We all like to know what is expected of us, especially regarding our family roles. Step-parents often discover that the ambiguous nature of their role leads to great frustration. Being a smart step-parent starts by knowing your place in the family.

Jennifer, now a 28-year-old mother, reflects on how awkward it was at 13 to embrace her mother’s new marriage and the family’s move to a small Arkansas community. "It took me years to appreciate what my stepfather did for me," Jennifer says. "He provided for us and loved me – even when I wouldn’t give him any credit. I just couldn’t let myself love him for a while. But eventually I relaxed and let him in, and now we have an awesome relationship. What a blessing he has been in my life."

Find your fit

Finding your fit may not be easy, but take time and be patient. As your role becomes clearer, you can confidently begin building a closer relationship with your new children.

First, recognize that you are an added parent figure in the child’s life; you are not a replacement parent. A child who feels that his biological parent is being displaced will resist your influence. Honour and encourage the biological connection.

Second, realize that a child’s openness to you determines the pace at which you are allowed into his heart. While acting in loving ways facilitates bonding, the child’s level of openness largely depends on factors that are out of your control: the age of the child, his relationship with the other parent, the amount of time spent in the step-parent’s home.

So flexibility is the key to finding the right step-parenting fit. Listen to the child’s openness cues and respond in kind. For example, if the child calls you "Mommy" or "Daddy," by all means allow it; if that label isn’t comfortable for the child, don’t demand he use it.

As the emotional connection with a child develops over time, step-parents move through a progression of roles.

The babysitter role

An adult can enjoy relational authority only after a child has developed an emotional attachment. Step-parents must earn this level of influence over time; it cannot be demanded. Until then, accept that you are limited to positional authority like that of a teacher, coach or babysitter.

A babysitter has influence only if it is given by parents who tell the children that the sitter is in charge while they are away. The same is initially true for step-parents.

A biological father, for example, can empower a stepmother by saying, "She knows the rules, and if you disobey her, you are disobeying me. She has my permission to enforce the consequences." This borrowed authority allows step-parents behavioural management of children while they initially focus their energy on relationship building.

The uncle/aunt role

When a moderate relationship has developed, step-parents can relate to the child like an uncle or aunt. When my sister Cherilyn visits, she carries some authority with my children because she’s their aunt. She is not a full-fledged parent in their hearts, but she carries a unique influence because she’s family.

When step-parents achieve this level of connection, they can become more authoritative, deepen emotional bonds and share greater affection with the child.

The parent role

Eventually, step-parents may gain significant parental authority with some stepchildren. Younger children tend to grant step-parents this status more quickly than adolescents.

The friend or mentor role

Step-parents who have limited visitation or have adult stepchildren often find that being a friend or mentor works best. Their role is much like a father-in-law who seeks to encourage and support without overstepping boundaries.

A gradual move forward

Like the gradual acceleration of a train, step-parents slowly gain momentum, moving from a minor role in a child’s life to progressively more influential ones. The challenge is to accept your current level of relationship while optimistically moving forward.

Related reading:

Ron L. Deal is president of Successful Stepfamilies, director of FamilyLife Blended and author of The Smart Stepfamily.

© 2007 Ron L. Deal. Used with permission. Originally published at focusonthefamily.com.

If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.

Our recommended resources

Join our newsletter

Advice for every stage of life delivered straight to your inbox