“You’re not my real parent!” is a sentence many stepparents are bound to hear at some point. Words hurt, but it’s also healthy for kids to be able to express their concerns that a new stepmom or stepdad will try to take the place of a parent who is no longer in the home.
Stepping into stepparenting is the toughest job one will ever love. Your patience will be tested time and again as you work through stepfamily house rules and boundaries.
When I gained 3 sons, I had some experience in setting out guidelines for the family’s success. I had 2 sons from my 1st marriage, and they had a stepfather in my 2nd marriage. I can tell you it wasn’t easy as my second husband had no kids of his own and was nearly militant with home rules and restrictions. With my 3rd marriage and our now 5 shared sons, we went in with eyes wide open to plan for success.
The importance of boundaries in the stepparent–stepchild relationship
During my 2nd marriage, we would end up arguing in front of my sons when I didn’t agree with my husband’s parenting style. Looking back, I regret this behavior, but we learn as we go, and I didn’t have Google back then.
I clearly recall feeling protective of my sons in the sense that his rules were rigid. An example was bedtime. If my boys were playing together nicely, I was a bit flexible on bedtime, giving them a few extra minutes of play. Their stepdad was hard and fast with the 9:00 pm bedtime because that was the way he was raised. We needed a mediator if this was going to work.
- Be open in discussions that let the children know you’re not trying to replace any other parent but be clear that you care about them and want to have harmony in the home.
- The stepchildren are not yours, and they need to know you respect the love they have for the biological parent. This means no negative talk about that parent in front of the kids.
- Let the children choose their moniker for you. Don’t force them to call you mom or dad. If it happens naturally, it’s a much sweeter gift. Let them know it’s ok either way.
Setting rules and limits for your stepfamily
Going into my 3rd marriage and increasing the son count from 2 to 5 was both exciting and frightening for me. I was used to being the main parent for many years. My sons’ biological dad is in the picture, and we remain friends, but he admits to taking a back seat in raising the boys, saying it was “so there was less confusion.” Since then, we have talked about how that could have gone better. I’ve learned a lot about assuming the stepmom role while still maintaining the bond with my 2 sons.
- As the parents, make sure adult conversations are always in private. Don’t discuss boundary conflicts in front of the children. With my 2nd marriage, we eventually created a “check-in” before our own bedtime to ensure we were on the same page. We didn’t come up with that on our own. We had counseling to guide us to the best path after having many conflicts within our home. A professional will act as a mediator and take the temperature of the house rules, which makes it easier to align parenting styles so that the kids aren’t confused about who’s in charge in different situations.
- Stepparents need to keep tempers neutral and excuse themselves from a situation that is about to get out of hand. While you’re also an adult in the home, don’t let tempers flare in front of the kids. It’s very hard for children to process who to listen to, and that is when the opportunity may arise for them to harbor bad feelings about the new blended family.
- With my own stepkids and discipline, there were signs of a bad stepmother if I felt I needed to be right. Knowing when to let go is not always easy, but we rarely regret that which we did not say.
Stepparenting advice on boundaries
Creating healthy boundaries is necessary for relationships in general. Having a clear set of expectations and limits is completely healthy in a stepparenting situation. This should expand outward to include (with limits) ex-partners who are still in the children’s lives.
- Let each child be heard. Listen to hear, not to repair. Repeat back what they have shared with you and try to add a follow-up question, too.
- Have planned meals together. Bonus points if you have everyone take part in preparing the meal or the week’s menu.
- Have a calendar in plain sight (ours is on the fridge) to make sure everyone knows the others’ schedules and understands the importance of being organized so they don’t miss meetings and important events. Everyone’s events matter.
- Work on having one-on-one time with each child throughout the week. Actually, schedule this if you must, and don’t forget to schedule special time with your spouse while you’re at it. Honor the time once it is set.
- Don’t offer advice unless it is requested. Support your partner when they ask for it.
Keep in mind there are no ex-parents, just ex-spouses. Respect that the ex still may still have a say in some of the events and issues that will arise. Stepfamily house rules and boundaries create a cohesive home where the children are allowed to express themselves while feeling safe and loved.
Stepparents over-stepping boundaries can create a division within the home. Secrets between the biological parent and their offspring cause resentment toward the stepparent. Don’t foster an “us against them” environment. That is something you can’t erase, and it could even lead to behavioral issues in your children’s adulthood.
Making decisions together as co-parents should have the common goal of creating a blended family that is healthy, happy, and safe. It builds the children’s character and ensures their well-being to be brought up in a home where structure, love, support, and fun reign.