Understanding the Blended Family: What Does it Take to Be an Amazing Step-Parent?

My stepdad is one of the most incredible people I’ve ever known. I often wonder how he could throw himself into his new role as a step-parent to a young toddler (me!) so willingly and lovingly.

Taking on the parenting role for someone else’s child is no simple burden to bear. 

In my case, I was a little girl whose parents got a divorce and whose bio-dad was not in the picture. I was used to a world where it was just me and my mom, and then suddenly a father figure was present in my life. 

Looking back, I can’t remember a time when this incredible man was not a part of our lives. I don’t recall any moments when he wasn’t my dad. 

But for older kids and teenagers, the sudden appearance of a step-parent is difficult to come to terms with. 

How can you convince a child you’re not there to replace their parent? Is there a way to easily step into the role of a stepmom or stepdad if having kids was never part of your plan? What are your “parental rights?” How much say do you have in the lives of your stepkids?

These are tough but necessary questions to consider. 

You’re not alone, though. 

If you want to learn about establishing healthy relationships with your stepchildren, stick around. We’ve got a wealth of information about your legal rights, medical decisions, and bonding advice to help you adjust to your new role. 

We are grateful to Cameron Normand, owner of This Custom Life and co-CEO of Stepfamily Magazine for her expertise and for allowing us to interview her for this important article! Cameron is a Certified Stepparent Coach, the creator of the BLENDED Family Formula For Stepmom Success, and author of The Stepmom’s Gratitude JournalShe has been featured in CNET, The Cut, Business Insider, Upjourney, the Today Parenting Team, and StepMom Magazine, among others. Cameron received her BA from the University of South Carolina and her JD from Emory University School of Law.

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What is a Step-Parent?

The legal definition of a step-parent is:

“A person who is married to the father or mother of a child but is not the natural parent of the child. A step-parent has no automatic legal status in relation to his or her step-children, but will usually qualify to apply, as of right, for a section 8 order in respect of the child by virtue of being married to the child’s natural parent.”

So, let’s break that down:

If parents divorce, or one parent passes away, and then they remarry someone else, the new spouse would become the child(ren)’s new step-parent. For example, my mom and bio-dad split up when I was young, and then my mom remarried: hence, I have a stepdad.

But how many rights does a step-parent have to their stepchildren? What decisions can they make for them? Keep reading to learn more.

FAQ About What Step-Parents Can Do for Their Step-Children

My biological father wasn’t around much and, therefore, didn’t have any say in the ins and outs of my life. But does that mean that my stepdad could automatically step into his role and manage some parenting responsibilities?

Unfortunately, not exactly.

It might surprise you that step-parents have little legal say over their stepkids‘ lives. Instead, most decisions fall to the “legally recognized parents.”

Below is a list of questions you might have about what a step-parent can and can’t do for their new family.

Note: Every state has its own set of rules regarding step-parent rights. If you want more precise information, we suggest setting up an appointment with a family law attorney.

1. Can You Make Medical Decisions for Your Step-Kids?

Technically, no,  but there might be ways around that.

While step-parents aren’t legally allowed to make vital medical decisions for their stepchildren, this can sometimes present problems. 

Let’s say, for instance, you’re out of town, and your child is staying with their stepmom or stepdad. While you’re gone, your little one breaks their arm, and someone has to take them to the hospital and decide how to move forward– your new spouse might be the best person to make that decision at the moment.

So, what do you do?

The most beneficial option is to fill out a medical consent form for each of your children. You can do this independently or find a local attorney to help you oversee the process.

2. Can Step-Parents Claim Kids on Their Taxes?

Yes! Qualifying conditions help parents determine whether step-parents can claim stepkids on their taxes. For more information, take a look at the additional requirements laid out by the Internal Revenue Service.

No. This goes hand-in-hand with the question about making medical choices for your stepkids. If you don’t have parental consent from both biological parents, you cannot legally sign documents for them.

4. Is Adopting Step-Kids an Option?

Absolutely! You can undergo step-parent adoption if a biological parent passes away or relinquishes their rights. This would provide more legal rights to your stepchild. 

There are even some states that will allow multi-parent adoptions. Situations like this would allow biological parents to retain their parental rights while letting a step-parent legally adopt the child. This can be beneficial for legal and medical reasons. 

