Parenting

How to Deal With a Stepchild That Is Difficult or Disrespectful

A lot of parents in blended families may have issues regarding disrespect.

In some cases, their biological child does not respect their new spouse, and in others, their stepkids don’t respect them.

Here’s how to deal with as stepchild that is difficult or disrespectful, as discussed by experts.

Table of Contents

Michael Kinsey, Ph.D.

Michael Kinsey

Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Mindsplain

We might think of the problem of oppositional stepchildren as relatively new–a phenomenon of the modern family. But the challenges of the stepparent/stepchild relationship are timeless, and well cataloged in fairy tales and classical mythology.

Why do these problems exist?

As members of the animal kingdom, evolutionary biology tells us that our brains have deep, immutable hardware that causes us to favor blood relatives.

In fact, we have a sixth sense for knowing with whom we share more genetic material and demonstrate more loyalty to those who have more common genes.

Not only do we show favorable treatment to those with whom we share our genetic makeup when a non-relative enters the nuclear family dynamic, but we also have a bias to see non-bio kin as threats.

Our instincts scream at us that resources will move away from me and flow to the stepparent–not to mention any new offspring.

This is not a unidirectional phenomenon. Similarly, the stepparent can also see the stepchild as a distraction and/or threat from the duties of caring for “me and any children we have together.”

Here are some tips on how to assume a healthy stance towards your stepchild:

Look at the relationship with the divorced/deceased parent

Just as kids have instincts to conserve interest, love, affection, and resources from their bio-parent, they also long psychologically for parental guidance and mentorship.

No matter how wonderful the relationship is with the parent you are “replacing,” take some time to understand the relationship with the absent parent.

If you can understand how bio-mom or bio-dad relates to your stepchild, then you can look for any unmet mentorship needs. Your “foot in the door” is if any of your strengths align with gaps in the bio-parent relationship.

Of course, the aim is most certainly not to compete with the bio-parent. You are not trying to replace or supplant. You’re simply trying to add value and fill a need for the child.

Channel a benevolent figure from your past who was both an authority and not a blood relative

There are many different roles a stepparent can play for a stepchild. Some adopt a more or less authoritative role or a more or less parental role.

If finding your identity as a stepparent is a struggle, try playing the role of a beloved figure in your life not related to you who you look(ed) up to, profited from knowing, and/or loved and appreciated.

This fake-it-’til-you-you-make-it approach can facilitate you finding a unique voice that does not threaten the stepchild’s absent parent.

Wait for moments when the armor is off

In our search for control and mastery over difficult areas of our life, we can easily overlook the role of patience and timing. No matter how careful and thoughtful the effort to bond with a stepchild, no one is easily reachable when they are on the defensive (or being defensively-offensive).

Vulnerability is the best opening to forge connections. Make yourself available when a stepchild is hurt or in pain and you’ll have far fewer instances of feeling rejected and pushed away.

This is not to say that you need to back down or tolerate unwarranted bad behavior. Set limits and hold your ground when attacked (without being unnecessarily combative).

But, don’t make yourself vulnerable unless the stepchild is in a similar state. Part of being a child means being overmatched by the challenges life throws at you. There will always be another time when a kid needs help from a trusted adult. Always. Waiting for the opportunity is the most difficult part.

Respect yourself and believe in your value

Stepchildren are still people and so all the usual rules still apply. We teach others how to treat us based on what we are willing to tolerate and how we expect others to treat us. If you expect to be mistreated, you probably will be.

You don’t need to go out of your way to display your value to a child to earn their respect, simply assume you have value and act accordingly. Children may protest, but they are ultimately much more plastic and adaptable. If you don’t flinch, they’ll accept the new reality in time.

Below are some strategies for navigating challenging and disrespectful stepchildren:

Focus first on boundaries

Especially when under the same roof, the first thing to do is to establish your own routines, needs, and comfort in the home. You neither need to be overly accommodating nor overly self-protective.

