What is Your Role as a Stepparent: Friend or Parent?

 In working with stepparents recently, I’ve noticed a common thread that spells disaster in the  early years of stepfamily development: the tendency for the stepparent to play a strong disciplinary role instead of allowing the biological parent to be the primary parent to his/her children.

I recognize the pattern because it happened in our home in the early years of our marriage.  Struggling with leftover guilt from my divorce, remarriage, new step-siblings for my children, and constant change, I became a permissive parent. I didn’t want to address misbehavior or dole out consequences. So my husband began doing it instead.

My husband’s intentions were good but the fall out of his actions was not good. His relationship with my girls wasn’t strong enough to withstand the negative side of parenting that occurs with discipline.   And it set him up to fail as he became an unlikeable stepparent.

Stepfamily authority Ron Deal says, “Kids will love an unlikeable parent, but rarely even like an unlikeable stepparent.” 

Tough words. It doesn’t seem fair. But it’s reality.

Stepparents cannot afford to overstep their boundaries. If we want to establish a long-term, loving relationship with our stepchildren, we have to start as a friend, rather than a parent.  The biological parent needs to take the primary disciplinary role as much as possible.

With younger stepchildren, the disciplinary role may move quicker into the hands of the stepparent if a loving, trusting relationship develops. But with older stepchildren, ages eight and up, it’s likely to take longer.

Other factors influence stepfamily relationships. My daughters’ father resisted any type of relationship between them and their stepdad and made confusing, negative remarks about my husband. It slowed down the relationship-building process because of the loyalty conflict they endured.

When my stepson lost his mother after a battle with colon cancer, our relationship took several strides backward. Grief, anger, and confusion surrounded my stepson. Although I had moved into a disciplinary role after several years of marriage, I reverted to a friend role. I allowed my husband to take over the primary disciplinary position again because my stepson began fighting against my maternal role.

If the biological parent takes a passive disciplinary role, problems ensue. Children need to be held to behavioral standards, and if the biological parent neglects his/her role, it’s natural for the stepparent to step in. But that’s not the answer. In The Smart Stepmom, co-authors Laura Petherbridge and Ron Deal commit an entire chapter to the importance of engaged fathers: “Dad Smart: She Can’t Do It Without You.” Recommended reading if you’re suffering in this area.

Stepchildren come in all sorts and sizes. Some will embrace a stepparent in their lives, quickly developing a loving relationship, which allows you to begin a disciplinary role almost immediately. However, most will not. Allow the child to set the pace and determine your role as your relationship develops for a better chance at a meaningful, long-term relationship.

Do you agree? What has been your experience as a friend or parent to your stepchildren? I would love to hear your comments.

Related Posts:

Learning to Accept the Things You Cannot Change

What is our Role as a Stepparent?

The Danger of Comparing Your Stepfamily to Another

Get posts delivered to your inbox --

Subscribe to the blog!

You have Successfully Subscribed!

12 replies
  1. Carla
    Carla says:

    What if the other parent is not around? There has to be a certain level of discipline that is ok for stepparents

    • Step Parenting with Grace
      Step Parenting with Grace says:

      Yes, certainly. The stepparent must step in when a problem arises and the bio parent isn’t around. It works best when the other parent gives the stepparent authority in front of the stepkids to “be in charge,” when he/she is gone. However, depending on the severity of the incident, there were times I deferred discipline with my stepson until my husband was home during the difficult teenage years. I would tell my stepson I didn’t approve of his behavior and his dad would address it when he got home. You can’t do that all the time but for big issues that need a heavy hand, sometimes it’s best.
      Thank you for your comment Carla. God bless you in your stepparenting role.

    • Step Parenting with Grace
      Step Parenting with Grace says:

      I’ve seen stepmothers and stepfathers make the mistake of disciplining stepchildren too soon. It’s an important aspect of blending a family that needs to be considered.
      Thank you for your comment.

  2. sue
    sue says:

    My husband is about as anti-confrontational as a person can be–to the point where he admits he can be a doormat, especially around bully types. He is not a disciplinarian, and his tolerance for misbehavior, disrespect, and defiance when we met was incredible. By contrast, my father was career military and there were 12 of us kids, so my parents raised us with a lot of discipline and structure.

