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February 15, 2022

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 68

How Should Step-Parents Fit In?

Episode 68

A step-parent asks for Dr. Lisa’s help as she finds herself parenting three kids under eight, two of them step-children. Should step-parents discipline differently? Dr. Lisa talks about what parents can do to keep kids from feeling stuck in a loyalty conflict between their parent and step-parent. Reena asks about common mistakes step-parents make when forming a relationship with step-kids. Dr. Lisa also explains how weekday parenting can be different from weekend parenting. She maps out how you can create a framework to make multiple households run smoothly. What do you do if one home feels like Disney World and another is more strict? The co-hosts discuss how playing the long-game can make all the difference.

February 15, 2022 | 28 min

Transcript | How Should Step-Parents Fit In?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 68: How Should Step-Parents Fit In?


The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional

mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,

consult a physician or mental health professional.


REENA: Boy, we’ve gotten such incredible feedback about our divorce episode last month.


LISA: I’m so glad we did that. I mean, we really scratch the surface, Reena. You know, marriages and divorces and co-parenting are such complex things, but I was glad that we got into it.


REENA: And I also felt it was really valuable just talking about dealing with conflict with your spouse or partner and how that can affect your kids.


LISA: Yeah, whether you’re married or not.


REENA: Yeah, we got so much feedback. People are even asking, I’m a step parent, how do I help? And we just realized, we’ve got to do a follow up on this but dealing with step parents, and this letter came in, Lisa. It says: ‘Hello Lisa, I have two step daughters, 8 and 5. When their dad, my husband, and their mom split up three years ago. Mom had full custody, but now we have full custody. They’re with us during the week and with their mom during the weekend. Over the last year, their mom has been in and out, very inconsistent in all manners. When she was more consistent, the girls were well behaved. However, the past six months have been especially hard on the 5-year-old. I feel like some of her emotions she’s taking out on me as her step mom. As a step-parent, my husband wants me to play a parent role, especially since we have our own 2-year-old son, but I’m having a hard time determining the role of a step-parent, especially when it comes to discipline. What’s your advice on a step-parent role, while maintaining a parent role with your biological child, especially when you’re with children and do most of the caring for the step-children more so than their biological parents. Thank you.’ Boy, there’s a lot in this letter.


LISA: There is, and it’s a really complicated dynamic, right? There’s an 8-year-old who’s managing well, it sounds like, behaviorally, a 5-year-old who’s having a hard time, and then this mom also has a 2-year-old, who’s her biological 2-year-old, and it sounds like she’s sort of frontline on parenting and doing a lot of the hands-on parenting, and there’s a complex back story.


REENA: So, I want to ask you first, should step-parents discipline differently?


LISA: The short answer is yes, and one of the things that is a well-established principle in the world of, you know, family life and parenting and step-parenting, is that ideally, the proper role of the stepparent is sort of like friendly aunt or uncle, you know, that kind of invested adult who really cares about you, but isn’t making the rules, or always enforcing the rules, you know, it’s it’s such a good metaphor, you know, because we can all picture the, you know, invested aunt or uncle, who’s like, I like you kid, I’m here to make your life better, I’m here to guide and support, but not necessarily taking lead on the harder parts of parenting. So, under ideal conditions, you know, or easier conditions than these, that’s the guidance, and what I’ll say is that morphs over time. I actually was largely raised by a stepfather and my mom, and my folks divorced when I was 3, and then my mom and stepfather married when I was 6, and so I’ve had a very long, long, long relationship with my stepfather, who I just adore, and I remember personally how it developed over time, you know, that in the beginning, especially, aunt or uncle is a really good model, and then for a lot of kids and a lot of blended families, that fades and gives way to what feels much more like a traditional parenting relationship, but time is essential to that if you have it, though, it’s not clear that this letter-writer has it.


REENA: And also in this, if you’ve got a biological parent who isn’t parenting or even if they are, if you’re not on the same page, how do you deal with that?


