Over the years, many parents in blended families have come to me about stepchild disrespect. In some cases, their stepkids didn’t respect them, and in others, their biological child didn’t respect their new spouse.
Often, the kids were rude or obnoxious, saying things like, “You’re not my father; I don’t have to listen to you!”
Naturally, stepparents become very upset when their stepchildren are disrespectful to them. The truth is, a child may never respect their stepparent, but they have to know they can’t get away with being rude or obnoxious. Therefore, you and your spouse need to be united in demanding that your kids treat both of you respectfully.
And let me be clear about disrespect. Parents have to be careful because it’s difficult to stop this behavior once it gets entrenched. By being rude, kids train adults what not to ask them and what not to expect of them. And households don’t function well where the kids teach the adults how to behave rather than the other way around.
If you haven’t done so already, sit down with the kids in your blended family and explain the ground rules. Start by saying:
“In our family now, both of us are the parents.”
And then say:
“And these are the expectations on every child.”
I also recommend that parents tell their stepkids from the beginning:
“You don’t have to call me Mom, but you must be respectful and follow my directions.”
Have this meeting together with your partner and all the children. And set the expectation that you both will enforce the rules the same.
The consequences for defiance should be clear and consistently enforced. For example, the kids in the family should know that if they disrespect their stepmother or stepfather, they will lose their electronics privileges for the rest of the night.
In other words, there should be no tolerance for defiance and disrespect. You and your partner need to present a unified front when explaining this to your kids.
If one of your stepkids says, “You’re not my mom; I don’t have to do what you say!” You can say:
“No, I’m not your mother, but you have to do your homework anyway.”
“We’re not talking about me being your father. We’re talking about when you’re going to start your homework.”
When a child says, “You’re not my mom or dad,” what they’re trying to do is take your power away. Focus on your role as the parent and calmly remind the child what the rules are in your home.
The whole idea here is to avoid a power struggle. The child is inviting you to a fight; decline the invitation. Instead, restate your role and the rules. They don’t have to call them Mom or Dad unless they want to, but they must be respectful and follow the rules.
Child: “You’re not my mom/dad!”
Translation: I don’t have to listen to you; you have no control over me.
Ineffective parent response: “You’ll do what I say anyway!”
Effective parent response: “I am not your mother. But I am one of the parents in this household responsible for you, and you are obligated to follow the household rules. And if you break the rules, there will be consequences.”
As long as your stepchild complies with your rules, don’t worry if they seem a bit resentful that you’re their authority. In other words, don’t challenge them on what they’re thinking.
For example, when you tell them to do their chores and they do them, that should be enough. They don’t have to like it. You have to let it go as long as you have reasonable compliance.
And don’t worry if they give you a dirty look or roll their eyes—those behaviors are annoying but harmless. Therefore, don’t give the eye-rolling undeserved power by reacting to it. Instead, ignore it, and it will eventually go away.
Here’s the bottom line: if you carry yourself with respect, kids will find things to like about you. That’s because kids want to like people that they respect.
Also, know that kids may never get over the breakup of their original family. But also know there’s nothing you as a stepparent can do about that besides accept it and avoid getting into fights about it.
When you’re parenting in a blended household, they’re all your kids. That means, parent them all the same and don’t give special treatment to your biological kids. Treat each kid the same, regardless of whether they’re your biological or stepchild.
Similarly, family time should also include everyone; try not to make distinctions. That means you say the following:
“When we’re going to the zoo, we’re all going to the zoo—the whole family.”
“When it’s family dinner time, we’re all eating together.”
Even though you need to parent all the kids the same, understand that it’s normal and natural to have special love, feelings, and attachments to your biological kids. Don’t feel guilty about that—it’s okay and expected. You don’t have to fight those feelings. Your biological kids are not the same as your stepkids.
Nevertheless, know that when it comes to rules, consequences, and family commitments, compartmentalize your special feelings and be consistent with all your kids, whether step or biological.
And don’t worry that you might lose that connection with your biological kid by doing so. There may be anger and jealousy, but that biological connection is strong and doesn’t go away.
Often, in blended families, it’s common for the biological kids to challenge their birth parents. They’ll accuse their parents of being unfair. They’ll say things like, “You’re treating his kids better than me.” Or, “He treats his kids better than you treat us.” And you might also hear, “He treats his kids better than he treats us.”
When your child comes to you and says something unfair happened, the kind of question you have to ask is:
“If I was there, what would I have seen?”
So, let’s say your child says, “Today, my step-mom treated her kids better than us.” As the biological parent, the question you have to ask is not, “How did you feel?” or “What happened,” because you’re likely get a distorted and emotional response to open-ended questions like that.
Instead, parents should ask what I call investigative questions. For example, ask your child:
“If I was there, what would I have seen?”
Let’s say the answer is, “You would have seen her give three cookies to her kids and two cookies to us.” That’s something they can see, not what they felt.