Just make the space you need for yourself–no more, no less. Assert yourself when necessary. Ask for something when you need it.

By establishing these areas of your life early in a step-parenting role, you are in a position to be a non-threatening presence to which the stepchild can adjust.

Building closeness in respect happens in the long run. Bide your time and offer meaningful support, gifts, conversation, and fun when your stepchild feels comfortable and appears receptive.

Own some of your own ambivalent or even taboo feelings

One secret tip to earning the trust of a stepchild is to use strategic self-disclosure. For example, say to the child that you understand how s/he feels because “I know sometimes I don’t feel like sharing your mom/dad, either.”

Children are rightfully suspicious when a stepparent attempts to be all flowers, butterflies, and rainbows about the new family dynamics.

After all, most children don’t want stepparents just as most single people prefer not to get involved with singles who have kids.

That doesn’t mean it can’t turn into a happy and healthy situation, it just means that the reality of making a stranger a pseudo-family member involves swallowing a bulky reality pill. This pill is always easier to swallow when the person is worthy of dealing with a more complicated situation.

Proving yourself worthy is difficult, but worth the effort.

Listen and understand

The lawyerly, litigious stance of pleading your case with children never works. You earn kid’s trust by balancing the needs for adequate structure with attentive listening and receptivity.

Listening could include activities like joining a young child’s play or hanging on every word that a tight-lipped teenager happens to share with you.

Limit-setting is always difficult and often necessary. However, we have much more agency over freeing up attention for children’s rare and subtle overtures. Be available and be open.

Advocate for and ally with the child

Find a time to challenge your spouse when they are being unreasonable or overly rigid in their parenting style. It goes without saying that this requires some caution.

However, tons of parenting decisions are done on the fly and without sufficient thought. Find opportunities where your partner doesn’t have much conviction but the child feels angry and stifled.

If you show you can empathize and identify with them in these situations, you’ve just earned yourself a large haul of goodwill.

In my experience, asking your spouse to advocate on your behalf in times of tension is counterproductive, as it simply makes the child feel like they have two enemies instead of one.

Siding with the child against your spouse on a low-stakes decision is the best way for your spouse to take the blowback while you get to be the hero.

Final Note:

To conclude, a piece of advice I give all patients dealing with poor communication and maladaptive dynamics in relationships is to understand that solutions are reached over time, not instantaneously.

Many couples, families, and parents expect, consciously or not, that the right strategy stops a problem in its tracks. Expect that with any new, effective strategy, that there will be pushback and conflict–oftentimes the more effective strategy elicits a greater uproar because of the frustration it creates.

Stay the course. Respect in relationships is earned through a steadfast commitment to your principles and boundaries. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither are special, trusting, and loving relationships.

Related: 13 Best Books for Children (On Divorce & Single-Parent Families)

Cameron Caswell, Ph.D.

Cameron Caswell

Developmental Psychologist | Teen Expert | Family Coach, Dr. Cam Consulting

The stepparent/stepchild dynamic can be a tricky one to navigate. There are a lot of possible obstacles the stepparent needs to overcome before they can even think about creating a close relationship with the child even if they are open to it.

If the kids are acting out and being disrespectful, it is a clear sign that they perceive the stepparent as an enemy force they need to protect themselves from. If this is the case, here are a few tips to help form a connection:

Give a lot of grace

No matter how old you are, having your life uprooted through a divorce and then again through a new marriage can be extremely difficult for the children. Everything in their life is changing and they don’t have any say or control in the matter.

When you think of it this way, of course, they are going to be upset and act out. All parents involved need to put their feet in the child’s shoes and try to understand what’s going on from their perspective.

Allow them to be angry, sad, worried…whatever it is they’re feeling. They have every right to feel that way. Let them know you hear them and acknowledge that they need time to figure things out and heal.

“I understand this is really difficult for you. I’d be angry at me too. Just know that I love you and hope that one day you will accept me into your life.”