These states include:

  • California 
  • Louisiana
  • Oregon
  • Washington
  • Massachusetts
  • Alaska 

Not automatically. If you want to become your stepchild’s legal guardian, there are steps you can take to complete this process if you have consent from their parents. 

In situations like this, legal parents would still maintain legal and medical authority over their children, but if something happens where they cannot fulfill that role, a step-parent could step into their place. 

The thought of your spouse passing away and leaving your stepchildren behind isn’t something we want to think about. 

Unfortunately, it can happen.

If you and your partner agree that you should remain a part of the child’s life in circumstances like this, you must undergo a step-parent adoption or fill out legal guardianship paperwork. Without legal documentation, a step-parent will have no custody rights to their stepkids after their spouse’s death. 

Check out these easy ways to help ease into step-parenting.

Things You Can Do To Improve Your Relationship with Step-Kids

Now that we’ve covered the legal issues surrounding being a step-parent, what about the emotional ones?

While the whole “wicked step-parent” thing you read about in fairy tales might be a stretch, developing connections with new stepchildren isn’t always easy. 

There can be fear of the unexpected.

Resentment of a new person entering the family dynamic. 

Even tension caused by possible turmoil that stems from co-parenting with an ex.

Thankfully, creating a strong bond and positive relationship with your stepchildren isn’t impossible. You can build a lasting connection with time, patience, and effort.

If you’re struggling to bond with your new stepkids or need help figuring out how to “parent,” let us ease your concerns. It might not be simple, but the following tips can improve your chances of great relationships with your new step-family. 

1. Talk to Your Spouse About What Your Role Will Be

When you marry into a family with kids, you might have a perfect vision of your role in their lives. Unfortunately, your expectations might not align with your new partner’s. 

Before making moves to build a relationship with your new stepchildren, ask your partner what they’re comfortable with. We all have specific parenting styles we espouse, and it’s crucial to ensure you align with the rules and routines they already have in place. 

Keep in mind that your spouse is the primary parent, and while you can help out and be a critical part of their children’s lives, it’s important to communicate clearly about parenting styles and what your role will be.

2. Decide with Your Stepkids What They’ll Call You

It can be really awkward to figure out what your step-kids will call you, but keep in mind that it’s not advisable for them to call you “mom” or “dad;” in fact, that’s just confusing and will likely be a surefire way to upset your partner’s ex. Start with your actual name if you feel comfortable with that.

Have a conversation once your place in their lives is more official, and you and their parent prepare to marry. Find out what they’d prefer calling you and make a choice together as a family. We love this kind of organic approach where everyone can have a say in your step-parent name.

3. Lay Down Expectations from the Beginning

Just because it’s crucial to listen to your spouse’s expectations about your parenting role doesn’t mean you have zero say in how you’re treated within the family. 

Make sure to convey any of your wants and needs so that you can come to a compromise about your role in the family and how you can get the respect you deserve as a step-parent.

4. Let Step-Children Lead In Terms of Bonding

You might immediately want to jump in and be a huge part of your step-kids’ lives, but that isn’t usually the best way to go about it. Building trust and communication with them is more important than instantaneous bonding.

Experts actually suggest letting the child lead in terms of bonding. So you don’t necessarily have to stand on the sidelines forever, but you should definitely “be sensitive to the kids’ ages, emotional states, and feelings,” advises Cameron Normand, stepfamily expert and owner of This Custom Life.

Small team-building activities, like game nights, volunteering, crafts (where age appropriate), and hiking can be a great way to build relationships, but don’t expect to be able to be PTA president or take your stepchildren on a long cruise or anything at first. Taken your time and let them set the pace for bonding.

5. Maintain Open Lines of Communication

Whether you’re dealing with toddlers or teens, your new stepchild will probably face a whirlwind of emotions about the changes in their life. Make sure they know there’s a space for open communication with you. Create a safe zone where everyone in the family can talk about their needs, concerns, and expectations. 

One thing to consider might be hosting a weekly time to talk. Have snacks and drinks and create a space where everyone feels welcome to talk about your new life together.

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6. Don’t Overstep Boundaries

Remember our chat about discussing the role in your stepchildren’s lives? If your spouse puts any boundaries in place, STICK TO THEM! 

“Setting boundaries is also important for the stepparent,” says Cameron Normand. “There might be times when you need to take a step back and engage in some self-care or spend time with girlfriends, and that’s okay, too. Have a conversation with your spouse about what boundaries look like for everyone.”

