Being a parent is challenging, even under the best of circumstances. But being a stepparent is extra-challenging, as you’re stepping into an already complicated family dynamic. You may also be bringing your own children into your new family, with both you and your new spouse becoming a stepparent at the same time.
How does a new step-parent navigate this complex world? What are stepparents’ legal rights and responsibilities? What can stepparents do about discipline? Medical issues? Interactions with their stepchild’s school? How does a stepparent become the best stepparent possible?
Below you will find a summary of the research on being an effective stepmom or stepdad. We tried to answer your questions about relationships with your stepchild, effective discipline, dealing with your stepchild’s school and with medical issues. We also listed some great resources for step-parents on these issues.
Research on the Unique Challenges of Stepparenting
In today’s world, stepfamilies are very common. In the United States, forty percent of married couples with children are step-couples. About one-third of all weddings in the United States today form stepfamilies. In 2014, forty percent of all new marriages in the United States were remarriages. A 2009 study showed that “by age 15, 29% of U.S. children experience two or more mother partnerships (either marriage or cohabitation).”
Research has shown us how stepchildren and stepparents fare over time. A 1993 study on stepfamilies tells us that:
- Stepfathers are often disengaged in the stepfamily by showing low levels of involvement with the children.
- If a mother remarried before her child reached adolescence, the findings showed that the stepfather was most effective when he exhibited a supportive role of the mother’s approach to discipline. Only over time would the stepfather’s authority be effective with the children. A stepfather-stepson relationship, however, was more likely to form in younger children. This was not true with stepdaughters, however.
- If a mother remarries when her child is in adolescents, the stepfather had a better chance of developing a positive relationship with the stepchild if he exerts his authority more quickly rather than holding back.
- Young children often showed the most resentment early on to their mother and stepfather when the parent/stepparent relationship was strong, especially among preadolescent girls.
- Preadolescent boys, however, showed less acting out behavior when the mother/stepfather relationship was strong. The same held true for adolescents in general when their mother and stepfather had a positive relationship.
The psycho-social aspects of a stepfamily are not like an intact traditional family. The dynamics are different, and the parenting roles are different. Rejection issues in a stepfamily often are the cause of discourse. Without this being recognized and remedied, the deterioration of the stepfamily may accelerate.
Often a biological parent is torn between the stepparent and the child. The stepparent may feel resentment toward their spouse for the attention and care that is being given to the child. Children often have conflicting feelings of loyalty. If they have strong positive feelings toward their stepparent, then they may feel that they are being disloyal to their other biological parent. Parents may feel the same. If they want to spend time with their spouse, they may feel guilty or disloyal for not spending time with their child. The non-custodial parent may try to “buy” their child’s love and loyalty to compensate for the divorce and the lessened time spent with their children. This will cause discourse not only with the stepparent but also with the custodial parent.
The spouse may believe that the stepparent will automatically love their children because they love them. While there may be a “honeymoon” phase with the children, things can deteriorate after this period ends and the day to day routine takes over. It is unrealistic for families to expect that their blended family will automatically become a happy cohesive functioning family. These things take time to develop.
Often the things that pull apart the stepfamily are the expectations that the parent and stepparent have for raising and disciplining the children. No one has any set guidelines for what role the stepparent should have, now what their “job” description should be. Discipline is one of the most upsetting issues in a stepfamily form everyone’s point of view. Different styles of parenting and discipline between the parent and stepparent may cause issues in the stepfamily. The children may feel that the stepparent does not have the “right” to discipline…only the parent can do that. Sometimes the other parent is such a negative factor in the new stepfamily relationship that it too causes strife and discord. It can be issues created around money, child support, visitations, holidays, etc.
It is important for stepparents to remember that the biological parent cannot be replaced and that a parent can never “divorce” their children. While there are many factors that can negatively affect the harmony of the stepfamily, being able to recognize these factors and deal with them upfront is the key to developing a positive stepfamily relationship for everyone involved.
Stepparents’ Rights and Responsibilities
A stepparent’s legal rights are an issue that grabs more and more attention from the legal system. WeParent has briefly summarized what a stepparent can expect in terms of their rights and responsibilities for their stepchildren.
Without being a legally adoptive parent to the stepchild, the stepparent has little legal rights to decision making for the stepchild. Some states allow a biological parent to transfer some rights to the stepparent via a Power-of-Attorney form. Almost half of the states now have laws authorizing stepparent visitations.
In 2000, a few states began to recognize the rights of stepparents. Some states will consider awarding joint custody to a stepparent when that stepparent divorces the biological parent providing the stepparent can prove a strong relationship with the child.
