Stepparenting can be very stressful when you don’t understand your role and if you don’t know how to behave with your stepchildren. If you are a stepparent then this article is for you.

The role of a stepparent

Your role is to be a caring, respectful and helpful adult in your stepchildren’s lives. It takes time to build trusting, loving relationships with your stepchildren and you need to resist the temptation to discipline them or to interfere when your partner disciplines them; gives them instructions or when your partner and his/her ex make decisions regarding his/her children.

It would be much easier if your partner and his/her ex were on good speaking terms and if they could discuss and agree on rules, values and discipline for his/her children, but let’s face it, a lot of divorced parents don’t want to be told by an ex how to manage his/her own children.

Until you have built a sincere, solid, trusting and loving relationship with your stepchildren you need to take a backseat and accept the children as they are. Any interference will build resentment for all parties. I often hear stepparents say: “My stepchildren have to follow my rules in my home.” Well, you can try to enforce your rules in your home but I can assure you, you will damage your relationship with your partner, his/her children and his/her ex. What you can do is to encourage your partner to agree with his/her ex on how to raise the children who will be living in two different homes. They need to be a united front with their children and stepparents need to support whatever the parents of the children decide. The stepparent can discuss the children’s discipline and house rules with his/her spouse behind the scenes so that his/her needs and expectations are also acknowledged and incorporated but it’s not up to the stepparent to enforce rules.

Ten stepparenting rules to keep in mind:

Don’t interfere in your stepchildren’s discipline and never spank or scream at the children. For your relationship with your partner to work, you need to agree on the children’s discipline and rules, and your partner has to step in when his/her children step out of line. It is not your role. Your stepchildren will not accept you as an authority figure until you have established a good, trusting relationship with them. It can take a few years. If you try to discipline them your relationship with your stepchildren will become strained and they may not want to spend time in your home.

Ask your partner to discuss the rules in your presence so that you can remind your stepchildren of your partner’s rules when they step out of line, but under no circumstances can you discipline them. If your partner isn’t present you can say: “Remember, your mom/dad said that you are not allowed to use the cell phone at the table.” If your partner is present, they have to deal with the cell phone at the table, not you.

Your stepchildren will test boundaries and they may even try to upset you on purpose. Don’t fall for it. Always remain in control of yourself and if you can’t, leave the room. Remember, they are children and therefore not perfect.

Once you have established a good relationship with your stepchildren and you have earned their respect you can enforce the rules but you need to leave the disciplining to your partner.

The parent sets the rule regarding respect. Your partner needs to make it very clear to his/her children to treat you with kindness and respect, and you need to treat your stepchildren with sincere kindness and respect. They will warm to you.

If your stepchildren disrespect you in any way, you should not be a pushover. You do not have to make their favourite ice cream and you don’t have to do them any favours. It is ok to say: “Until you treat me with respect, I will not make ice cream for you.” Then don’t hold it against them and don’t allow it to spoil the weekend. Get over it and move on but don’t make the ice cream. They need to learn that you mean what you say. Consistency is very important.

Set clear boundaries for your own children and your stepchildren. All your children should have the same rules, discipline and boundaries but his/her own parent should do the disciplining. If you don’t want the girls to use your makeup, say so. If your study is a no-go area for children, say so but always be kind and respectful. Don’t be aggressive. Remember to discuss this with your partner so that your boundaries with the children is heard and agreed to.

Don’t get involved in arguments between your partner and his/her children or your partner and his/her ex. Ever. Becoming involved in arguments will alienate your stepchildren and tarnish your relationship with your partner’s ex. It’s not worth it.

Don’t ever overrule the rules set by your partner and his/her ex even if you think the rule is unnecessary or petty. If all parents respect each other’s rules and act like a united front, the children will feel safe and they will behave well.

