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Being an Effective Stepparent

I read a report last week that stated that over 1,300 new stepfamilies are forming every single day. Every day, children who are coping with the loss of one parent in the household through divorce, separation, or death, are trying to get to know a new person under their roof that has assumed a mother or father position in their lives. A person they never asked to be around, but are forced to accept as a result of their current life circumstances.

Situations like this can go very, very well. Many people I know have a great relationship with their stepmother or stepfather and some of my friends refer to their stepparents as their second mom or dad. They may not be biologically linked to their stepparent, but in their eyes, they might as well be. Their stepparents were there for them in good times and bad, cheered them on during their athletic events, and were as proud of them as their biological parents were when they succeeded.

That is a great situation; an IDEAL situation.

But unfortunately, not every child has a wonderful relationship with their stepparent. Not every child looks at a stepparent as another mom or dad; rather they are looked at as strangers or intruders in their home and guilty of taking time with their biological parent away from them. The bond never forms, a foundation of trust is never laid, and everyone in the family suffers. The child suffers, the biological parent who is trying to make everyone happy suffers, and the stepparent suffers.

I had a stepdad and our relationship was always less than ideal. He was my mother’s second husband; they met while she was working as a waitress at the Lord and Taylor restaurant. They married quickly and before I knew it, I was in a courtroom being adopted by this man that I barely knew and my last name was being changed to his. I was too young to truly understand what was going on, but I knew that I didn’t trust this man and I would never think of him as my father no matter what it said on a piece of paper.

A foundation of trust is integral to a good relationship between a stepparent/stepchild and my stepfather destroyed that foundation before him and my mother ever walked down the aisle and said “I Do” to each other. He beat me, in front of my mother, while she smiled and nodded her head. He whipped me with a belt over and over while my mother watched from the doorway. He called me names and slapped me in the face while my mother watched.

I had hoped that when Mom met a man that she would stop her abuse of me. I had hoped that maybe she would be happy when she found a man who loved her and that this man would force her to stop putting her hands on me. I was sorely disappointed when it turned out the man she married and the man who adopted me seemed to enjoy beating me as much as she did.

The foundation of trust was lost in the beginning and there was no hope of it ever being repaired. I was angrier at him for hitting me than I was at my own mother; I was angrier because I thought Mom had the right to hit me and abuse me; I was her child. This guy she married had no right to treat me as if I was his own child, no right to hit me, and no right to make me feel like garbage. I can actually look back on that time now and say that I truly hated him.

He stopped hitting me after a few years, he stopped calling me names, and he stopped making me feel like garbage. He became a quiet bystander to all of Mom’s abuse and preferred groaning when Mom started in on me and getting up and leaving the room. He refused to participate in the abuse anymore, but did nothing to protect me from Mom’s wrath.

Any father would protect their daughter from abuse and it was made clear to me that he wanted nothing to do with being my father. Because if he did, he would have stopped Mom the moment he saw her abuse me.

No trust = no relationship.

Kids don’t expect a stepparent to take the place of one of their real parents; they understand the situation that they are in and in the end, they just want everyone to be happy. But most importantly; they want to feel safe and loved by everyone in their household. They want to be able to trust that this new person in their lives will treat them kindly and with respect. They want to feel safe in their presence and trust that this new person will have their best interests at heart.

Being a stepparent isn’t easy; it’s hard to have a reminder of your spouse’s past relationship staring at you in the face every single day; but you have to remember that it is not the child’s fault. It isn’t their fault that they are in the situation that they are in, it isn’t their fault that their parent’s divorced, and it isn’t their fault if they are having a tough time getting close to you. Work on making them feel safe and loved; speak kindly to them, go to their games and practices to show them how important they are to you, and be there for them when they need it the most. Be the person you needed as a child and the rest will just fall into place.

Being an Effective Stepparent

Sarah Burleton NY Times bestselling author

Victoria Gigante Writes For Psych CentralSarah Burleton was born in a little town in Illinois to a very emotionally disturbed woman. Her first book, her child abuse memoir "Why Me," spent 26 weeks on the New York Times and the print version is endorsed by David Pelzer, author of "A Child Called It." Sarah is now realizing her goal in becoming an ambassador for abused children and adult survivors and is currently conducting workshops and seminars throughout the state. Her message of strength over adversity and her story will help counselors, teachers, and other professionals identify signs of abuse and learn ways to establish trust with an abused child.

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APA Reference
, . (2017). Being an Effective Stepparent. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 7, 2020, from


Last updated: 21 Feb 2017
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