Some states allow the courts to award visitation by a stepparent when they divorce the biological parent. This is based on research showing that terminating a strong loving relationship between a child and their stepparent may prove to be detrimental to the child’s mental health and well-being.
For the most part, a stepparent has no legal responsibility to provide financial support for a stepchild. There are 2 exceptions. Twenty states have statutes that impose such a duty on stepparents. The second circumstance regards “In Loco Parentis”. This means that another person takes on the responsibilities of a parent when the biological parent is unable to do so
Some states consider the amount of income earned by the stepparent when determining child support. The rationale is that the parent’s expenses are reduced by their spouse’s income, therefore, giving the biological parent more disposable income.
When a stepparent dies without a will, stepchildren have no legal right to any inheritance.
Usually, when a parent dies, custody goes to the other parent even if they were the non-custodial parent and even if the dead parent named their surviving spouse (the stepparent) as the child’s legal guardian. Certain states have been moving away from this trend in recent years. Stepparents may petition the court for custody in some states.
Dealing with Discipline Issues as a Stepparent
One of the most divisive issues facing a stepparent is discipline. Nearly every expert tells us that discipline should be left to the biological parent. The stepparent’s role is different. This leaves the question of what a stepparent is to do about discipline. There has been many articles, blogs, and forums on this very topic. WeParent has scoured these sources and compiled some of the best tips and suggestions on the topic of stepparents and discipline.
Stepchildren start off by testing the boundaries of the new family relationship. The new stepfamily relationship makes for a difficult transition and acceptance in most cases. Remember also that the other biological parent is a part of things when it comes to discipline. Adjusting to a stepfamily can often be more difficult for the child than adjusting to the divorce. It seems to also be more difficult for girls of any age.
The big message to remember is that the biological parent should handle most of the discipline, especially the big issues and infractions. Both the parent and stepparent should indeed talk about discipline and the house rules, but enforcement is best handled by the parent, at least until a positive relationship has been established between the child and stepparent.
While leaving the discipline to the biological parent, the stepparent should not be a doormat. Make sure that the biological parent lets the children know that the stepparent is a part of the family, deserves respect and is in charge when the biological parent is absent.
Be sure to talk with your spouse about family dynamics. Try to identify what works and what does not. Try to correct the things that are not working. Since the family situation is new already, don’t be in a hurry to institute too many other new things into the family. Give things a chance to settle before you establish a set of new rules. Research is showing that it takes between four and seven years for a stepfamily to function as a family unit.
For a stepparent, one of the first things to do regarding discipline is on the same page as the biological parent. Mutually set up the rules for chores, homework, TV, friends, social media, etc. When setting up the rules, also set the consequences for infractions. It is also a good idea to put all of this in writing and share it with the children, especially older children. Don’t change the rules when the parent is away, even if you don’t agree with a rule. Now is the time to show consistency. When a stepparent actual does discipline a child, make sure that any punishment is in line with what the parent would have done.
Be sure to never talk badly about their other parent. If you harbor bad feelings toward this person, keep those feeling away from the children. You can discuss your feeling with your spouse, but never with the children.
Listen to your stepchild. Establishing a trusting relationship is your goal so their input into the rules and discipline may help you with this goal. Children under nine years of age tend to be easier to discipline in general. Trouble comes when the child approaches or enters the teenage years. They are already distancing themselves from their parents and their peers are taking on a more important role. A stepparent needs to be aware of this stage of life and proceed accordingly. It is best to reinforce the house rules but leave the discipline to the parent. Try to focus on building a trusting relationship with the children instead. Over time, if the relationship grows, the stepparent can initiate some discipline.
Getting to know your stepchildren is a critical first step in working towards a positive loving relationship. Find out their interests, hobbies, etc. Spend time with the children. Let them know about your interests as well. Look for positive behaviors and draw attention to them. Comment on the efforts and attempts they make towards a goal. Praise them for these. Never use negative labels for a stepchild.
Overall, a stepparent can use some of the great tips provided in our research to develop a positive and strong relationship with their stepchildren. One piece of advice that has been repeated is to stay calm and not take things personally. The children did not get to choose their parents or stepparents and the transition, as stated earlier, can be difficult. Use compassion in your dealings with the stepchildren. Don’t set unrealistic expectations. Relationships take time to develop.
