What all parents can learn from the step parent experience

No one really plans to be a step-parent – I certainly didn’t. 

When I discovered my new partner had two pre-teen sons, I didn’t give it much thought. I never imagined they would become such a fundamental part of my world and family. Now, after ten years, I can’t picture my life without them, but the journey has been filled with many ups and downs and a whole lot of learning.

Parenting, in any form, is an unbelievable experience but I can wholeheartedly say that step-parenting comes with very unique challenges and opportunities. One out of every three families in the UK is “blended,” meaning many people navigate the joys and challenges of a non-nuclear family. When I became a step-parent, I underestimated the impact of suddenly having two little people, who I barely knew, at the centre of every decision. Do I discipline or step back? Do I join in or let them have space? Do I voice my opinion or save it for another day? And I definitely wasn’t prepared for the time, resources, planning, and energy it would take to keep everything together.

So often step parents look to the nuclear family for clues on how to navigate their role. As a step-parent coach, a step-parent, and a biological parent myself, I can confidently say that there are many insights from the step-parent experience that all parents can learn from. Here are some key lessons to share:   

1. Be intentional about your role: 

The role of a step parent is typically ambiguous, meaning that you must really think deeply about your role, who you want to be as a step parent and how this vision realistically aligns with your life and the vision of your partner. Taking a proactive stance from the beginning ensures that your actions align with your goals and helps mitigate stress, conflict and anxiety that might stem from a lack of understanding your role on behalf of everyone involved.  

Ask yourself important questions: What is important to you? How do you want to fit into the family dynamic? What do you want your relationships to look like with both the children and your partner?  Where might you have boundaries? Where do you want to and can realistically commit your time and resources? 

Setting a vision and intention for your parenting approach ensures you parent with purpose and clarity, helping you make thoughtful decisions and respond to challenges with consistency.

2. View your relationship as a partnership 

As a step parent, the relationship with your partner is fundamental, forming the backbone of your family unit – this is equally true for all parents. Viewing your relationship as a partnership means working together, supporting each other, and presenting a united front.

Communication is key. Regularly discuss your parenting strategies, share your thoughts, and listen to your partner’s perspective too. Align on key issues such as discipline, routines, and values. This alignment not only strengthens your relationship but also provides a stable and consistent environment for your children and step children. 

When children see their parents working together as a team, it creates a sense of security and helps them also understand the importance of cooperation and mutual respect.

3. Set and maintain boundaries

Parenting can be all-consuming, but it’s essential to take time for yourself, establish clear boundaries around those things that matter most and prioritise wellness. Step-parents often face the challenge of finding their place within an existing family structure, which underscores the need for personal boundaries and prioritising wellness and self-care, especially in the early years if you feel pressure to “blend” quickly.  

In her book, Stepmonster, Wednesday Martin PH.D refers to stepmotherhood as the “perfect storm” for depression with 8 diverse contributing factors. Another study out of America shows that step mothers reported depression at nearly double the rate of biological mothers – a worrisome stat for the individual as well as the wider impact on the family and children.

The ability to effectively set and maintain boundaries is paramount for all parents to ensure their health, wellbeing and ongoing ability to contribute to their family in a meaningful way.

4. Patience

Dr. Patricia Papernow, a well-known researcher in step family dynamics, claims it takes between 4 and 12 years (12 years!) to reach the final stage in her “Step Family Cycle”, called resolution. This final stage is characterised by solid relationships, established family history and the ability to ebb and flow with significant life changes.

It took my family approximately 5 years to reach this stage. I had to practise immense patience as relationships take time to build – trust and respect don’t grow overnight.

Not only do parents need to practise patience with their children and partner, they need to be able to expect it in return. It is also vital to have the self-awareness necessary to also acknowledge when you need to be patient with yourself.     

5. Creating new traditions to help the family bond

Traditions play a vital role in fostering a sense of unity and belonging within a family. For blended families, establishing new traditions (or sensitively building upon existing ones) and consistent routines is so important for creating a solid foundation, bonding, and building new memories as a new family unit. 

It doesn’t have to be complicated, a tradition can simply mark an occasion in a creative way that would otherwise be mundane – rebrand Tuesday to Taco Tuesday as an example. Whether you create a tradition around a weekly family dinner, a holiday, celebration, or even something small like a hot chocolate after sport practice, these new traditions or routines give you something to collectively look forward to, discuss, collaborate on and enjoy together – all families can surely benefit from that!

6. The power of planning

Effective planning and alignment is crucial for navigating the complexities of any family life. Step-parents quickly learn the value of clear-cut schedules in the short term and long-term planning to manage the diverse needs of a blended family. 

The act of planning obviously supports logistics, yes, but it also allows everyone in the family unit (despite competing priorities) to feel in control of their time and relax into the structure of the plan. This can be especially important if step children are between two houses and have their time dictated by a co-parenting schedule.

The step-parent experience offers valuable insight that all parents can benefit from. With the goal of creating a harmonious family environment, these principles not only support the well-being of your children but also help you and your partner thrive within your roles and your partnership too!

Ainsley Keller (ICF ACC) founded The Step Collective in 2023 with the mission to empower step parents and future step parents. From her own personal experience, Ainsley realised there was very limited professional support for step parents and she wanted to change that. The Step Collective provides 1:1 and group coaching for step parents and future step parents helping them to embrace their role with confidence and clarity so they can create a balanced life (both personally and professionally), meaningful relationships and a happy home.  

Reach out and say hello if you are interested in learning more – www.thestepcollective.co.uk or hello@ainsleykeller.co.uk.