LISA: That’s really tricky, right? And, you know, even as you read the letter, there is a structural configuration in here that’s hard, which is that the biological mother has the kids on the weekend and the writer and her husband have the kids on the week, during the week, and, you know, there’s all sorts of complexities about kids going back and forth and how that feels for them, but you know, the weeks and the weekends feel different. You know the weeks you’re like, you’ve got to go to bed, you’ve got to get your homework done, you’ve got to brush your teeth, you’ve got to stop messing around, and the weekends are looser and easier in family life, and so even the way this is structured, besides the fact that we’ve got a step-parent who’s doing it sounds like a lot of the on-the-ground parenting, even though the way this is structured in the week is going to make it hard, again, you know, even if the biological mom were very consistent and very regular, weekend parenting looks different from weekday parenting, and the rules are different, and so it’s hard for kids to be moving between those two times a week and then especially when those two times a week map on the different several expectations right so we can see this from all sides that, you know, the kids may feel like, wow, it’s kind of loose or lighter or, you know, maybe inconsistent over at mom’s house on the weekends and we come back and here come the rules, and that’s not so fun, and then the person giving us the rules isn’t our mom, you know, and in it you can also see where this step-parent is feeling like, am I going to let the 5-year-old just in how have a hard time and and not do anything to intervene? So, it’s one of those where the best way to walk up to it, and we’ll really get down to business on what this step mom should do, is with, you know, as little finger pointing as possible, everybody in this is in a tricky spot.


REENA: So, what do you find? I mean obviously I’m sure every step-parent wants to be loved and admired and get along well with these kids, but that’s not always the case. How do you work towards that relationship?


LISA: Well, it’s easy when things are going well, right? It’s easy when kids are behaving and, you know, I get the sense in this letter writer that that’s sometimes been the case, and that it’s gone well, and, you know, this is not someone who’s trying to overstep bounds. What gets really hard, and I think what, you know, prompted this letter is, okay but what about when the 5-year-old’s out of line in front of me and I’m the only one there? and she doesn’t say this, but I also think about, and then I have my own 2-year-old watching it. Like I can’t, even if it’s like ignorable, I can’t really ignore it because I’m trying to get my 2-year-old to understand what it means to be a socialized human being, and it’s not going to help the situation if the 5-year-old is doing stuff that I would not allow the 2–year-old to do. So, this to me feels like the crux of the matter, you know, the really delicate moment of, I don’t want to, you know, kind of parent this 5-year-old in a way that feels heavy-handed, but I also can’t let this behavior go, and it sounds like her husband has basically said, go for it, please parent the kid.


REENA: Yeah.


LISA: So, here’s what I would suggest, and it’s not going to be perfect but it may be, you know, a bit of a solution. The goal here is we’re trying to keep the kids out of a loyalty conflict, out of a sense of, you’re not my mom, you don’t get to tell me what to do, and if I let you tell me what to do, I am acting as though you are my mom, which feels really bad inside because you’re not my mom, and I don’t want my mom to think somehow I’m putting someone else on her level or, you know, even worse, maybe taking her place. So, that’s the inner psychology that we’re trying to address. So, the way I would have this parent consider doing this, is when she’s with her partner, her husband, they maybe sit with the 5-year-old, and the husband says, all right, cookie, I’m not here all the time. You know, your step-mom and I both care about you and I love you like crazy, your step mom loves you too. She’s going to be the one who’s sometimes helping you make good choices, and I have asked her to do that. I know she’s not your mom. She knows she’s not your mom, but she’s a grownup who’s here with you to keep you safe and help you make good choices. So, when she’s asking me to do that, it’s my request. It’s coming from me, your dad, and she’s here to help, but something to try to push away the loyalty conflict, to let the little girl know, like this is, in some ways, proxy dad, not step-mom trying to be mom. What do you think, Reena?


REENA: That’s interesting. So, you’re having the biological parent lay that groundwork to be like, look, you like me, we need to make this work. This is my proxy, and here’s why, and do you find that having that talk works with kids? I mean because they’re so emotional. The mom’s even admitting this the step-mom is admitting this 5-year-old is really emotional right now.


LISA: You know, I think it does work. I think it can work, and I think the two things that are built into that spiel, from the father, are first of all just laying it out and saying directly to the 5-year-old, she’s not your mom and she’s not trying to be your mom, and that is what kids need to hear.