Be involved in your stepchildren’s day-to-day lives…bath time, diapers, homework, etc. Try to create some activities that you can share with them like meal preparation, yard work or shopping. Remember to take time to play with the children. This could be a board game, kickball or playing with a specific toy. The key is to spend time with them each day that they are visiting. Be mindful of each child’s age and developmental stage. Older children are often trying to be less involved in the family and not open with their feelings. Research has shown that children between the ages of ten and fourteen have the most difficulty adjusting to the new stepfamily life. They require more time to accept this and bond with the new stepparent.
Children of all ages need to feel that they are loved, respected, safe and secure in this new home. But everything does not have to be so serious. A sense of humor that you can express with the children can go a long way to break the ice and relieve some tensions.
When the stepchildren visit, be certain that your home is set up to accommodate them and that they have a space of their own. Your home should also be their home, after all, they are not a guest. Encourage the children to express themselves and speak their minds. Let them steer the conversation and avoid “grilling” the child on their interests, etc.
Monitor their activities and get to know what their interests are. Share your interests and hobbies with them. Most stepchildren prefer to share time with a stepparent if someone else is also there, like another family member. Also, encourage them to spend solo time with their parent.
Dealing with Your Stepchild’s School
When it comes to school, there are some special things to consider. First off, there is The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). This federal act gives a definition of the term “parent” and what a parent’s rights are when it comes to their children’s academic records. Under this act, a parent may grant written permission to another person to have access to the child’s educational records.
What about stepparents’ rights on their own? Essentially, when a stepparent is present in the child’s life, then they are considered by law as a parent and therefore have the right to access educational records. “Accordingly, a stepparent has rights under FERPA where the stepparent is present on a day-to-day basis with the natural parent and child and the other parent is absent from the home. In such cases, stepparents have the same rights under FERPA as do natural parents.” August 20, 2004, FCO Letter to Parent, p. 1-.
Further noted is the fact that a parent cannot dictate to whom the other parent gives the FERPA right of permission to access educational records.
Schools need to have written policies and procedures that address stepparents, their rights and the school’s policy of communicating with them. The school staff should be trained to know that stepfamilies are the norm for many students and that all parents and stepparents want to be involved in the child’s educational experiences.
Always remember that children do better with involved parents: better grades, self-esteem, graduation rates, attendance, social skills and better relationships with their parents. This goes for stepparents as well.
Communicating with parents and stepparents may require some additional work but keeping everyone informed is the most important thing. Schools should avoid sending information home with the children since often it gets lost, misplaced or forgotten. In addition, it would only reach one set of parents. Schools must communicate with both sets of parents by sending the same email, newsletter, permission form, etc. to all parents. Schools can use multiple methods for communication: emails, letters, telephone calls, etc. Parent groups are often very helpful in distributing information to everyone. Online platforms that can hold homework assignments, calendars, emergency notices, etc. may be great options for a school to use to keep parents informed.
Now comes the subject of the parent-teacher conference. Does a stepparent have the right to attend this conference? This often proves to be a delicate situation between the stepparent and the other biological parent. Most of the opinions expressed by stepparent bloggers and other experts are to first talk this over with the other biological parent. If there might be conflict, then the stepparent should step aside and not attend. The stepparent could always schedule something with the teacher afterward or get the information from the spouse if they attend.
Other areas where a stepparent could help with the stepchild’s education are to help with homework. The child may not be ready to allow you to help them, however. Let the child know what academic areas you excel at. Have the biological parent suggest to the child that they ask the stepparent for homework help especially if it is an area you excel at.
Exhibit behavior at home that says you value education: have books around the house, read books, magazines, and newspapers in front of the children, talk about educational trips you can take, talk about school homework and projects, talk about school in a positive manner, get to know the teacher.
Attend as many school events as you can. The same goes for after-school events but avoid confrontations with the other parent in these public places so as not to cause problems or embarrass the child. Try to sit far away from the other parent, focus any conversation back to the child’s game or performance.
Finally make sure the children have all the tools they need for school, have proper nutrition and the right amount of sleep every night.
Dealing with Medical Issues
When it comes to medical issues, a stepparent’s rights are limited. Basically, stepparents have no legal rights to grant medical consent for their stepchildren. There are certain circumstances where medical facilities would treat the child without consent, especially if the delay would cause severe injury or death. The state of Missouri defines parents to include stepparents when it pertains to medical consent laws. Outside of that, a biological parent can grant the stepparent power-of-attorney to represent you in certain emergencies. You would have to seek legal assistance for the specific details for your state.
Families are always complicated, but stepfamilies can elevate the complications to a new level. With the knowledge and sound advice from experts and fellow stepparents that have been reviewed here, you can get through these challenges a bit more easily.