Don’t take it personally

Of course, the new stepparent wants to be accepted with open arms into the family. So, when the kids respond with apathy or disdain, you may feel rejected and angry. It’s important to realize that the child may see you as the enemy right now—not because of who you are but because of what you represent.

Your presence crushes all hope that their parents will get back together again. Your presence means they get less time and attention from their parent. Even if they like you, they may feel like they’re betraying their other parent if they accept you.

It may be difficult but try to be offended if they don’t welcome you with wide-open arms. They have a lot to figure out.

“I just want you to know that I feel hurt when you say you don’t want me around, but I understand you have a lot to figure out. I’m a part of the family now, so I’m going to be there. I don’t expect you to be happy about it, but I do ask that you show me some courtesy.”

Be patient

Often stepparents get overeager about building a relationship with their new spouses’ kids. They make even worry that if they can’t get the kids to like them right away, it may jeopardize their new marriage. They may push too hard; they may move too fast.

Realize it may take them some time for your stepchild to accept this new life. Make small gestures to show them that they aren’t losing a parent (which it may feel like) but are gaining a new one.

“I get that all these changes are overwhelming. They are for me too. I’d love to grab some ice cream with you this week so I can learn more about your love for dancing. Let me know if that sounds like something you’d like to do.”

Don’t get too involved

If a stepparent tries to jump right in and discipline the stepchildren, it is going to backfire. Stepparents need to put in a lot of relationship equity before the children will accept them as an authority figure. Until a foundation of trust and respect is built, it’d be wise for stepparents to stay out of the mix.

“I love you guys, but I know we still have a way to go before you believe I have your best interest at heart. Until then, I’ll let you and your dad/mom figure this out.”

Be gracious

Never, ever say anything negative about the “ex” in front of the kids. Even if they agree with you, it will only cause the kids to resent you even more. No matter how tempting it is to bash them, just don’t.

Katherine Bihlmeier

Katherine Bihlmeier

Author | Parenting Expert | Transformative Life-Changer

In situations of dealing with a troubled stepchild, the stepparent and the actual parent have very different roles and should approach the child differently.

I would invite the new stepparents, if they are really willing to be a contribution to the entire family, not to react or respond to the child’s behavior, but rather to put themselves in the shoes of their stepchild.

If you are the stepparent, allow yourself to really get into the situation as if you were this child who suddenly has a totally new ‘parent’ figure.

Let yourself feel what that is like

The child has probably gone through a big emotional turmoil. They could be grieving the loss of a parent or feel abandoned by a parent. Perhaps they went through a tough conflict situation of divorce or separation, and they feel that they are forced to choose between their parents.

Whatever the story may be, the child has been through a lot of trouble inside of them and might not be available to let another person in their life yet.

What if what you are facing together is a process the child has to go through, as they are finding a way to deal with everything before they can let a new person into their life?

Feel what it might be like for them. They are probably overwhelmed with emotions, stressed… Perhaps they have not found a space in themselves and within the family where they can come out and speak about how they feel…

Keep in mind that this situation of having a new stepparent in their family system is just a cherry on top of everything the child is dealing with.

It is not at all unusual that a child has strong reactions, which can be expressed in a variety of ways ranging from what we call “disrespect”, aggression or bullying others, to the other side of the coin which could be withdrawal and avoidance.

Have an honest look at where your stepchild is standing at the moment and how they are doing. When you tune in, you might see that in their world there is no space for you to show up yet. Be respectful of that.

In all my 35 years of practical experience working with kids and parents, I always see kids strongly reacting to the separation of the parents and to new partners entering their parents’ lives.

Give them enough space

This may also be linked to the fact that there is often not enough space and openness on the parents’ side to transparently and openly speak about the situation and their own inner world.

Kids are very loyal and also tremendously aware of all unspoken thoughts, feelings, and emotions in their family system. They often have a hard time distinguishing which feelings are theirs and which ones may belong to the parents.

