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The Nine Steps to Stepfamily Success

Parenting Styles

No two people have exactly the same parenting style, and your styles do not need to be an exact match. Some people tend to be laid back and casual, some more strict. Some believe in organizing the stephousehold with operating procedures, guidelines, rules, and regulations. (I tend to lean more toward the groovy side and say, hey, it's a family, not a business.)

Stepping Stones

The most important rule of stepparenting is:
Learn how to be patient.

Discuss your approach with your mate. You are the partner of your partner, and together you should decide on a parenting style and an approach to running a household. Whatever your style, make sure you respect the child, honor her autonomy, and nurture her needs. In their book Growing Up Again, Jean Illsley Clark and Connie Dawson discuss the continuum of parenting styles, from abusive on one end to neglectful on the other. Aim for the middle of the spectrum, acting as an assertive and supportive parent.

Step 3: Resolve Old Feelings

A stepfamily has a history, or more aptly put, histories. Nobody comes to it as a blank slate. Even if you are coming in as a childless stepparent, you have expectations. It is truly important to try to face and resolve your old lingering feelings of guilt, blame, jealousy, and grief—the four uglies that usually accompany all stepfamily mergers.


There are so many flavors of guilt that it's hard to know where to begin. Fathers might feel guilty that they left. Mothers might feel guilty that they broke up the family. Stepmothers might feel guilty that they feel resentful. Stepfathers might feel guilty that they don't love their stepkids. The kids might feel guilty that they like the stepparent. Yuck, yuck, ick.

You will not be able to dispense with guilt easily; it's a stubborn little bugger. But I'll tell you one way to start shrinking guilt: If you stare at it long and hard, it will start to shrivel.


Blame is guilt's hideous cousin. It has giant hands perfect for lots of finger-pointing. Like guilt, it is persistent and doesn't easily go away. Like its cousin, though, a good, hard stare at it will start the process of making it leave your house.


Jealousy is like an uninvited guest who comes early and stays late. Each member of the stepfamily will become familiar with this ugly feeling. Jealousy is best discouraged by smothering it (or, rather, the family member who is suffering from it) with affection.

Post-Divorce Grief

In divorce, everybody suffers, and—whether it has been two months or 10 years—dating, “getting serious,” and remarrying all reopen the old wounds for the kids and for the divorced parent. As the new person on the scene, it's important that you remember that there is some pain here. Tread lightly, don't expect them to just “get over it,” and know that your presence may be stirring up some pretty strong emotions.

That said, it's also important to remember that you are not the cause of the pain of divorce. If fact, you can—and may be—a strong healing factor. Don't let them pin the blame on you.

Grieving Your Own Life

If you've suffered a divorce yourself, you'll have your own mourning process to go through. If you are joining the family as a stepparent, you'll need to process the end of your own fantasy life. Very few of us grow up thinking, “Wow, I want to be a stepparent when I grow up!”

Grieving and grief resolution is a process that is rarely over when you think it is. I always picture those arcade games where you've got a large padded mallet and your task is to smash down the plastic animal heads as they pop up out of holes. The faster you smash, the faster other ones come up. (Perhaps the secret is not to smash them down at all but to confront them squarely, eye to eye.)

Step 4: Plan Ahead

Now you've got to look toward the future and plan your lives together. It's worth a “visioning” meeting with your love to figure out where you each want to be in five or ten years.


Visioning is the process of seeing the future with your mind's eye. It's not about magic or prediction; it is, rather, a way of expressing your own hopes and expectations.

Visioning the Future Exercise

You'll need two pads of paper and two pens. Choose a quiet place and time to sit alone or next to your love. Take a moment to think about where you would like to find yourself in five years.

Think about each of the following questions (you can read each one aloud) before spending a few minutes writing down your thoughts, feelings, wishes, and dreams. These are to share. You can choose to share your answers after each statement or wait until you are all done.

In five years:

    Where would you like to see yourself living?

    How would you like things to be different financially from the way they are now? How do you see your role with the children?

    What would you like to be happening career-wise for you? For your spouse?

    What else do you envision happening in the next five years?

    What image comes to mind when you think of yourself in five years?

Getting to Really Know You

Sharing your answers is an important step in beginning to build your lives together. It also helps build real intimacy with your partner. How well do you really know your partner? As you begin your life together, are your values and desires synchronized?

To know what you want out of life, you have to know what you don't want. People creating a stepfamily have an advantage here over those young, innocent babes-in-the-woods with no history or experience. Remember, at least one of you is wise to what doesn't work for them in a relationship and from family life. Here's where you get to use that wisdom! In Deciding on a Family Living Style the exercise can help you figure out what each of you do and don't want. If you haven't done it yet, now's as good a time as any!

Next: Steps 5 - 7 >>

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Stepparenting © 1998 by Ericka Lutz. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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