Provide input where it’s welcome, but remember you are coming into a family with certain dynamics already in place. To avoid confusion, upset, and negative feelings, aligning yourself with how things are already done (as long as your values align with them) is helpful. But so is protecting your own boundaries!

7. Never Undermine or Belittle Biological Parents

No matter how crappy your partner’s ex might be, remember they’re still the parent of your stepkids.

Maintaining a respectful front when discussing your stepson or stepdaughter’s bio-parents is essential. Calling them out for being a lazy, no-good, so-and-so might feel good, but doing so will only drive a wedge between you and your stepchildren.

That also goes for undermining their authority. 

If, for example, your stepchild’s mom says they don’t want them to have a cell phone, the last thing you should do is run out and buy them one. Sure, it might score you a few brownie points at the moment, but it’s not a healthy choice for a long-term relationship. 

8. Try Not to “Force” the Relationship

In a fantasy world, stepkids would embrace their new stepmom or stepdad without a second thought. Realistically, it can take some time. 

While your stepchildren adjust to the new normal, try not to force a relationship on them. Let them know you’re there for them if they need you, and exude kindness and loyalty, but don’t demand anything they’re not ready for. 

9. Always Remember Kids Are a Part of the Package

Whether you plan to have children or not, your new partner’s existing family is now a part of your life. If you marry someone with kids, you also choose a bond with them. 

Think long and hard about whether you’re prepared for that commitment before you dedicate yourself to your new role as a step-parent.

10. Control Your Expectations

Always remember that blending families is a transitional period–it will probably take time to improve and will never be perfect.

Give yourself and your loved ones grace throughout the process, and control your expectations. Everyone might want a Brady Bunch-esque experience, but relationships take time. 

Don’t pressure each other to be a big, happy family automatically. 

Should You Try Family Counseling to Streamline the Blended Family Adjustment?

So, you’ve tried the suggestions above, and everyone is still having difficulty adjusting to the new family life with step-parents, stepchildren, and stepsiblings.

Should you just let it go and accept defeat?

Assume that a positive relationship with your new family members is out of the question?

Definitely not.

“The stepfamily structure by nature can be challenging, and it’s hard to anticipate all the things that will come up,” says Cameron Normand. “A stepfamily coach or therapist can not only help you deal with some of these complicated dynamics, but they can help you anticipate problems you might not know could come up.” 

If you need help forging connections with your new stepfamily, calling on experts is always a good idea. Making an appointment with a local counselor can help you navigate new circumstances and find ways to bond together.

Being a step-parent can be difficult but super rewarding. We’re here to help you on your journey!

Inspirational Step-Parent Quotes to Ease the Hard Moments

Sometimes, all it takes is the right turn of phrase to provide a boost in your self-confidence and the motivation to bond with your new family. 

Below you’ll find some of my favorite quotes about step-parents and stepfamilies:

  • “A step-parent is so much more than just a parent; they made the choice to love when they didn’t have to.” – Unknown
  • “Parenthood requires love, not DNA.” – Unknown
  • “Family isn’t defined only by last names or by blood; it’s defined by commitment and by love.” – Dave Willis
  • “Stepparent is someone who bravely took the position of the hardest job in the world.” – Unknown
  • “Family is family, whether it’s one you start out with, the one you end up with, or the family you gain along the way.”  – Unknown
  • “Remember why you chose to come together in the first place — the love that you have for your partner. Your partner’s children are an extension of them and this makes them just as important to your happiness.” – Beth Huber 

Put in the Work for Your Family and Become the Step-Parent Kids Deserve

Marrying into a family and inheriting the step-parent role is an experience wrought with uncertainty and challenge, but also one that also presents the potential for unconditional love.

If you’re a new step-parent or are trying to improve your current relationship, try to focus on what you CAN do. It’s easy to give up and decide you will never have a happily ever after with your step-kids, but what a waste that would be.

Without the effort, you’re losing the opportunity to create lifelong relationships that benefit everyone involved.

It will take some work, but trust me when I say everything you put in will be worth it in the end!

Do you have a step-parent in your life? What is your relationship like with them? 

Would you like to learn more about navigating the tough waters of parenting? Whether you’re struggling with toxic grandparents, stress, or mom guilt, the articles below can help.