They also could be sensing where their parent is standing and may not want to bother them, knowing everything they have to go through… So it is very likely that the child in such a situation is dealing with a total emotional mishmash.

Very often the only solution they can find is to show up with a strong protective attitude: “I have to deal with my own s***”, “I need space!”, “Don’t bother me!”, “Don’t come too near!”, “I need to fix this first…”

This behavior and reactions have nothing to do with the stepparent. It is just an expression of the emotional overwhelm and stress of the child. Kids always imagine and hope that their parents will somehow eventually come together again. And they have the right to hope. When a new person comes into their parent’s life, that shakes the picture up.

As a stepparent, the best thing you can do is to give space. What I recommend is that the actual parent approaches their child and speaks about what they perceive: “I could imagine that in this situation you feel _____”.

Here are some guidelines on how the child’s parent can bring more ease into the situation:

Show them that you can imagine how they feel

Even if the child isn’t willing to talk, they need to hear that you as their parent see them and know what they are going through. Give words to what they might be feeling – that will help them get more conscious of their emotions.

Often, kids have no words to speak out what is going on inside of them, which makes it even harder for them to manage their emotions.

Approach them from a vulnerable place

Before you talk with the child, open up your heart, put your barriers down, and approach them from a vulnerable place. Don’t do it right after a conflict situation.

Choose a quieter time, and approach them with a warm, open attitude, and with a willingness to really see them and hear what they have to say.

Never approach your kid as if they did something wrong or acted in a bad way

They didn’t. Their behavior is a protective “survival” mechanism, showing the surrounding that they need help. Whatever may be going on, it is never about the parent or the stepparent. If the kid is being “disrespectful”, their actions are coming from their own helplessness, asking adults for help.

What your child needs is a warm-hearted, deeply seeing and knowing space of allowance for them to show up as they are… A space in which they are allowed to come out and talk about everything.

If they are not there yet, perhaps they need their parent to step up and speak about what they perceive: “I know you may be feeling like this…” That helps the child feel seen and understood.

Share how you as a parent feel

Share what is going on in your world. Explain your perspective to them. Show up in a vulnerable space and tell them how the departure of the other partner was for you.

The child can recognize that they are feeling and perceiving that as well. This way, they can have more ease in their body.

The most important thing may be to tell them that you as their parent will deal with your own emotions. Tell them that they are your children, and it is not their job to take care of their parents.

Explain that you as the parent have your own feelings, which are yours to deal with. And if you can’t manage it on your own, you’ll get help from someone. Make sure that they know that whatever may be going on in them and whatever they may need, you are there for them.

Do not mention their disrespectful or problematic behavior

Be in allowance. You know your child. They would not do things just because they want to be a bad child or because they hate the new stepparent. There is always something going on underneath.

Be there for your child with an open heart

Be in allowance, and make space for some kid-parent time, without the new partner in your life. Go swimming, play… do whatever your child enjoys. In this way, the trust between you can be built up so that the kid can again come out and show themselves.

Sometimes, they won’t be open at first. You need to keep showing up and sticking with it. Tell them that you are there for them. And live up to it. Take the time and show them that you mean it. Go eating together, have fun, talk about different things…

Have all the topics and issues really clear and open on the table

When the parent shows up and speaks about their feelings and their inner world, the kid also has the possibility to join and share.

The child’s emotions need to be addressed with allowance and with an open, warm heart. Don’t diminish, deny, or try to disregard how your child feels. The child has the total right to be sad and angry… even to suddenly hate their parent!

This simply shows that they have so many emotions, which they don’t know how to handle yet. Usually, they just need a cuddle. They simply require your presence: “I see you. I hear you. Let’s go through this together.”

Don’t rush things

As a stepparent, be aware that your place is being the new partner of the child’s parent. Don’t rush into the picture, trying to be a second parent for the child. When a challenging situation arises, in the best case, don’t react to the disrespect of the child.

You can be sure that no matter how the child acts, they do feel wrong, sad, and guilty afterward, on top of everything else which is going on in them. They know what they did, which worsens their inner conflict.

