10 of the most common mistakes stepparents make, according to parenting experts

·8 min read
Stepmom
Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts in "Stepmom." Handout / Hulton Archives / Getty Images
  • National Stepfamily Day is September 16.

  • We asked multiple experts to identify some of the most common mistakes stepparents make.

  • Trying to replace your stepchild's parents is never a good idea.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

You should never bad-mouth your partner's ex to their kids.

couple arguing
Talking smack isn't the move. fizkes/Getty Images

Sarah Epstein, a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in family dysfunction, said bad-mouthing the other parent will only drive the child away.

"Their loyalty is likely to be with their parent," she said. "And if it isn't, the relationship risks being built on shared dislike rather than positive things like shared interests, respect, and emotional safety."

Ray Sadoun, a mental-health specialist who works for UK-based provider OK Rehab, said the child might take those criticisms personally and could feel like you don't respect them.

"Even when tensions are high, try your best to stay neutral when discussing the other biological parent. In the best case scenario, you would be saying nice things about the other parent to make the child feel safe and accepted in your home," he said.

Amy Morin, a psychotherapist and author of books including "13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don't Do," agreed.

"Sometimes, stepparents have their own feelings to work through when it comes to the other biological parent," she said. "Whether they have some jealousy about the fact that their partner has to remain in a parenting relationship with the ex or they are angry that the other parent didn't treat the family well, saying negative things about that person hurts kids."

Experts cautioned against trying to "replace" your stepchildren's parents.

Stepmom
Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts in "Stepmom." Handout / Hulton Archives / Getty Images

Dr. Dena DiNardo, a clinical psychologist and licensed marriage and family therapist, told Insider that one of the most common mistakes stepparents make is trying to "recreate their old family with new characters."

She said it's "usually an attempt to gloss over the grief process related to the broken family." She advised asking yourself "how you've grieved and where you are in the grief process," and to be ready to "create new experiences and traditions, and recognize that they will not look or feel the same as with your prior family dynamic."

Epstein cautioned against this, as well.

"The stepparent isn't the biological parent and it is OK to acknowledge that," she said. "In fact, don't try to compete. Instead, speak directly to the child about their parent and encourage the relationship between the child and parent. This will help make clear that this isn't an either/or situation. ... It may help the child let their guard down to also connect with the stepparent."

Trying to be the "cool parent" and letting your stepchildren disrespect you is also something to avoid.

mean girls amy poehler cool mom
Be a regular stepmom, not a cool stepmom. Paramount Pictures/"Mean Girls"

"Parenting is not a popularity contest," said Christina Steinorth-Powell, a licensed psychotherapist and author of "Cue Cards for Life: Thoughtful Tips for Better Relationships." "Of course you want your stepkids to like you, but in seeking their approval, be careful not to over indulge them — don't spoil them in hopes that they will like you. Be kind and consistent and in time their positive feelings for you will grow."

... but there's a balance. Trying to overstep your boundaries and disciplining them before building a relationship first is a mistake.

kid student child sad punishment discipline school
Take a minute before sending them to time out. Shutterstock

"It's important for stepparents to spend quality time with kids getting to know them and earning their trust before handing out consequences," said Morin.

Patterson said acting as an authority figure too soon "can be a recipe for disaster." Instead, authority needs to be handed out by the partner.

"It would be better to speak with your spouse offline, offer support/counsel and allow them to impart the discipline. After a trusting relationship has been developed, the children will learn to view both parents (biological and stepparent) as authority figures and can accept discipline from each of them," he said.

Overall, expecting an instant connection is a recipe for disappointment.

kid hugging mom
Not everyone will have this. Sasiistock/Getty Images

"This is a very unrealistic expectation, but unfortunately, a common one," said Steinorth-Powell. "Realize that your future stepchildren have just incurred a huge loss — the loss of their family as they knew it. This takes time to get over. They will experience feelings of sadness, anger, and resentment. That said, you will help them heal and learn to accept you if you acknowledge these feelings and help them work through them."

DiNardo said, on average, it takes five to seven years "for a process like this to really 'gel.'"

"Make sure all adults are doing their own work to recognize the difference between what they want vs. need to happen in the process and what's motivating these wants/needs," she said.

Don't try to force a connection, either.

parent trap stepmother
Narcissism doesn't benefit anyone in the relationship. Elaine Hendrix in The Parent Trap/Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

"It goes without saying that you aren't going to love your stepchildren unconditionally from the moment you meet them," said Sadoun.

Instead, allow time for the relationship to develop naturally.

"Perhaps schedule in some fun activities to do with them so that they aren't expected to engage in deep conversation with you every time you meet," he said.

Not having a plan with your new spouse on how to deal with conflict and how you will approach parenting is a bad idea. Communication is key.

tantrum
Figure out how you'll deal with tantrums. Tim Graham/Getty Images

Steinorth-Powell said stepparents should discuss parenting with their spouse, and ideally, with both biological parents. They should talk about how to handle discipline and house rules including chores and bedtimes.

"In a perfect world, all three adults will come to a consensus so that there is consistency between the parents involved and all households," she said.

Presenting a united front is a key part of this, said Morin: "Stepparents may not agree with some of the pre-established rules. Until they work out those issues with the other parent, it's important to present a united front to the kids to avoid creating further divisions in the family."

"Healthy communication within the family dynamic is key and cannot be understated," said clinical psychologist Dr. Kasi G. Patterson. "Strive to engage in open, honest communication with all family members from a calm and compassionate place."

Even if you're not the closest, withholding affection isn't a great move.

stepdad
Playing is a good idea. fizkes/Shutterstock

Rich Heller, a parent educator and "conflict coach," said being too cautious could lead stepparents to miss out on the opportunity of a great relationship with their stepchild.

"Step-parents may withhold affection from their stepchildren out of concern that they are setting themselves up between the child and the other parent," he said. "The greatest gift an adult can give any child is unconditional love. Finding the opportunities to express their love and affection for step-children in a way that feels safe is the challenge of stepparenting."

Don't forget to let your spouse spend time with their kids - without you.

mom bonding
Bonding. Evgeny Atamanenko/Shutterstock

"Blended families require more care and attention especially in the initial phases of the relationship," Patterson told Insider.

To help the transition, the stepparent should allow the parent and their child to spend time alone, and the new relationships should be allowed to grow naturally, rather than forced upon the children.

"When children have been used to spending one-on-one time with their parent, the introduction of a new stepparent can come as a shock," Sadoun said. "While this is something the child must accept over time, it isn't fair to take away their alone time with their parent completely. Take yourself away every now and then to let the child spend time with their parent; it's crucial for the parent-child relationship."

Choosing sides in conflicts between your spouse and your stepchildren is a minefield to be avoided.

freaky friday
"Freaky Friday." Buena Vista Pictures

Don't put yourself in the middle and try to negotiate between the two sides, Patterson recommended.

"This can be tricky as either side may view this behavior as a betrayal. It is best to sit back and observe the interaction and only if asked, offer words of support that move the interaction towards healing and problem solving," said Patterson.

Similarly, you shouldn't outright insult your partner's parenting style.

According to Morin, "Stepparents can also make the mistake of being critical of their partner in terms of how they're handling parenting. This is destructive of the relationship for both with their partner and with the stepchild."

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