Health & Wellness

Life With Stepchildren

Making a life with someone can be a challenge, especially when your new flame has children; here’s some expert advice on finding your way 

By Caroline Fortin


When their mother or father finds a new partner in life, children—no matter their age— have a new relationship to navigate and so does their new step-parent. Becoming a step-parent brings with it both opportunities and potential difficulties. 

Louise, a 53-year-old primary-school teacher and mother, knows something about this. “I lived for 12 years with a man who had two young children: one was four years old, like my daughter at the time, and the other was eight,” she says. “We both wanted to create a family, and we succeeded, without parenting conflicts. When we separated, our kids were like siblings. Now I’ve been with the father of a 17-year-old daughter and a 20-year-old son for two years, and it’s a completely different reality. My relationship with his son is simple, but with his daughter…you could sum her attitude up as polite indifference.” 

Concerns and Challenges

The age of stepchildren definitely makes a difference. “Adolescence is a time of maturing, when there’s a desire for affirmation—and independence,” says Charles Paradis, a family and couples therapist in Quebec City. “Teens—unlike children under the age of four—are aware of conflicting loyalties. And like many adults, kids of all ages don’t like new things, change, or unpredictability. The arrival of another person in the family unit can therefore be seen as a threat. If the kids are adults, the impact of a new union is less, because these are people who have individuated and become independent from their parents, who have their own life.” 

Several other factors can influence integration. Maryse Pépin, a special-education teacher, a coach at Le Voilier Family Coaching in Saint-Basile-le-Grand, Que., and a mother and stepmother, lists a few: “The quality of the relationship between the biological parents, the way their separation was handled, whether they badmouth each other’s new partner, how shared custody is working, the personalities of the adults and their beliefs that can clash, whether a move is involved, whether it’s the first partner or the fifth….” She adds one more important consideration: “If there were a number of breaks in relationships in the past, the child will be more afraid to get attached.” 

A common fear for both the step-parent and the stepchild is where they will fit into the picture. “The child, generally speaking, wants their biological parents to get back together,” Paradis explains. “They therefore need to find their place in this new union. They wonder if they’ll lose their significant relationship and time spent with their parent.” The step-parent, meanwhile, wonders what place they can have in this established family structure, especially if their own minor children come with them into this new adventure. If they don’t have children, they may also worry about adapting to an unfamiliar and demanding routine. 

This concern definitely played a role in Louise’s relationship with her new stepdaughter, Claire. “Her parents stayed together as long as they could to avoid breaking up the family,” Louise says, “but they said nothing about their marital problems to their children, who were shocked when their parents separated. Claire was used to being treated as a princess by her father, who did whatever she asked. She had never really seen her parents show each other affection either. So, knowing that her father found someone new ‘quickly’ (in her view), seeing us sitting close to each other on the couch made her visibly upset.” 

The Keys to Acceptance

Time, patience, and respect are essential. But there’s more: 

  • Respect the other person. “We can’t make ourselves love a child who isn’t ours, and vice versa, but they need to grow up in a harmonious and respectful environment,” Pépin says.
  • Define your role. “Since the idea is to create a new family structure, at least when the couple lives together, the step-parent should be encouraged to have some influence with the children, to take on a certain disciplinary role,” Paradis says. They don’t replace the parent, but they can also listen, console, scold, and support.
  • Communicate. “Partners must talk about the role of the step-parent, how involved they will be in discipline, and let the kids know,” Pépin says. “For example, my daughter knows that when I’m not there, my partner will give instructions and set the curfew, and she has to follow those. They must also state their expectations, the key values that they want to pass on to the kids, as well as what I call the red lights: what is unacceptable, such as verbal or physical violence.”

Communication must be maintained over time to express dissatisfactions, needs, painful feelings, and limits so that discomfort doesn’t grow, take up space, and lead to frustrations that harm the couple and family relationship. 

  • Commit. “The partner can make things easier by giving the step-parent responsibilities—picking up the little one at daycare, practising driving with the eldest—and giving them space when a conflict arises so they can develop their parental authority,” Paradis says. “The attachment bond happens through the gift of ourselves, when we truly engage in difficult moments, such as when the child is sick and the step-parent is taking care of them.”

It’s also important to spend time alone with your stepchildren, just as you do with your own children, Pépin adds. “I call these heart-to-heart moments, where there is no agenda—you’re just having fun, you show that you are interested in the child, you ask them questions.” 

Behaviours to Avoid

  • Making a child feel unwanted. “If I’m watching TV with my partner and sigh when his daughter comes to sit with us, she’ll sense my non-verbal feelings; that can cause harm,” Pépin warns.
  • Putting down the child or their other parent. “This applies no matter how old the stepchild is,” Pépin says. “We must never make them feel that they are disappointing us or are not meeting our expectations. We may not agree with the other parent’s rules or opinions, but we keep our thoughts to ourselves and explain that things work differently here, that other ways of thinking, even when they’re different, are not in competition.”
  • Giving up when it gets hard. “You need to understand that changing a family system involves some resistance and takes time—it’s evolving,” Paradis says. “You need to avoid blaming yourself. I like to see relationships as a three-step process: you are connected, there is a disconnection, and then you repair the connection. In very subtle ways, this can happen 10 times a day, with a partner or other family members.” It’s important to keep things in perspective.