If their behavior gets to you on a personal level, that could be your own emotional trigger point, on which you need to work.

As a stepparent, you should always be present, open, and have your barriers down when you are with your stepchild. Let go of all previous experiences with them, so you can approach them anew every time.

Take time for this inner re-set each evening. By doing so, you’ll let go of any grudges, clean the slate, and allow the kid to show up in a new way whenever they are ready.

Their behavior will shift. Don’t be impatient. Give space. It is a new situation for everyone involved.

Consider taking time to do things on your own and give your partner and their child space to bond

You can use this time to do your own emotional homework and clear yourself. The most important thing is to show up with kindness, respect, allowance, and a vulnerable heart.

The child is not fighting against you, even if it may appear so. You don’t need to defend yourself – that attitude will not be a contribution to the situation.

Let the child open up to you in their own tempo

No matter how long it takes. Just be there for them, and be in total allowance, no matter how the kid shows up. Don’t ever tell them they did something wrong. Receive them with their entire anger, sadness, or whatever they bring up. Know that their behavior has nothing to do with you personally.

The benefit is that you can use the situation to get conscious of what is being triggered in you. Don’t make anyone wrong, especially not the youngest one.

They more warm-hearted you are and the less you judge, the easier the process will be for the child. (And a side note: seeing something as ‘disrespectful’ is already a judgment).

Let go of any expectations of how they need to act and what your relationship needs to look like. It will show up differently for each family. Let it unfold.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Lastly, don’t forget: the universe has your back. Ask questions and ask for a contribution. It will show up in the most unexpected ways.

The more heartfulness and space you give to the child, the stronger the base for your togetherness will be. Don’t forget – you need to build trust between you and your stepchild – but just then when they are ready.

Related: How to Deal with a Disrespectful Grown Child

Audrey Hope, D.D.

Audrey Hope

Certified Addiction and Trauma Therapist | Relationship Expert

Stepchildren that are disrespectful and angry need to be understood. Can you imagine the pain of being stripped of your family, security, and roots at a young age? Can you imagine being thrown into a schedule of when you can see your mom or dad? Can you imagine feeling robbed of your family?

In order to find the peace, you must first step into their shoes. Imagine what it would be like and how you would feel. The best way to deal with their attitude and pain is to:

Stop trying to make something happen

Allow them to have their time and space and allow them to come to you. Never push or have a need to be liked. This will only make them resent you even more.

Never give them the upper hand by needing them to accept you

As the new parent, make sure that all your insecurities are healed and that you don’t put them on the family. You can’t use the kids as pawns in a game of love and being liked with your partner, it is not a competition.

Live in the energy of self- love

Instead, invite the kids to come into your world because there is an open door that has no agenda. If you practice self-love – you will send the message that you are fabulous and who wouldn’t want to get to know you. Know that they are taking their frustration of the situation onto you.

Do not play any games

You are an adult so make sure you lead by example. Do not use manipulative tactics to get them on your team. Be honest, straightforward, and tell the truth – they will respect you for it.

Put your attention on something else

Don’t focus on the energy of disrespect, do not feed into it, also don’t allow yourself to be mistreated. State powerful boundaries and then leave the situation.

Time is a great present

It will show the kids who you really are and that you actually care for them. That you are not there to “break up their family” or “steal away their parent”. They will grow to love you once they see you don’t have another agenda.

All parents in any situation must follow rules of self-love and boundaries so kids in any situation do not guilt or manipulate you. Show them that you own yourself, love yourself, and don’t play games.

You might not be their parent but that does not mean they can disrespect another human being. In time they will get the truth- that you have a great relationship with yourself and don’t take bad treatment. This is the greatest rule for any and all relationships.

Terrie L. Vanover

Terrie Vanover

Relationship Strategist, Choosing to Rise, LLC

When dealing with difficult stepchildren, it’s vital that we look at our own role in every situation.

