’s kids — with kindness and respect, but without the expectation that it’s your job to parent them.
Things a Step-Parent Should Never Do
As we discussed in today’s episode, there are ten things that step-parents should never do:
- Say anything negative to or about the step-child.
- Expect more from the step-child than their own parents do.
- Care more about the step-child than their own parents do.
- Parent them like your own — trying to do this will only create power struggles.
- Expect the step-kids to treat you like you’re their parent.
- Expect your partner to parent like you think they should.
- Become a control freak about what goes on at the other parent’s house.
- Discipline them like your own.
- Expect the step-kids to treat you with respect if your partner doesn’t make them.
- Feel guilty for not loving your step kids like your own.
This parenting advice can seem a little counterintuitive, but following it may just save your marriage from divorce. If you can internalize some healthy boundaries over what is and isn’t your responsibility as a step-parent, you can let go of expectations that leave you feeling like a failure, and build a better relationship with your step-kids and your partner in the process.
Things a Step-Parent Should Do:
Your relationship with your step-kids will evolve over time, and learning how to release your expectations and allow your relationships to heal will too. Especially if the events leading up to that were really negative, you might barely interact with your step-kids, and that’s ok. Getting the support of a marriage and family therapist or a parenting coach during this period can be very helpful. Over time, you can establish a dynamic that feels comfortable for everybody, whether it’s close and loving, or distant yet respectful.
There are a few things you can do to get there:
- Identify your triggers. Do you get annoyed with your step-kids and your partner at meal times? Or when it’s time to get them ready for school? You may need to excuse yourself from these situations and let your partner handle it. Don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be this way forever.
- Treat them like you would a friend’s kids. Creating healthy boundaries with your step-kids isn’t about ignoring your step-kids or treating them badly. You can talk with them, have fun with them, and even help them with things — you just can’t act like you’re their parent.
- Let things go. You are going to get frustrated with your step-kids from time to time, and with the way your partner parents them. What’s important is that you’re able to let go of resentment and move forward, without holding a grudge.
- Focus on the positive. Being a step-parent is tough, but it can also be a gift. You’ll find yourself in fun situations that you wouldn’t have experienced if it wasn’t for your partner’s kids — enjoy them!
- Cultivate empathy for your step-kids. If they’re treating you in ways that feel disrespectful, it’s likely because they’re hurting after their parents’ divorce and directing their hurt at the safer party (you). Cultivating empathy in your relationship with them will help you not take it so personally.
So, What IS the Role of a Step-Parent?
Your role as a step-parent is to be a good life partner to your spouse, and a positive, friendly adult in the lives of your step-children. That means loving your partner and being a source of support for the things that are important to them, including their relationships with their children. The best way to support those important relationships is usually not to take on the duties of a parent yourself, however.
When step-parents overstep boundaries or get too involved with parenting, conflict is the predictable result. You can have healthy, positive, and loving relationships with your partner, and with your step-kids, without trying to force yourself into a parenting role.
I hope that this podcast was helpful to you today. If you’d like to get even more great parenting advice and pro tips on how to handle these kinds of sticky situations (and more) I hope you check out our “Happy Families” Collection. Or, if the time is right to get professional support for your situation, you’re invited to have a free consultation session with one of our expert marriage and family therapists.
Wishing you all the best,
Listen & Subscribe to the Podcast
Dos and Don’ts of Step Parenting
The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Free, Expert Advice — For You.
Subscribe To The Love, Happiness, and Success Podcast
Music in this episode is by RESERCTION with their song “Frozen Let It Go: Symphony of White Remix.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://reserction1.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
Let’s Talk: Start With a Free Consultation
If you’re ready to grow, we’re here to help. Connect with us, and let us know your hopes and goals. We’ll follow up with recommendations, and will help you schedule a first, free consultation.