    My husband’s six youngest children lived with us, and I just couldn’t ignore things and hope he would address them. Fortunately, he knew his weaknesses, so he and I came up with a plan. If something needed to be handled immediately and he didn’t recognize the need to say something or wasn’t sure what to say, I would start to deal with it, but he had to jump in and support me. If it could wait, he would tell the kids that he and I would talk about it and get back to them. Eventually he was the one to do the majority of the discipline, and the kids got used to the two of us conferring on major decisions.

    In a way, I feel like I taught him how to discipline his kids and teach them appropriate behavior, respect for authority, and what it means to be a contributing member of a family. Our children aren’t perfect, and some lessons were learned better than others, but I know I have been a positive influence in their lives.

    • Step Parenting with Grace
      Step Parenting with Grace says:

      Sue, I love the method you and your husband worked out. It’s harder for fathers sometimes to play the disciplinary role so you stepped in a great way to help. I know you have been a positive influence in your stepchildren’s lives. God bless you friend.

  3. mystepmomlife
    mystepmomlife says:

    I am a step parent to 2 teenagers. I have been a part of their lives for the last ten years. At first I was not involved in discipline at all, I would always let their father handle it. As time passed though and we moved in together I had to start stepping up more with discipline. Now the kids know that when there is a big issue that their father and I are going to discuss it before they get their punishment. He has always supported me when I have had to discipline on my own and the kids know that I am going to support whatever decision he makes when he disciplines. They have learned over the years that we stand united on the decisiion and no amount of whining or crying to either of us is going to change it. As the years have passed I have found that my role has changed. I have gone from being their playmate/friend to a respected parent figure that they come to with their issues. I try not to ever bad mouth their bio mother and don’t tolerate them talking disrespectful about her in our home either. It is not an easy job, this step parent business. Now though even when my husband is out of town for weeks the kids still want to come over on their scheduled days and spend the time with me. That makes me feel good to know that I have earned their love and their respect.

    I agree that you have to let the kids set the pace and don’t try to force a relationship with them. Just let them know that you are there if they need you and be involved in their lives as much as they are comfortable with. Don’t step into the role of being the “bad guy” or else that is how they will always see you. You need to establish a relationship with them first. I am not saying that they should be able to get away with whatever they want, they need to be held accountable for their actions but they need to see that their biological parents are supporting your decisions about discipline.


  4. Step Parenting with Grace
    Step Parenting with Grace says:

    It sounds like you have made some great strides with your stepchildren in developing relationships. I think you have a good perspective on letting the kids set the pace and as the relationship develops, move into a stronger parental role. God bless you and your family.

  5. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    My husband and I have full custody of his two sons, ages 6 and 4 1/2. I’ve been in their lives for over 3 years, and for awhile they called me Mama (something they picked up from my biological son, and the presence of their own mother being absent several months at a time). Now the youngest is more aware of his mother’s presence when she DOES come around (the older boy is autistic, and could really care less for her, he forgets her frequently), and he has begun treating me disrespectfully. I’m a stay at home mom with them, and have them most of the time. I’ve wanted to scale back on my role in the discipline and give it over to their father, but I can’t always do that during the day. I try to treat them the same way I treat my own son (he’s 4), but sometimes I worry that they will resent me. Should I continue trying to step back and be less of a mother and more of a stepmother/friend? If so, how can I reconcile doing that in front of my own son, who I still have to provide discipline to? Sorry to seem so needy, this article just stuck out to me considering the problem I’ve been having so recently.

    • Step Parenting with Grace
      Step Parenting with Grace says:

      Sarah, It sounds like you’re doing the right thing. Because the children are young and are with you as a stay at home mom, you have to do some of the disciplining. But when your husband is home, I would defer to him whenever possible. As a stepparent, you shouldn’t have to put up with disrespect. You may need to get your husband’s support to address it if it happens often, but your stepson must know that you are in charge when his dad is not around and disrespect is not allowed. God bless you in your stepparenting role. Thank you for your comment.

  6. Jeanette Cordova
    Jeanette Cordova says:

    Curious what you recommend when a step parent oversteps and starts authorizing procedures (dentist orthodontics) and signing contracts for those services?

    • Gayla Grace
      Gayla Grace says:

      Thank you for your comment Jeanette. The stepparent has no legal authorization to be signing the contracts as mentioned. I assume there is a bio parent in the home with the stepparent and I would talk with the bio parent about the stepparent’s behavior. It will have be done tactfully without a lot of criticism to prevent hostility in the relationship but it really isn’t the stepparent’s place to be taking that action unless he/she has some legal rights to the child. Gayla

Comments are closed.