Lesson 7 of 7 - Evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily

Traits of Effective Stepparents

They need special resources!

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Experts Council


The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/sf/co/sp.htm

Updated July 22, 2015

      Clicking underlined links here will open a new window. Other links will open  an informational popup, so please turn off your browser's popup blocker or allow popups from this nonprofit Web site. If your playback device doesn't support Javascript, the popups may not display. Follow underlined links after finishing this article to avoid getting lost.

      This is one of a series of lesson-7 articles on how to evolve a high-nurturance (functional) stepfamily. The "/" in re/marriage and re/divorce notes that it may be a stepparent's first union. "Co-parents" means both bioparents, or any of the related stepparents and bioparents co-managing a multi-home nuclear stepfamily.

      This YouTube video previews what you'll read in this article. The ideo entions eight lessons in thus self-improvement Web site - I've simplified that to seven:

      This article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it  

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 7

  • typical stepkids' adjustment needs

  • effective-parenting basics

  • typical traits and goals of effective parents;

  • how stepparenting differs from bioparenting; and...

  • Q&A about stepparenting and stepkids


Stepparenting Challenges

       A stepparent is someone who accepts part-time or full-time shared responsibility for nurturing their partner's minor or adult kids from a prior union. Stepparent and stepchild are roles, not people. "Dual-role" stepparents also care for their own biological kids.

      Effective parenting seeks to nurture young people toward wholistically-healthy independence, and to maintain a high-nurturance environment to minimize psychological kids' wounding and ignorance. This can be hard for typical stepparents to achieve for many reasons

      Most U.S. stepfamilies form after the divorce of one or both new mates. Divorce usually occurs because mates are psychologically wounded and don't know how to communicate and grieve effectively. Wounded people usually choose each other - repeatedly. This is one reason making informed, well-timed, courtship choices is so vital!

      Many kids of divorce had too little early-childhood nurturance from their psychologically-wounded, unaware caregivers. So typical stepparents are faced with wounded partners, ex-mates, stepkids, and relatives, which makes effective co-parenting teamwork hard or impossible.

      The caregiving goals of healthy bioparents and stepparents are the same. However, typical stepfamilies differ structurally and dynamically from  intact biofamilies in up to 30 ways - and the domestic, family, and social environments around stepparents differ in up to 40 ways from traditional bioparenting environments.

      Unless stepfamily members and supporters are aware of these many differences - which is uncommon - typical adults and kids will experience major confusion, doubt, conflict, frustration, and hurt, as stepparents try to learn and "do" their alien family role "well enough." This is specially true if they have no prior parenting experience.

      There is less informed social and media support available for typical stepparents than for bioparents. This means typical stepmoms and stepdads can feel isolated, confused, and discouraged - specially if (a) they have unrealistic role expectations, and (b) their mate and other family adults reject or ignore their stepfamily's identity and what it means.

      Even if they were raised in a stepfamily, typical bioparents without stepkids have a hard time empathizing with what it feels like to be a stepparent - specially if their new partner has little or no prior parenting experience.

      Bottom line - the role of stepparent is complex and challenging for many reasons. To be effective at this role over some years with kids of any age, men and women need special traits. What are they?

Traits of Effective Stepparents

      Based on my clinical research since 1979, the following checklist identifies the what average men and women need in order to be effective stepparents. These are in addition to the general traits of effective parents.

      Option - use this a worksheet to rate a stepparent. Don't check a trait below ( __ ) unless you can check all the subtraits ( _ ).

__ 1)  S/He _ has assessed for psychological wounds, and _ is working steadily to free her/his true Self to lead and reduce any wounds (Lesson 1).

__ 2)  S/He _ understands the toxic [wounds + unawareness] cycle, and _ actively encourages other family adults to guard the next generation against inheriting these stressors.

__  3)  In times of confusion and conflict, this stepparent puts personal wholistic health and integrity first, his/her primary relationship second, and all else third, unless there's an emergency.  

__  4)  S/He thoroughly researched stepfamily hazards, problems, and courtship danger signs before s/he committed to her/his stepparenting responsibilities;

__ 5)  S/He can describe _ the 16 things new-stepfamily members must merge and stabilize, and _ most of these typical merger tasks.

__ 6)  S/He...

_ has fully accepted our identity as a stepfamily, and...

_  is intentionally learning what being in a stepfamily means, and...

_  is intentionally forming realistic expectations about stepfamily roles, relationships, and tasks; and s/he...

_ is steadily encouraging other family adults and supporters to (a) accept our stepfamily identity and to (b) study and discuss online Lessons 1 thru 7

__ 7)  S/He _ is learning the special adjustment needs of typical stepchildren, and _ encourages other family adults to want to learn and discuss them together;

__ 8)  S/He _ has studied the environmental differences between stepparenting and bioparenting and _ encourages other family adults to learn and discuss them together;    

      More traits of effective stepparents...

__ 9)  S/He is working respectfully with other family adults to clarify and negotiate her/his child-raising responsibilities.

__ 10)  S/He has evolved an effective strategy to spot and manage family _ values and _ loyalty conflicts and _ relationship triangles; and _ s/he is steadily encouraging other family members (including kids) to do the same.

__ 11)  S/He usually enjoys _ being around young people and _ teaching and modeling life skills to them when appropriate.

__ 12) S/He intentionally seeks to help kids develop _ healthy morals, _ social responsibility, and _ spiritual awareness and growth.

__ 13) S/He _ is aware of the main differences between biofamily and stepfamily child discipline, and _ is usually effective in disciplining our kids and teens.

__ 14)  If s/he is a divorced parent, s/he is working patiently to reduce any blocks to co-parenting teamwork with her/his ex mate.

__ 15)  S/He _ can identify common losses (broken bonds) from divorce and parental re/marriage in adults and kids, and s/he _ is steadily supportive of family members grieving these and other losses.  

      Note that these effectiveness traits also apply to the biological parents and grandparents in a typical multi-home stepfamily system.


      "Stepparent" is a family role (set of responsibilities), not a person. The personal and child-raising goals of stepparents are the same as healthy bioparents, but their stepkids' adjustment needs and their stepfamily, and social environments differ from intact biofamilies in many ways.

      To nurture kids effectively over the years, typical stepmoms and stepdads need extra knowledge and resources compared to first-marriage bioparents. Based on clinical research since 1979, this article extends these general parenting traits to provide a checklist of things typical stepparents need to be effective in co-raising their stepchild/ren.

 + + +

Resource - try this free parenting competency inventory (on another Web site). If you do, note the absence of any reference to psychological wounds and the [wounds + unawareness] cycle.

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