So, finding out what they saw is the most effective way to investigate these situations. Those are also my key questions when parents tell me their kids are acting out at home. One of the things I used to ask them in my office was:
“If I was there, what would I have seen?”
And then they’ll say, “You’d have seen my son punching a hole in the wall and threatening his sister and calling his brother names.”
I want to know what I would have seen because that’s how I can determine what they need to do differently.
So again, you’re asking for facts. And after you get the facts, say to your child:
“Okay, I’ll look into it and will get back to you.”
And then talk to the other parent in private to discuss the issue.
Parents in all families, but especially blended families, are often in conflict about how to parent the kids. They may disagree on the rules about bedtime, homework, or the use of electronics. Try to resolve these parenting differences and learn how to parent together as a team.
But don’t kid yourselves. Although you may agree to things and work them out ahead of time, as stressors and different situations happen, realize that it’s common for you and your spouse to react in ways you didn’t anticipate. It’s impossible to plan for everything.
The key is to be adult and understanding of each other. If you’re in a blended family situation, you have to learn to live with your partner by respecting their point of view.
The rule has to be, “Whatever agreement we come up with, we have to present a united front.” Indeed, the common theme in the family should be that Mom and Dad work together as a team.
That way, when your stepchild says, “You’re not my father,” the answer is, “You’re right, I’m not. But these are the expectations that your mother and I have, and if you don’t follow through, you will be held accountable.” This clarity allows you to avoid getting into power struggles with your stepchild.
It’s important to establish the importance of the biological parent. The biological parent ought to be the primary parent in most cases. Think of it this way: marriages break up sometimes, but the relationship between the child and the birth parent will never dissolve.
Because of this connection, the biological parent should be the decision-maker of last resort for their child, as long as the decisions don’t jeopardize the emotional and physical safety of everyone else in the family.
That means when there are conflicts, the birth parent will make the final decision. Of course, that doesn’t mean the child is allowed to be abusive or hurtful.
If you think your spouse isn’t parenting your child the way they should, you need to communicate with them and work things out. If there’s a disagreement, the birth parent’s decision takes priority, and the stepparent has to be mature enough and trusting enough in the relationship to go along with it, without a lot of pouting and self-pity.
Related content: Blended Family? The 5 Secrets of Effective Stepparenting
If you want to come together as a family, you have to make rules about doing things together. So you can make the rule, “On Wednesday nights, we all watch a video together.” This rule is in place whether the kids like it or not. Make family time a requirement.
Let them know that if they refuse to watch the video, they lose their electronics for the rest of the night. But the deal is, we all watch a video, and we all go to the zoo. In short, this family does things together.
Requiring family time gives kids the message that “This is important to us, and it’s so important that it’s a requirement.” They learn that you do things as a family and respect each other when you’re doing them.
By the way, don’t overdo it with teenagers because, developmentally, their job is to start to break away. We only want them to make a reasonable effort to participate without being abusive, disrespectful, or nasty.
With younger kids, having a night where you play board games is fun. Older kids may resist it at first, but younger kids will love it. If you start when they’re small, family night becomes a given, and it becomes their way of understanding how the family operates.
One last word about kids: children have to be empowered to express what they feel and think, and those thoughts and feelings have to be accepted at face value.
When two adults decide to blend their families, kids have no choice. As a result, the kids feel powerless. That’s why if you try to do a family meeting without getting their input first, kids will likely get defensive or feel threatened.
Therefore, give the kids appropriate ways to express themselves so they don’t have to act out their feelings behaviorally. Expressing themselves doesn’t mean they get to decide how the family will run, but it does mean they have input.
Also, this input is usually best received by the child’s birth parent. If birth parents can talk to their kids about their concerns, it is much easier to work them out, and it’s much easier for the two adults to agree.
So the idea is not to squelch the kids but rather to set up a situation where they can express their feelings safely and appropriately. And remember, no rule or situation has to last forever.
Blended families can be emotionally hard on parents. For example, it’s hard to see your stepchild come back from a holiday with their other set of parents and have better presents than you gave them. And it’s hard when they brag about the fun things they did with their other family or are sad about the things they used to do before their original family split up.
You will be hurt and frustrated at times—that’s entirely normal in these situations. And without a doubt, you’ll harbor resentment and jealousy.
Nevertheless, you’ve got to learn to handle these situations maturely, and you have to manage your emotions effectively. It helps to talk to your partner or call your friends for support. If you need professional help, go to a counselor.
The main thing is, you need to work toward accepting the realities of a blended family. It’s not that you shouldn’t feel these things—it’s that you need to deal with your feelings maturely and not let your emotions control you.
The key to finding harmony in a blended family is communication and maturity on the part of the parents. Accept that the kids may never blend the way you want them to, or they may blend wonderfully. But know that it’s the parents who have to blend, and that means seeing your spouse as a partner, not as an obstacle.
I know that this advice is easier said than done. But I’ve seen many families do it successfully, and they’ve been able to bring peace to their homes.
James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.