LISA: And Reena, one of the, you know, when I think about having practiced for a long time and what have I seen? Like don’t create a loyalty conflict for a kid and their parent. Like don’t do it, right? So, it would not, I think, often occur to a level-headed grown up that telling a 5-year-old to stop throwing their peas on the floor is creating a loyalty conflict.


REENA: Yeah.


LISA: But it can feel like that to the kid, and so the simple act of saying, look, I’m not your mom. I’m not trying to be your mom, but you and I both know you can’t throw your peas on the floor, is worth it because you take the loyalty conflict piece out of it and you just take it down to, you and I both know that can’t be happening, and so I’m asking you to stop. So the first part is you get the loyalty conflict out, and then the second part is this idea of, kiddo, it’s about you making good choices. It’s about this being a, you know, a real reasonable and kind grown up who’s going to help you make good choices that you can feel good about. So, it stops being between the little girl and the step-mother and pushes a little bit more towards the little girl doing what she’s going to feel good about for herself, and that the step-mother is the proxy actor on behalf of the father to help the child make the good choices. So, it gets kind of convoluted when we say it all that way, but these are small adjustments that can actually go pretty far.


REENA: Lisa, I want to ask you, what do you find over the years you’ve seen that are mistakes that step-parents make in the beginning?


LISA: I think it’s actually airing too much in the direction of trying to be a parent or too much in the direction of not being an adult. So, actually let’s start with the not being an adult one. I think sometimes, you know, put in that place of, you know, being a step-parent and not wanting to create a loyalty conflict, not wanting to overstep one’s bounds, I’ve watched step-parents be entirely hands off with kids, you know, like not even aunt or uncle. You know, basically like, you know, just really, really trying to stand all the way back, and again, it’s well-meaning, you know, it comes from a place of not wanting to muddle in in a way that’s unhelpful, but if I picture this 5-year-old starting to really get into some behavior that is problematic, and if I picture, let’s go back to the step-mother, if she does nothing or is very reserved and very removed and is like,  wait til your father comes home, you know, or whatever, it feels really weird for kids when they’re doing things they know they’re not supposed to do, an adult is standing there and witnessing it, and not stepping in, and so I do think it’s worth step-parents trying to develop a vocabulary and a system around saying, look, I know I’m not your mom, I know I’m not your dad, but I’m a grownup, and you and I both know that you can’t be doing that and I’m here to help you make good choices and I’m here to help keep you safe, like a teacher would, right? Kids are used to that idea, like there’s lots of going to tell kids what to do who are not trying to be their parents. So, putting that framework around it I think can be important. And then at the other extreme is, you know, super well-meaning where the step-parent’s like, isn’t this wonderful? Now you have two dads in addition to your mom who I married, I mean, you know, in heterosexual configurations here, you know, you have two dads. You’ve got your dad, and now you’ve got me too, right? There is really not a kid on the planet who’s going to be like, this is great. I mean that will feel so uncomfortable for kids.


REENA: Yeah.


LISA: So uncomfortable for kids, and, again, well-meaning, but it just steps in it from the loyalty stuff and feels terrible for the kid and also probably doesn’t feel that good for the biological, in this particular scenario, the biological dad. Like can you imagine being in a divorce situation and having the other step-parent seem to be in competition for your role? Like that’s that’s going to take divorce, which is already so complicated and delicate, and not help the situation.


REENA: Yeah, I want to go back to this letter because the, you know, the mom is writing and asking, or the step-mom here, saying the 5-year-old has emotional issues because the mom is just so inconsistent. What do you think is causing it? Is it the inconsistency that’s causing her to be so emotional?


LISA: It could be. It could be. It’s really hard for kids when parents are inconsistent and, you know, when you read the letter there’s something else, it’s interesting that the visitation, it sounds like, changed a lot or flipped a lot, and the term full custody doesn’t necessarily mean physical custody. There’s legal and physical, so it sounds like the girls still visit back and forth, but it sounds like they used to spend a lot more time with their mom and now are spending a lot more time with their dad. So, when I hear that, I’m like, okay, something happened here, you know, there’s a backstory here that we don’t need to know, but this has not been entirely straightforward as far as the visitation goes, so there’s complexities and the letter-writer has a lot of information about this and probably has a lot of feelings about it, right? About what’s happened, and so then she’s looking at this child, who, if we go with the inferences that are in the letter, is feeling uncomfortable and very likely, perhaps, feeling uncomfortable because that child’s mom is struggling in her way, and so one of the things we want to think through is how should the step-parent positioned herself with regard to the real or perceived shortcomings of the biological mother, right? Like this is a really interesting question. What do you think, Reena? Like what would your senses, if you’re the step-parent in this, what do you think the thoughts and feelings might be about that mom?


