The Step-Parent Dilemma

NOTE: In this article, I use the phrase “bio-parent” when referring to a biological parent, legal guardian or adoptive parent. It is meant to be inclusive, and used as a matter of convenience, not as a technical description.

I love a good step-parent! Sometimes they can be way more level-headed than the bio-parents and can offer a more objective point of view to their respective spouses. Sometimes they are the ones the kids go to for emotional support because the children don’t see them as part of the loyalty bind. Sometimes the kids can soften the message to their bio-parent by asking the step-parent to communicate a sensitive message for them. Sometimes, the step-parent does a better job of communicating with the other bio-parent than their spouse is capable of! But unfortunately, sometimes, the step-parent is insecure, immature, and should probably not be involved at all. Every step-parent is different. So what are the rules when it comes to the involvement of step-parents in co-parent communication or relationship with the children? Here are a few words of wisdom:

  1. Co-parent communication is supposed to be between the two parents listed in the court-ordered parenting plan. The step-parent should be a confidant, sounding board, and voice of reason for his/her spouse, but should not take on the role of co-parent. Communication about major decisions (medical, education, religion and extra-curricular) should be between the two bio-parents, with behind-the-scenes help and support of their respective spouses. HOWEVER, if the other bio-parent is not threatened by communication with the step-parent about day-to-day issues (picking up, dropping off, activity details, etc.) AND the step-parent welcomes the day-to-day communication details to keep his/her own life straight, then go for it! Whatever it takes to keep the kids out of the middle is okay by me, as long as it gets the job done with respect and civility. If that can’t be achieved, then do your step-parent a favor and don’t put them on the front lines of a battle they can’t win. It will likely put your marriage in jeopardy.
  2.  A good relationship between the step-parent and his/her spouse’s children is a bonus and good if you can get it. Depending on the ages of the children when the step-parent comes into the picture, the role will vary. If you’ve been in the family since the child was an infant, you will obviously have a more parental role in the child’s life than if you entered a family of teenagers. Understand the children’s point of view and respect it. If they keep you at a distance because they are protecting the feelings of their other parent, there’s nothing you can do about that but just be there, be an adult, and be confident in who you are. That will engender more respect than anything. Consistency over time is what convinces kids that you are trustworthy. If they embrace you fully as a step-parent, that’s a feather in their other bio-parent’s cap, who obviously is confident enough in his/her role to not be threatened by your presence. Also, be a good behind-closed-doors adviser to your spouse as they parent their children, but don’t take up the mantle of discipline and parenting. It almost always ends in, “You can’t tell me what to do!” Bio-parents should announce to the children when they are turning over power to a step-parent in their absence. But when the bio-parent is present, they should be the parent in charge. It just keeps things cleaner that way.
  3. A word of wisdom to step-parents who have never had children of their own: I don’t care how many nieces and nephews you have or how many children you babysat as a teenager, no one can relate to the gravity and complexity of parenting until such time they have been given full responsibility for a helpless human being! So be humble about that and don’t be naive, thinking you can save the day after hearing the terrible stories your spouse tells about the ex’s inability to parent. That’s not how the kids see it. Kids love their parents, even if they’re not parent of the year. Kudos to you if you are able to give the children what their other bio-parent won’t or can’t give, but don’t think for a moment that puts you in the front seat. Chances are (with a few exceptions), you will always take a back seat to the bio-parent, which is really annoying if you are doing the lion’s share of the work. That means you do it because you love the kids, not because you want a “best parent ever” medal. That’s not likely to come, but the long-term relationship you develop with a step-child will be invaluable to you both someday. That has to be enough.