Stepping It Up: Step Parent Advice

Thinking of moving in together? If you have kids from a previous relationship, there’s more than just two hearts to think about.

stepchild advice

Nadezhda Prokudina /123RF Photo

My darling Singularians, these days modern families come in more varieties than Starbucks lattes. We who are single are often faced with “love me, love my ‘adorable’ children, Damien and Cruella.” Or we’re on the other side, where we want the one we’re dating to love our little darlings the same way we do.

Under the best of conditions, “stepping it” is a challenge. Under the worst, you’ll be stepping into a minefield of hurt and regret – for everyone involved. So today, I’m giving you a “Singular Solution” – one letter that I received on this tough topic that allows me to vent all I know and have learned from having five step-kids of my own. Let’s look.


Dear Marnie: I have been seeing my boyfriend for several months and we have discussed living together (I’m 41, he’s 49). We both have children at home. He has a 15-year-old daughter and I have two sons, 13 and 16. His daughter seems to like me and my sons like him. But the kids have totally different personalities. They see each other at school, but that’s about it. How do we go about combining households in a way that would be the least stressful for the kids? Is it even possible? Our plan is to live in his house because it’s bigger, but I don’t want his daughter to feel like we’ve invaded her space. How can we achieve our goal of being together without hurting the kids any more than they’ve already been hurt? We’re both divorced. – Beth from Beverly Hills

MARNIE SAYS: How brave of you to ask. How smart of you to quiver. Since half of all remarriages include “his” and “hers” these are questions that should be asked far more often before “trading” spaces because you’re right. There are minefields ahead but different personalities among the kids aren’t necessarily the deal-breaker. In time, this can be part of their … charm. Rather, it’s what you expect and how you prepare that will decide if this will be a Brady Bunch or a bust.

Getting It! Your Personal Step-Parenting Strategies:


* Don’t over-expect. Assign all that “Marsha Marsha Marsha” step-sib blather the reality of flying pink elephants. These are children who had their hearts broken. They didn’t ask for this third new household (“Theirs, His, Yours”). Don’t anticipate instant approval, love, and understanding.

* Don’t put children before your mate. Yes, they’re pulling up the near rear. But you and he must unite in love − and a firm peace plan, so the little ones can’t divide and conquer.

* Don’t push it. Avoid crowding each other with “too much” (love, interaction, demands) too soon. Blending this alien mixture takes anywhere from a few years to decades before it becomes “soup.”

* Don’t chew the inside of your cheek or quickly misjudge if there’s a fly in yours.   Adjustment requires patience and a large dollop of optimism. This is the time to accentuate the positives and teach this delicate art to the children.

* Don’t come between, argue with, or assume the role of their non-custodial bio-parents. You’ll earn your true role over time.


* Do time this blending well. You and your mate have only dated a few months. That’s time to adore, but have you explored:

– His parenting style? How does he feel about discipline? Academics? Chores? Teen tattoos?
– Whether your views are similar about the “big issues” and the everyday stuff that can get you head-locked if you come from different parenting concepts.
– Whether the children had time to “experience” each other – and both of you – in a setting other than “whipped-cream” outings? If you need more time, take it.

* Do move in slowly and empathetically. Show an interest in your step-children without invading their space. They play basketball? Attend a game with their dad. Are they into piano? Listen. Ask questions. Show them your special skills. Care without cornering them. Let them set the pace with you – and with the other children.

* Do
get sensitive to what the children are feeling and saying. They need mourning time for their bio-fams and the opportunity to balk and talk. You’re moving in! How is this “playing” in Kidsville? What is your ring-less commitment saying to them about this new arrangement? Are they OK with it?

* Do
work with your mate on priorities. Discuss a Master Plan – the “rules” of the household, including dealing with your own and each other’s children and behavior expectations, bearing in mind their differences. Get it clear with your partner before setting your Water-Piks side-by-side.

* Do
involve the children after you’ve sketched out your Master Plan. Family meetings are the place to explain, complain, and resolve prickly issues.

– Let them vent.
– Listen.
– Allow them reasonable, age-appropriate input.
– Include a “bonus finding.” A good word about something you’ve all discovered about each other sets a tone for good feelings.

* Do insist on the 3 C’s: consideration, civility, courtesy.

* Do be consistent! Tough transitions leave kids room to wormhole. To be manipulation-proof, stand united, fair and firm on agreements.

* Do harmonize how you manage discipline with your closeness. At first, you might be similar to a babysitter with in loco parentis authority. As your relationship grows, so will your influence.

* Do
create new routines and rituals together. Whether it’s Sunday brunch, or posting bathroom schedules, start becoming “us.”

Many children of divorce have suffered the worst of times with the adults in their lives. Whether you’re a terrific story-teller, a superb listener or can whip up an amazing party with two eggs and a streamer, your potential for adding to their lives is limitless. All you need is the patience of Job, the cooperation of an Olympic rowing team, the ability to accept the imperfect – and a sense of humor that ranges from the Knock Knock to the Nyuck Nyuck.

And finally, you you’ll need a heap of good luck. You have my best wishes!

Copyright © Marnie Macauley / 2015 Singular Communications, LLC

Marnie MacauleyAdvice guru Marnie Winston-Macauley — therapist, author, speaker — has been a radio, TV, and syndicated advice columnist and counselor for over 20 years. Witty, wise and totally irreverent with a self-professed loathing for psychobabble, she’s written over 20 books and calendars, along with  hundreds of relationship columns and features for prominent publications.  She has her MS degree from the Columbia University School of Social Work.  In media, her work has garnered her Emmy and Writer’s Guild Best Writing nominations. She is widowed and now living single. For personal advice, you can also find Marnie Macauley on or on Presto Experts. She invites you to join her on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. 
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