WeParent mobile app can help stepparents be an integral part of their stepchildren’s life. WeParent is the only co-parenting app that charges a single, low price for the entire family. For just $9.99 per year, the app is available to both co-parents, their new spouses/partners, grandparents, nannies, and any other family members who need to be in the loop. Encourage your spouse (i.e., your stepchild’s biological parent) to download the WeParent app, and then invite you to join them.
Additional Resources for Stepparents
Overview of Step-Parents’ Rights, by Amy Newman for LoveToKnow.com
Marriage, Family & Stepfamily Statistics by Ron L. Deal, M.MFT. for SmartStepfamilies.com, April 2014
Knowing and Understanding Stepparents’ Rights by Shawn Garrison for DadsDivorce.com
Legal Rights of Stepparents Vs. Real Parents by Beverly Bird, for LegalZoom.com
Are Stepparents Real Parents? by Po Bronson for Time.com, May 17, 2006
What is Effective Stepparenting? by Kay Pasley, Ed.D. for National Stepfamily Resource Center, Summer 1994
The Dynamics of Step by Jeannette Lofas, Ph.D., LCSW for The Step Family Foundation, February 5, 2014
Stepfamily Discipline Issues for FamilyEducation.com
Stepparenting Discipline Do’s and Don’ts by Ron Deal for FamilyLife.com
The Do’s and Don’ts of Stepparent Discipline by Kate Bayless for Parents.com
Step-Parents and Child Discipline for FocusOnTheFamily.com
5 Tips for Discipline in Stepfamilies for SteppingThrough.com
What Kind of Discipline is Appropriate for Stepparents? Forum for CircleOfMoms.com, December 28, 2011
Discipline Strategies that Work: Catch Them Doing Something Right! By Ron L. Deal for SmartStepfamilies.com
4 Things to Consider Before You Discipline Your Stepkids Blog by Jamie Scrimgeour
8 Boundaries Stepparents Should Never Cross, by Benna Strober, Psy.D. for GoodMenProject.com, May 21, 2016 (originally posted on DivorcedMoms.com)
Stepfathers Need to Discipline Children Differently by Hudson Lindenberger, Fatherly.com, January 18, 2018
What Research Tell Us: 7 Tips for Parenting, Stepparenting, and Discipline in Stepfamilies, Dr. Patricia Papernow, for StepfamilyRelationships.com
Why You Shouldn’t Discipline Your Stepchildren by Maggie Scarf, TipsOnLifeAndLove.com, February 25, 2014
Discipline for Stepfamilies Blog for SupperNanny.co.uk
Tips for Stepparents by Claire Thomas for SupperNanny.co.uk
This is What Stepparents Need to Remember About Their Stepchildren by Michelle Zunter, for ScaryMommy.com
6 Tips for Building Relationships with Your Stepchildren by Ron Deal for FamilyLife.com
When Stepchildren Visit Blog for FamilyEducation.com
8 Ways to Build Relationships with Your Stepchildren by Susan Merrill for AllProDads.com
Advice for Stepparents: 7 Ways to Connect with Stepkids by Allison Fishman for Parents.com
Blended Family and Step-parenting Tips by Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. and Lawrence Robinson, for HelpGuide.org, October 2018
Stepfathering Adolescents: It Takes Patience, Flexibility and Humor by Joseph Cerquone for Fathers.com
Kids, Separated Parents, Stepfamilies and School Success for SteppingThrough.com.au
Stepparents: The Right to Access Educational Records Under FERPA, by Betsey A. Helfrich for MickesOToole.com, November 2013.
Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), U.S.Department of Education, March 1, 2018
What Schools Can Do For Stepfamilies by William L. Bainbridge, Ph.D. for StepFamilies.info Newsletter, Fall 2000
Back-To-School Time for Stepparents, Too Blog by Erin Mantz for HuffPost.com, August 23, 2017
Step Parents Attending Parent Teacher Interviews, Forum for CircleOfMoms.com, March 31, 2013
3 Common Problems Stepparents Face When Trying to be Involved with Schooling by Brad Micklin for MicklinLawGroup.com, September 6, 2016
Stepmoms, Please Don’t Sweat The Parent Teacher Conference by Jamie Scrimgeour for HuffingtonPost.com, September 8, 2017
Medical Consent for Your Stepchild for FamilyEducation.com
Can a Stepparent Give Consent for a Stepchild’s Medical Care?, FAQ for National Stepfamily Resource Center, March 13, 2019
3 Parenting Situations Off Limits to Step Parents by May Beth Sammons for PopSugar.com, September 21, 2012