Don’t set your expectation too high. You can never take the place of their parent and you shouldn’t try to. Also guard against feeling threatened by your partner’s relationship with his/her children. If you focus on being a loving, fun, helpful and available mentor, you will gain their love and respect. It will take time to bond with your stepchildren.

Don’t set new rules too soon and don’t try to enforce rules too soon. Be patient and tolerant. Research shows that it can take up to seven years to feel like a real family when both parents enter into a new marriage. When you find yourself in a situation of my children, your children and our children, both parents need to resolve to be patient and tolerant and consistent with rules and discipline for all the children. There shouldn’t be different rules for different children unless you are dealing with a teenager and a toddler. When children become teenagers the rules and discipline change because they will be allowed more freedom of movement which means a whole new set of rules and discipline.

Puberty sucks! Teenagers can be awkward, difficult and moody. Their hormones are raging and it plays havoc with their emotions. Teens experience major mood swings, pimples and body odour that makes them unhappy and embarrassed. It’s like living with someone with more than one personality! Parents need to show compassion and give them space. Stepparents need to give them even more space.

Teenagers may have outbursts at the slightest provocation and communication flies out the window. They will give you attitude and burst into tears for almost no reason at all. Doors will slam and eyes will roll! They feel very intense emotions – they can go from zero to five hundred in less than two seconds!

Encourage your teen to keep a journal so that they can vent all his/her emotions and feelings instead of shouting and slamming doors. Wait until the rage is over before approaching the teen. The teens parent has to deal with destructive behaviour once the teen is calm. Don’t try to deal with your stepchild’s poor behaviour unless the teen’s parent isn’t present. Wait until the rage subsides and then speak to the teen in private. Never be confrontational. Be gentle, kind and respectful when you say something like: “I noticed that you felt very angry and I understand that you are going through a lot of changes right now because I was a teenager once. I remember how puberty affected me. I need to ask you not to punch holes in doors and not to swear at your family. It’s hurtful and not cool. Ok?”

If your step-teen is having a very difficult puberty they may need to have therapy with a clinical psychologist. The parents should organise it, not you, unless they ask you to get involved.

A teenagers will find almost everything irritating and upsetting so keep your distance when the teen is in a mood and allow your partner to deal with it. It’s not personal.

Don’t ‘report’ your stepchildren all the time. Nothing will break down your relationship faster than you ‘reporting’ them to their parent(s). Your partner should step in when the children disrespect you, for example: “You are not my mother/father.” If your partner is not present, you can say: “No, I am not your mother/father, but you still can’t jump on the bed. Remember, it is a rule that your mom/dad set and you have to respect the rules.” Distract your stepchild by doing something else with them, like cooking or watching their favourite programme on tv. It’s not necessary to talk in an angry voice or to make angry faces at them. Be kind and in control. You will gain his/her respect and affection.

It is crucial to spend quality time with your stepchildren. Be your authentic self and get to know your stepchildren without judgment. Be around your stepchildren and have sincere discussions with them. Listen to what they have to say without argument or judgment. Plan some fun activities and be involved. It is also important to do one-on-one things with each of your stepchildren. It doesn’t have to take long and it doesn’t have to cost anything. Teach your stepchild something. If they are old enough to help with cooking or making a fire for a braai (barbeque), then involve them. Teach them how. Make it enjoyable! Have fun!

Never say anything negative about your stepchildren’s parents, even if they do. Don’t agree with them their parent is difficult, wrong, unreasonable, or whatever the stepchild says. It WILL come back to bite you!

Give your stepchildren time with your partner. Children should spend some quality alone time with their parent and as you know, parents also want to spend quality alone time their own children. Let them! They will love you for it. Even if it means that you miss out on fun outings.

Stepparenting is not for sissies but the tough times will pass and you will have a beautiful family that you can be proud of. You can create a tight, trusting relationship with each of your stepchildren if you remain calm and fair and treat them with kindness and respect.

For more information or advice, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Elsabé Manning

084 371 9105 or