How to Handle Conflict with Step-Children

The stepparent and stepchild dynamic can be something wonderful in the right circumstances. It can also be filled with a range of emotions that lean toward anger, jealousy, conflict, and even violence.

As the parent or stepparent of a teen, how do you handle the rollercoaster of emotions that accompany becoming a blended family?

The truth about stepfamily conflict

In households that have both biological parents present and involved, there are always going to be conflicts.

The truth is that families of all types disagree, argue, get frustrated, and experience conflict at some point. When you add in the complications of a blended family, the potential for conflict may increase.

Children in blended families are often shuttled between households, spending time with one parent and then the other. A routine can soon be established, but it can also lead to confusion, complications with scheduling, conflicting rules, different parenting styles, and disagreements between parents.

Conflict is expected in the biological family, but it’s even more of a concern in stepfamilies trying to navigate the new family dynamic. Let’s face it, many divorces take place because the spouses are not able to resolve conflicts. There’s no reason to think that new conflict resolution skills will appear once the family dynamic gets more complicated.

No matter the reasons for the divorce, it should not translate into any conflict between parents and stepparents. It should certainly not translate into any type of conflict between the stepparent and stepchild.

Defining your role in the family system

Stepparents are parents to the children in their lives. That said, your role will not be on par with the role of a biological parent in most situations.

Some things should be established as soon as is possible within the family, including:

  • While you want to be an active and involved stepparent, you don’t want to replace another parent who is no longer as much of a presence in the life of your stepchild.
  • Understand the rules of the household as established by the biological parent. This will make it easier to hold the line when your stepchild is breaking the rules. They are not your rules. They are just rules you are upholding.
  • Even if you get angry or frustrated with your stepchild’s behavior, don’t scold them or discipline them in ways that are not agreed upon by both biological parents. Your job is to protect the child, keep them safe, and report poor behavior to your spouse so that they can discipline as needed. This can feel counterintuitive to everything your parenting instincts are telling you, but it will go a long way to protecting the relationships with your stepchild and your spouse.
  • Don’t say anything unkind or critical about your stepchild’s biological parents. Even if a biological parent is no longer an active part of the child’s life, they may still hold a level of loyalty to the parent. It can put you on the side of the enemy if you are seen as critical of their parent.

Be as involved in the life of the child as is appropriate and possible. Children of all ages appreciate support from trusted adults in their life. Cheer for them at games, support them at dance recitals, encourage them to pursue their goals.

What to do when conflicts arise

Conflicts within the household can range from fussing over not eating vegetables, not following through on chores, missing curfew, poor behavior, and so much more. It can be a minefield to navigate the constant conflicts.

Here are some ways to handle conflict:

  • Keep the communication flowing. More conflict is likely to become a concern if there is any failure to communicate, whether between parents, spouses, or the stepchild and stepparent. Discuss things ahead of time where possible. Come up with a game plan for how to handle potential situations. Make sure that you and your spouse are aligned when it comes to parenting. There shouldn’t be different rules for your daughter than there are for your spouse’s daughter.
  • It comes down to trust. Your partner may trust you without hesitation, but trust can be hard to earn and build with your stepchild. Working toward gaining their trust is something you need to focus on, even if their behavior leads you to mistrust them.
  • Set realistic expectations. It would be great if the process of blending your family went smoothly. Pancakes for breakfast on Sunday, movie nights curled up on the sofa together, and bike rides around the neighborhood. We all want to create incredible memories with our children and stepkids. But setting the expectations too high can set you up for serious upset when your stepchild doesn’t want to participate or having anything to do with you initially.
  • Learn to let go of some control. When a child or teen is acting out, it’s tempting to want to lock them down and control what they do and where they go. While boundaries are important, you’re more likely to further anger a teen in an emotionally charged state. Instead, work with your spouse to establish restrictions and behavioral consequences. Remember that the household rules should apply to all children, whether they are your biological kids or your step kids.
  • Always be respectful. Angry children and teens can be pretty disrespectful to their parents. They can also be quite harsh to a stepparent, often taking their frustration and anger out on an easy target. Keep in mind that you are the adult, and you should avoid sinking to their disrespectful level. Maintain a calm demeanor and treat them with the respect that you deserve.
  • Don’t let it impact your marriage. Conflict with your stepchildren can lead to stress within the relationship with your spouse. While it’s bound to cause a bit of a rocky situation at times, the stronger united front you and your spouse present to the children, the more secure they will feel.

Getting professional help

If you are struggling with conflict between you and your stepchildren, professional help can be a huge benefit.

What this looks like will depend on the dynamics of your family. Some examples include:

  • Couples therapy with you and your spouse alone, so you can work on strengthening your partnership.
  • Family therapy with every member of the household. You may also want to consider therapy with the other involved parents so that you can work through any concerns you are all facing.
  • Therapy with you and your stepchildren. The initial sessions may be infused with high-running emotions. Having that neutral party, the therapist can help to diffuse some of the stress.

Teens struggling with adapting to the changes in their lives may also start to display signs of stress in other areas of their lives. They could begin to experiment with drugs or alcohol. They may start to struggle with their schoolwork. Getting them the right kind of help is essential not only to preserve your relationship with them but is also a necessary part of helping get their life back on track and within their control.

Your relationship with your stepchild does not always need to be filled with conflict and stress. When you hold steady, provide a constant presence in their lives, be there when they need you, and show them how much you care, you are sure to build their trust. With that trust, which can be slow to build, you’ll find that you develop an honest relationship with the new person in your life.

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