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Avoiding Conflict as a Step-Parent


According to statistics maintained by the Step Family Foundation, 1300 new stepfamilies form every day in the United States. Over 75% of divorcees remarry, and of those families 2/3 have minor children. The children of these blended families shuttle back and forth between the two families’ homes, creating an additional layer of complication to traditional family challenges, such as scheduling, discipline and communication. What, then, is the role of the step-parent?

It is no wonder that new conflict is common in new step-families. No step-family is going to be without conflict, any more than a traditional, nuclear family on the planet has no conflict. And let’s face it: spouses get divorced for a reason, and at least part of that reason is their inability to resolve conflicts.

But the reasons for divorce should not translate into conflict between the step-parent and the children’s other parent. It matters. Statistically, most children are doing well by two years after the divorce is final, with problems experienced primarily by children whose parents continue to have conflict. The children who do the best are those who maintain healthy, continuing relationships with both parents.

That means (assuming the other parent is not truly a monster, and assuming you care about your step-children personally) that your primary role as a step-parent is to support your children’s relationship with both parents – and to avoid attempting to replace the other parent with yourself.

Many conflicts can be avoided through simple respect for how the roles of a parent, and a step-parent, are different. Here are some common-sense rules I advise my step-parent clients to follow to avoid unnecessary conflict with their step-children’s other parent. These may sound blunt or harsh, but they can help you avoid (a) creating undue stress on the kids, and (b) unnecessary legal bills when step-parent conflicts reach the attention of the courts.

  1. “Stay in your lane.” As a step-parent, you are not the child’s parent (except in some situations where the step-parent, their spouse, and the child have agreed otherwise). That child has two parents already, and one of them is not you. This doesn’t mean your role in their life is nonexistent. It does, however, mean that decisions involving the children should be made between that child’s birth parents, and the role you play should ideally be agreeable to both of them.
  2.  If one of the parents wants your opinion, they’ll ask. Even then, give that opinion with all the respect you can muster (it helps to be quick and quiet, even if it’s forced pleasantry). You help nothing by “calling someone out” for what you perceive to be their misbehavior. Find a reliable, uninvolved, party to vent to if necessary.
  3. Never say anything critical of the other parent in the presence of the child, or (to be safe) even if the child is in the house somewhere. In fact, try to avoid saying anything critical of the other parent at all. It is amazing how children intuit your feelings; you may think your criticisms are subtle or masked, but kids can often interpret what is being said accurately.
  4. Never discipline your step-child in ways that haven’t been agreed upon by both of the child’s parents. That is a parent’s job. It is best to do the minimum to keep the child safe and report the behavior that needs discipline to your spouse. It is their job to discipline; it may feel counterintuitive to your parenting instincts, but this will ultimately protect important relationships.
  5. Work with the other parent, to the extent possible, to have consistent expectations in both houses. Avoid the attitude of “my house my rules.” Yes, it’s your house, but it’s the other parent’s kid in your house. Additionally, it’s beneficial for childhood development to have consistency across homes (shifting goalposts isn’t healthy).
  6. Try to avoid being the step-parent who does the co-parenting exchanges. Yes, there are going to be times when your spouse is at work, or the child is sick and you have to go pick them up. If it is apparent that you are always going to be performing that duty, try to rearrange the schedule. Exchanges are the times when spouses can talk face-to-face about their child in a non-pressured setting. It keeps communication flowing. It also reassures the other parent that they are working with the child’s parent, not their step-parent -– this demonstrates that you are, indeed, “staying in your lane.”
  7. Support and enthusiastically encourage your spouse’s participation in the child’s events, but do not shoulder the responsibility of parental involvement. Keep up with the school awards dinners, the soccer games, the karate belt tests. Attend, take pictures, cheer, and be supportive… but always let your spouse be the main point of contact. Let them be the star of the Parent Show. This is better for all parties involved, and especially the children.

These are not legal rules. But these are the things that Judges intuitively expect of step-parents. These are rules that, if followed, help ensure that nothing you do in your role as a step-parent is going to cause your new spouse more legal conflict.

In my personal experience as a step-parent, I was lucky. My current husband’s first wife was a loving mom with whom I enjoyed an excellent relationship. One great day, she thanked me for entering her children’s lives, and she said she saw me as an ally when her children struggled. I was a friend in whom she could confide her concerns about their behavior or their futures. She said, “I always knew that even if I wasn’t physically able to be there for my kids, you were only one step away.

This story brings me joy, and yet sadness for families where this kind of cooperation is difficult to attain. Being only one step away is a unique privilege and a gift you can give your step-children. Being close enough to be reliable, but just far enough away to have perspective, comes to mean the world… not only to the kids, and not only to your current spouse, but (with time and in all likelihood) the kids’ other parent, too.

That trust, from the mother of my step-children, means the world to me. I hope I always earn it. And I encourage my step-parent clients to, if at all possible, make the effort. It’s so worth it.

Margaret Held’s personal experiences with divorce and step-family is one source of her empathy for clients in difficult family situations. This empathetic understanding–and desire to see your family thrive, in whatever form it takes–is shared by the Held Law Firm team. If you are looking for attorneys who care to help you with your family’s legal matters, give us a call to schedule a case assessment at 865-685-4780.