The Unsure Stepparent: Building a Confident Blended Family through Clear Expectations

Foster strong relationships between your partner and your children with these tips.

After going through a divorce or separation, it can feel daunting to think about introducing a new partner, and any children of their own, into your family structure. Transitioning to two houses means an exhausting and prolonged adjustment period for many families, so it’s no surprise that many moms and dads find it intimidating to take on another familial transformation, especially one as large as blending two families.

Yet, many still do, and with a little forethought and preparation, parents can make the transition easier on themselves, their partner, and their children.

To ease that transition, it’s important for parents to understand that becoming a stepparent is a wholly unique process. For individuals who already have their own children from a previous relationship, the typical parent-child dynamics and boundaries may not translate perfectly to their new blended family. In fact, expectations based on their relationships with their biological children have the potential to hinder their transition into the new role of stepparent. And for individuals without children from previous relationships, becoming a stepparent often feels like completely uncharted territory, rife with opportunities for mistakes and missteps.

But regardless of if your new partner was already a parent or not, establishing clear boundaries and expectations from the very beginning can help prepare your family for real and lasting growth. Here are 4 boundaries that every blended family should consider while they are still new.

1. Don’t rush.

Most parents acknowledge that blending families takes time, but making a concerted effort not to rush your relationships can go a long way. You and your partner may feel desperate at times for your new family to succeed, pressuring yourselves to achieve perfection prematurely. But this pressure often creates fissures rather than bonds and is not healthy for you, your partner, or your kids in the long run.

Instead, think of your new blended family in the long term. Your ultimate goal is raising happy and healthy children in a loving environment, a project that is measured in years rather than days. If your progress feels slow, remember that a rough day, week, or month is only a small percentage of the time your family has.

2. Foster real relationships.

Although it's a common saying, the phrase “one big happy family” isn’t always a useful mantra for blending families. The key to healthy family dynamics overall is strong relationships between individuals, something that phrase partially elides. So while rushing will be counterproductive, stepparents can still actively work toward building real and lasting relationships with their partner’s children. Keeping a slow and steady pace in mind, encourage your partner to spend time with your children one-on-one. Just remember to start small. Think a quick run to grab ice cream or a short jaunt around the neighborhood with the dog, not an all-day adventure.

Building individual relationships between your partner and your children has many benefits. At its simplest, it allows for your partner and children to get to know each other. In the grander scheme, doing so allows your partner to reinforce that his or her connection to your children is just as important as their connection to you.  

While encouraging relationships between your partner and your children, don’t forget to schedule some one-on-one time with your kids for yourself as well. Children can sometimes fear that new family members will interfere with their own relationships, so making plans for a regular tête-à-tête with your children is vital.  

3. Be an addition, not a replacement.

Many blended family relationships rely on the acknowledgement that bonus parents are an addition, not a replacement. Your children should never feel as though a relationship with their stepparent is somehow a threat to their relationship with their mother or father, and vice versa from your partner’s perspective as well.

Your partner should always respect the importance of your children’s relationship with their other parent, never displaying jealousy of your children’s time with them. Stress to your partner that they are never in competition with your co-parent. There is not a finite amount of love for your children that must be divvied up between them.

Children may also be placing pressure on themselves to remain “loyal” to their parent over their stepparent, but you and your partner can lessen that pressure by reinforcing through discussion and action that you will never make them choose between the two. Show them that their definition of family can be more than big enough to hold both their other parent and your new partner.

4. Respect.

Making space for a stepparent can mean growing pains for your family, pains that won’t subside if respect is not maintained. It may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s important to emphasize that you expect your partner to never speak disparagingly of your co-parent to your children. The stress that children may place on themselves to remain “loyal” to their other parent will only be heightened if their bonus parent displays contempt or dislike for your co-parent.

Respect must also be maintained between you and your partner as well. You should always be able to rely on a high level of respect for your parenting strategies and plans from your partner. He or she may grow to play an important role in your children’s lives, yet while your blended family is still young, it’s vital that your partner supports your co-parenting efforts.

Blending a family takes time, but when building relationships you want to last a lifetime, starting slowly is key. Have a conversation about your expectations with your partner early in the process and be sure to check in with both them and your children frequently. Blending families may not be easy, but putting in the hours and following through with your efforts will most certainly be worth it.