REENA: First, my priority would be, especially if this is a Monday through Friday arrangement, you just want things to function well in your household, right? That’s just priority number one for me, but if you’ve got this variable that’s constantly changing and there’s no consistency, I don’t even know where to begin. You know, like I don’t want to bad mouth the parent, and the child is only 5, right? They’re still in elementary school.


LISA: Maybe kindergarten. That’s really young.


REENA: Yeah. So, I just am at such a loss. I wouldn’t even know where to begin.


LISA: Okay, but I mean what you said, like it really does bring us to the reality, which is mostly, in family life, you’re trying to get through the day.


REENA: Totally.


LISA: So, you’ve got this step-mom who’s trying to get through the day and has, let’s just be clear, three children under the age of 8 on her hands, right?


REENA: Right.


LISA: So she’s got a lot going on. Eight and under. So, we picture the moment where maybe like it’s the witching hour, dinner time is being, you know, she’s trying to get dinner on the table with or without help, and the 8-year-old may be holding it together quite nicely, the 2-year-old, you know, is a complete wild card in this and is probably not being helpful at dinnertime, and then you’ve got a 5-year-old who could be helpful but isn’t being helpful, and we can see where tempers might get very short and nerves may be frayed, and the 5-year-old might be doing something that in the biological mom’s house is okay, but in this home is not okay, and if the step-parent were inclined to or sometimes felt coming out of their mouth words like, you do with your mom but you don’t do it here, that’s not okay what you’re doing, you know, which implies the thing you do at your mom’s house is not okay and it kind of feels like a criticism of the mom.  If that were to happen, I would certainly understand it. Like I would not think that that was a completely inexplicable outcome, but it may not be what we want. So, one thing that can really help, there’s a couple ways to go at this, one thing that can really help is to first remember kids don’t need their parents to be consistent with each other. So, what I mean is in two-home situations, kids do not need the same rules in both homes, and they don’t need the same expectations in both homes.


REENA: What? Really?


LISA: They really don’t. They really don’t.


REENA: But then aren’t you setting yourself up because then the kids are like, okay I can get away with this, this home and I can eat, watch video games and eat ice cream in my underwear all day long.


LISA: Well, and that is exactly how it often goes down in two-home situations. Like, you know, there’s the Disneyland home and then there’s the business week home. So, it’s not great, you know, if the expectations are all over the map because it does create the sense of, you know, we get to be hog wild over there, why can’t we be hog wild here? And that’s not ideal for kids, but what’s really, really interesting is so long as the homes are pretty consistent internally, kids are good at switching gears, you know, and it’s the same way like they know how they’re allowed act at school and they know how they’re allowed to act at home and they know how they’re allowed to act at grandma’s house and they know how they’re allowed to act at the other grandma’s house, right?


REENA: Yeah.


LISA: Kids are pretty good at moving across domains, and so that the other parent doesn’t parent, like these two, like the step mom and the mom don’t parent in the same way is not actually a giant problem. It’s tough on the kids if the biological mom is not very consistent herself internally, you know, if sometimes there’s rules, sometimes there’s not, like that’s tough, but it’s okay. Our kids can manage one house having one set of rules that’s very different from how you do things at the other house. But the way to help them with this without making commentary on the other house is to say things like, let me show we do this here. Let me show you how we do this here. If you’re wanting to get yourself a snack, let me show you how we do this here. Instead of rifling through the pantry and throwing it all on the floor, you can ask me and I will lay out options, right? And so, obviously at some level there’s a bit of a commentary on the other family and how they do things, but it’s a pretty clean, neat way to say like, let me remind you the context you’re in, and let me just show you how you do this here, and the kid’s trying to accomplish something, right? That’s what we always have to remember about what we call bad behavior. There’s a goal. There’s an aim. There’s something they’re trying to get done. And so if whoever the grownup in charge is can try to figure out what the kid was trying to accomplish, oh you want my attention, let me show you how to do this here. All you have to do is come up, put your hand on my wrist, I know that you’re going to want to interrupt what I was doing and I am, you know, from that conversation with somebody and the second I’m free I’m all yours. Like give them parameters for how we do it here. The question of the mother being inconsistent over at that home, that one belongs to the dad.


