Posts tagged stepfathering

8 tools for stepdads



Anyone who has been a father and then a stepfather knows that they aren’t the same.  While many aspects of these two roles are similar, it is the unique ones that lead to disillusionment.  As one stepfather said, “I’ve studied fathering with my men’s group many times.  But nothing has prepared me for being a stepfather.  With my own kids I have a natural leadership authority that allows me to teach them and be directive.  With my stepchildren I constantly feel like I’m one step behind, like I have to establish myself each time I engage them.”

Stepfathering can be challenging.  Perhaps that’s why many stepfathers disconnect from their stepchildren emotionally and withdraw from daily responsibilities. The unmapped territory seems to have many land minds and it’s easier to just retreat than to engage the “enemy.”  But stepfathers can have profound and important leadership roles with stepchildren.  Like Joseph, who wasn’t Jesus’ biological parent, stepfathers can offer guidance, love, and encouragement to the children under their care.

All stepparents need to understand the emotional condition of their stepchildren.  For example, being aware of the child’s emotional wounds and hurts from past losses is vital to coping with the sometimes angry or oppositional attitudes of children in stepfamilies.  To learn more about this dynamic, read this series of articles on Smart Stepparenting.

It is also very important for stepfathers to recognize that gaining respect and leadership from stepchildren is a process; you earn the right to lead by developing trust and connection with stepchildren. You must be willing, for example, to enter the child’s life as an “outsider” who slowly finds acceptance, at the child’s pace.

For many men it is very disturbing to realize that their stepchildren get to determine the pace at which they find acceptance within the family.  And it’s true — you don’t get to control your parental status — the children do.  They will open their hearts to you when they are ready.  Until then, you must cope with feeling out-of-control and find ways to work within the system as it is.  Here are some tools that might help.

1. Initially, provide indirect leadership

There are two kinds of influence (or power) in relationships: 1) positional power and 2) relational power.  Initially, as a stepfather, you have positional power because you are an adult in the house who is married to the children’s mother.  Much like a teacher at school, you have positional power.  As your relationship with the children grows, often over a period of years, you gain relational power because they now care about you personally.  Your opinions matter more, your validation is sought after, and your warm embrace feels safe.

In the beginning, when limited to positional power, effective stepfathers provide indirect leadership in their homes by leading through their wives who hold a great deal of relational power with the children. Work with her behind the scenes to establish boundaries, expectations, and the values that will govern your home.  While she might be the one to communicate the values and hand down discipline, you can still be very responsible to set a godly tone for the family.

2. Express your commitment to your stepchildren’s mother

Keep in mind that early on this may not be considered positive by your stepchildren.  In fact, they may be threatened by it. Children who hold a strong fantasy that their parents will reconcile can find your commitment a barrier to life as they would have it.

Additionally, mom’s remarriage (whether following a death or divorce) is often perceived as another loss to children, not a gain (as you see it).  Be patient with their adjustment to your marriage, but communicate your commitment to the permanency of the marriage nevertheless.

3. Communicate your role

It’s important to verbalize your understanding of your role.  Children need to hear that you know that you’re not their dad and won’t try to take his place.  Communicating that same understanding to their father is also very helpful to him; hopefully this will help him to not fear your involvement with his kids. As his fear decreases, his cooperative spirit about your presence may increase.

Finally, tell your stepkids that you are looking forward to your growing relationship and that you know how awkward that can be for the child.  Let them know that if they feel stuck between you and their dad, they can make you aware of it and it won’t hurt your feelings.

4. Be a spiritual leader

Many stepfathers discover that sharing faith-matters is, in addition to spiritual training for the child, a good way to connect emotionally.  Processing the moral content of a TV program or “thinking out loud” about your decision not to spend money on a bigger fishing boat helps children see your character and learn important spiritual values at the same time.  Show them you are a person worthy of respect and they’ll eventually give you respect.

5. Be approachable

As a therapist, I always know I’m going to have a tough time helping a family when the stepfather is defensive and easily hurt by the typical reactions of stepchildren.  Part of being approachable and accessible to stepchildren is knowing that not everything is about you.  In fact, most of a kid’s negative reactions to stepparents are really about the child’s losses (stepparents just happen to be the easy target for child’s heartache).

Until you have worked through the struggles of building a relationship, most of what a kid throws at you is a test of your character.  Show yourself not easily offended and able to deal with their emotional ups and downs.  This will make it more likely that they see you as someone they can trust.

6. Show appreciation

If you want to win someone’s heart, give them a thousand compliments (even when they aren’t asking for it).  Showing appreciation is the quickest way to build someone up and help them to feel comfortable in your presence.  By contrast, be cautious with criticism.  Words of affirmation go a long way to engendering safety and closeness.

7. Spend time together

Find time to be with your stepchildren, but do so with wisdom.  If a child does not welcome your presence, join his life at a distance.  This means taking them to their soccer game and cheering from the sidelines, but not being too much of a coach.  It also means knowing what’s important to him and gently inquiring with interest: “You studied for three hours last night for that science exam.  How did it go?”  “I know you’ve got a big date this Friday.  I noticed a concert in the paper today that you might consider attending.  I think she’d like this, but it’s your call whether you go.”

