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Boundaries in a Stepfamily

Drawing a line in the sand


As a stepmom that word makes me cringe. It’s something that’s taken for granted before finding yourself in a stepfamily: the ability to always see, know, and understand someone’s boundaries. I have no doubt that it’s also difficult on the other end as the parent sending your child over to your ex’s blended home. The thing about boundaries is that they usually aren’t given much thought until after one is crossed, and the emotional response that can follow the perceived overstepping is often immediate and intense.

Emotional baggage, different parenting styles, unresolved anger, poor communication, changing boundaries, and plain old misunderstandings can cause a whole sea of turmoil in both houses that are involved. Well intended decisions can cause unknown reactions and set off a chain of events that feels like the start of World War III. I believe that most of the time boundaries are not caused with the intent to hurt, anger or disrupt someone’s plans – they instead are merely accidents; but acknowledging that truth can be difficult in the heat of the moment.

While I have seen firsthand the ability of some families to navigate these waters with ease, it is an issue for many. Take two people with poor communication skills, who had enough issues to divorce in the first place, and turn them into peaceful co-parents who can also successfully manage two separate (and often conflicting) households….sounds a bit like a fairytale, doesn’t it?

The truth is you may find yourself in an already high-conflict or avoidance based relationship with the other parent. Each side has expectations and plans that are not always communicated to the other.

Lets look at the divorced dad who has his son and daughter half of the time. He has always planned and thought about the time when he would take them on their first camping trip. It’s a vision he’s held onto and something he’s been planning, even though a specific timeline wasn’t set. The kids come over one night and excitedly tell him about how their mom and stepdad are taking them camping that upcoming weekend. They are thrilled and the father is crushed. He isn’t only sad that he’s losing this moment, but he’s angry because he feels his ex-wife and her new husband should have known that it was a milestone that belonged to him. He sends his ex-wife a note berating her for taking away something that was “his”. His ex wife is caught off guard and responses with an equally heated email. The already rocky relationship takes a nosedive and suddenly any communication between the two is heated. Sound at all familiar?

Looking at this situation without any emotional investment, you can relate to how the dad must be feeling. His sadness comes from a place of missing opportunities with his kids. He knows that he can’t always be involved with every aspect of their life, but he sees this situation as a memory being stolen from him and a boundary that’s been crossed. You can also see how his ex-wife would be surprised by suddenly receiving a nasty email about a trip that she had planned for her family. She and her husband wanted to take the kids camping and didn’t think that it was something that would affect her ex-husband at all. They didn’t intend to cross any boundaries and they couldn’t see the one that her ex husband had created.

This is the type of situation that occurs all of the time when children are being raised between two homes. If you are in a family that has these interactions often, you may constantly have a feeling of walking on eggshells and over analyzing decisions when trying to balance the needs of your family compared to how it may be perceived in the other home. Fear of setting the other person “off” may create an environment of constant stress, distrust and anxiety which isn’t healthy for you or your children.

While there may not be a magic wand to remove the issues of intentional or perceived overstepping, you have to find a way to keep yourself grounded when the times get tough. You need to find a way to de-stress and reset in the midst of conflict. For me, it’s a date night with my husband or some quiet time to write and read. For you it may be a trip to the gym or a relaxing bath. Whatever it is, you have to re-center yourself and to let go of the things you cannot control.

Thinking through how you will respond to these types of situations ahead of time is also helpful for reducing your stress levels. By having a plan of action for when a conflict arises, you can follow the steps you had already planned and you can feel confident that you are handling it in the best way possible for your family. You may decide that the next time you receive a heated email or text that you will not respond until the next day and that you will only address the core issue, not the emotions surrounding it.

If you have a decent relationship with the other parent a straightforward conversation would likely defuse this type of situation, but that approach won’t always work in a high-conflict environment. Sometimes all you can do is to try and understand the other parent’s point of view and then move on. Many times the best response is no response, especially if you feel it will only escalate the situation. You cannot control the other person’s reactions or response to a situation, but you can protect yourself and your home by not carrying additional anger into it. And lastly, repeat after me…..this too shall pass!

Boundaries in a Stepfamily

Amy Bellows, PhD

Amy Bellows holds a PhD in Psychology and has had the opportunity to work in various settings including leading adolescent group therapy sessions, working with victims of sexual assault, helping woman inmates adjust to post-prison life, conducting parenting education classes and assisting with drug and alcohol dependency treatment plans. The unique challenges and opportunities that come along with being a part of a step-family is a special interest of hers. Amy is currently working in the corporate environment with a interest in group dynamics and change management. You can find her on her website, or on Twitter @AmyBellowsPhD.

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APA Reference
Bellows, A. (2015). Boundaries in a Stepfamily. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 19, 2020, from


Last updated: 29 Aug 2015
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