REENA: But what if the dad doesn’t want to deal with it and it’s stuck on your plate.


LISA: Well then that’s, I think, an important and probably hard conversation between the step-mom and the dad. And this is the other place where step-parents fit in. They can help with coaching and supporting the divorced parent, and especially, Reena, like let’s think about teenagers for a minute. Like these are younger kids, but, you know, teenagers and being, you know, a parent who’s parenting teenagers in a divorce situation, sometimes teenagers can be really spicy in that, you know, and be really difficult in that and so the step-parent may want to step in and be like, do not speak to your father that way, or whatever, doesn’t work very well. What does work better is, you know, that the biological parent is on the frontline, and then there’s a huddle where the biological parent and the step-parent can go debrief, like I can’t believe the kid just said that, and the step-parent can say like, yeah I really hate watching that happen. Like do you want to try this? Can I tell you I think you’re great, even though your kid doesn’t think you’re so great right now? So, the step-parent can help with parenting in some ways by doing backup coaching and support for the biological parent. Like that is actually a critical role. So, I could see some pretty important conversations between this thoughtful step-mom and her husband about like, okay, I’m a little worried about how things are going down at your ex’s house. What do you know? Can we think this through together? Is there any way we can better support their mom so that she can be more consistent? Is there anything we can be doing to help the situation to the degree that something needs to be said to the girls about it, it should be coming out of the dad’s mouth.


REENA: Okay.


LISA: So, it’s helpful to think about this step-parent being able to move around in these different roles and be supporting parenting all the while without necessarily doing super hands-on, this is coming from me and, you know, I’m going to act like your parent right now.


REENA: I had never thought about the coaching, first off, as the role of a stepparent. I do want to ask you, though, about teens and college students because I think the way you approach step-parenting must be different in those years, no?


LISA: It can be. I think a lot of it comes down to how new is the marriage?


REENA: Yeah.


LISA: Because, you know, it happens sometimes, Reena, that people wait til their kids go off to college too right split up.


REENA: Right. Yep.


LISA: So that’s a whole other ball of wax, but it can also happen that, you know, these are well-established marriages, and then a lot of it comes down to, I mean it’s interesting thinking about kids going off to college, you know you kind of picture that moment of everybody taking the kid to college, like who goes? How does that look? You know, who’s putting the dresser together? Could toes get stepped on? And I think, it spins off in so many different directions, but I think it brings us to a really good principle, righ? That can apply at all ages, which is, all the grownups want the same thing, which is for the kids to thrive.


REENA: Yeah.


LISA: And all the grown ups have assets that they can bring to that, and if we go back to what we talked about in the divorce episode of don’t talk bad about the other adults, you can affirm realities that your kids are observing but don’t start it, and if we go back to that idea of cheering for the other adults and the important place they play in the young person’s life, you kind of can’t get it wrong.


REENA: There’s a lot to think about. I mean, especially with blended families. What do you have for us, Lisa, for parenting to go?


LISA: For parenting to go, I want to underscore something that came up, time is on your side. I think when people have gone through divorces and then re-marriages, the wish for everything to start to look like the Brady Bunch, you know, with this blended family where everybody is having a blast and it’s all kind of cute, I think you can feel like there’s a wish to rush to that position or one can speed one’s way to it, and in my experience, being respectful and cautious and moving slowly sets things up quite nicely down the line, and that development is long, parenting is complicated. If a step-parenting relationship is under way, play the long game. Trust that over time, the relationships will be established and trust will be established and you really can’t speed it up. Time is your best asset here.


REENA: Patience. That’s a great reminder. Sometimes it’s in short supply, but play the long game, it can really pay off. Next week join us for an encore episode. Lying, Sneaking, Cheating: What Keeps Kids From Being Honest? I’ll see you next week, Lisa.


LISA: I’ll see you next week, Reena.



The advice provided by Dr. Damour here will not and does not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

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