Also, if you say you’re going to be somewhere, be there.  Don’t disappoint a child who is deciding whether to let you into their heart.

As your relationship grows, you can spend one-on-one time with the child, go on special retreats together, and serve side-by-side in your church’s summer work camp.  Focused time will deepen the trust and emotional bond in your relationship.

8. Manage your stress and anger

Children are quick to forgive biological parents when they make mistakes (and we all do).  But they aren’t as forgiving of stepparents.  When stress and conflict arise (and they will!) make sure you manage yourself well.

The child’s assessment of your character won’t include how they contributed to the conflict, even if they intentionally “pushed you.”  All they will see is an angry person.  Keep in mind that one task for children is to determine whether loving their stepfather is worth the risk.  Give them every reason to believe it is.

This, of course, does not mean that you can’t ever get angry or stressed.  But it does mean that you manage your emotions and not overreact toward the child or her mother.  Communicate through your actions that it is safe for the child to be vulnerable around you and you’ll notice her softening with time.

Advice for stepdads … from stepdads



“Take my instruction instead of silver,
and knowledge rather than choice gold,
for wisdom is better than jewels,
and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.”
(Prov. 8:10-11 ESV)

God’s Word offers profound and timeless life wisdom — and it should be sought after throughout our lives. There is another wisdom to be desired (albeit not nearly as perfect): the life wisdom shared by godly people who have walked before us and learned important lessons, sometimes from their mistakes.

When I was writing my book The Smart StepdadI assembled a focus group of stepfathers and asked them to share their best advice for stepdads. From stepdads, young and old, new and veteran, here are a few of their gems.

  1. Know your place. A smart stepdad understands that there is an inherent bind to his task: how can you be dad when you’re not dad? Obviously, you can’t. Instead, strive to be a calming, godly presence in the home, an added parent-figure for the children.
  2. It’s not your responsibility to undo the past. For example, years of poor parenting from your wife or her ex-husband, the negative consequences of divorce, or the pain children experience when a father dies is not yours to resolve. Come alongside these situations and try to offer a positive influence over time, but don’t try to be the knight in shining armor. Just love them.
  3. Move in with tact. Don’t be a bull in a china closet; respect children’s loyalties. “I became a stepfather when my stepdaughter was eight,” said Anthony. “Her father was very involved in her life and a good Dad. There just wasn’t room for me in her heart; therefore, we had a very strained relationship.” Anthony’s stepdad journey was challenging; had he forced his way in to the family, it would have been worse.
  4. Round off your rough edges. If your personality is naturally angry, critical, aggressive, controlling, or stubborn, don’t expect your stepchildren to warm up to you — and don’t expect your wife to entrust her children to you. You must manage these negative traits or you’ll find it nearly impossible to become a leader in your family.
  5. Partner with your wife. A mom needs to believe that you are committed to and care about her, her children, and her past experiences before you will receive her trust. Therefore, do a lot of listening before injecting your opinion; demonstrate an authentic appreciation for all she has done to provide for her children before trying to make suggestions. When you do suggestions, especially early on, be sure to reveal your heart’s intentions first. Consider the contrast between harshly saying, “Your son is a lazy boy. When are you going to make him get up in the morning and get to school on time?” and saying, “I have come to really care about your son David. I’m hoping to offer some guidance to him and better prepare him for life. I’ve noticed he’s struggling to manage his time and responsibilities with school. Can we talk about how we might encourage more responsibility in him?”
  6. Be equitable in parenting. Wade observed, “I’ve always felt that my wife has supported my authority with her kids as long as it was fair and equal to what I’d use to punish my kids.” If you ever want to turn your wife into an angry mother bear protecting her cubs, just show favoritism to your kids and treat hers unfairly. Believe me, you’ll awaken the bear.”
  7. Unless proven otherwise, assume your stepchildren would pick their dad over you. A huge step toward gaining your stepchildren’s respect comes by respecting their relationship with their father (even if deceased) and not positioning yourself in competition to him. Tim, a dad of two and stepdad to two understands this well. “I have always tried to keep in mind what I want my child to hear from my ex or her new husband about me. I then apply the Golden Rule to my stepkid’s dad.”
  8. Trust God to lead. Probably the one universal negative experience of stepdads is the feeling of uncertainty. If you find yourself wondering what to do and how to go about it, you’re in good company. From a spiritual standpoint, uncertainty is an invitation to faith. God always uses our “I don’t know what to do’s” to invite us to trust Him more — and we should. Don’t anguish because you don’t know what to do. Ask God to show you. Don’t panic in your uncertainty and give up on your family. Seek a word from the Spirit. Don’t assume you are alone. Find comfort and direction in His Word and press on.

If you’re a stepfather, we invite you to share your advice for stepdads below.

If you’d like more encouragement and equipping as a stepfather, visit FamilyLife Blended.

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