Look within yourself first

If you find yourself struggling with stepchildren, you need to examine your expectations. Anger and disappointment are the results of an unmet need or unfulfilled expectations.

Ask yourself, In what ways do you need to examine your needs and expectations so that you can show up differently with yourself and in this relationship?

We can look at our beliefs and figure out how it may be contributing to the problem. If the child was raised in a different parenting style, their “disrespect” to you may not be intentional.

It may be acceptable behavior in how they were raised and you will need to examine why the behavior may trigger you emotionally.

Communication of those expectations to your partner and your stepchildren is key

It’s important for couples in a stepfamily to hold weekly meetings and communicate the parenting expectations. Be an open and supportive partner during parenting challenges. Look at problems that arise as just that – an issue to be resolved- rather than pointing fingers at the stepchild or at your partner.

Take the “blame” out of your partnership and remember that you’re a team supporting the well-being of all the children in the family.

Practice mindfulness

I strongly suggest a mindful practice in your life. It will help you become more aware of the negative thoughts towards yourself and your stepchildren.

Becoming mindful of our own thoughts and emotions helps us be less reactive to difficult people and better able to handle our emotions and challenges.

Related: How to Improve Mindfulness and Meditation

Focus on the positives

It sounds cliche, but it is true. When we focus on and praise the positives in our stepchildren, we will see more of that!

Letting go of resentment and judgment is very important in a stepfamily because resentment is the #1 relationship killer. Divorce in stepfamilies is up to 70% due to the additional stressors of stepchildren, exes, and additional parenting challenges.

Related: What are the Benefits of Positive Thinking?

Uncovering what you’re holding onto and choosing to let it go in a relationship will help improve it. By choosing to let things go, you will release bitterness and resentment so you can build upon the positive aspects of your relationship with the stepchild and create even deeper levels of respect.

Jessica Small, M.A., LMFT

Jessica Small

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist | Premarital Counselor | Parenting Coach, Growing Self

Focus on building rapport with the child

The role of step-parent can be difficult to navigate. One of the main things I would encourage a person to do that is struggling with their stepchild is to focus on building rapport and a relationship with this child.

Children can often become resentful of a person that enters into their life and assumes parenting responsibilities before they have the credibility to do so.

A child that is being disrespectful or difficult with their step-parent may be doing so as a way of expressing difficult feelings they are having that they don’t know how to resolve.

It can be important to give the biological parent the role of primary parent and leave that person to do the discipline so that the stepparent can focus more exclusively on building a bond with the child in order to earn their trust and respect.

Of course, step-parents always have the right to enforce personal boundaries such as how a child speaks to them, personal space, and how personal items are treated.

As a marriage and family therapist working with blended families, it can be helpful to have step-parents consider their role similar to that of a loving aunt, uncle, coach, especially at the beginning of the transition into step-parent.

Lanicee Causly, MFT

Lanicee Causly

Marriage and Family Therapist

When one gains a stepchild, it can be challenging for both the stepchild and stepparent to adjust to their new normal. So, stepparents may experience some difficulty or disrespect from them. However, with any challenge, there is a possibility of a light at the end of the tunnel.

Be positive and make sure to show your sincere intentions

First off, as an adult, you must ensure that you have a positive attitude and outlook about your new stepchild and are approaching the situation from a sincere place.

Kids are brilliant and can pick up on phoniness in a minute, so make sure your interactions with them are truly genuine and leave a lasting impression.

Focus on the relationship building

Second, it’s not uncommon for a child of any age to act out a bit by being difficult or showing disrespect when family dynamics change, especially with gaining a stepparent.

With that being said, the most realistic approach for a stepparent to take is to focus on relationship building with the child and clearly defining their role as a stepparent in the child’s life.

Kids crave consistency, routine, and knowing what’s next; they, just like adults want to be in control of their world. So, give them some of that control by defining roles and relationships.

It also wouldn’t hurt for a child’s parents and stepparents to be aligned as they-parent, and for the child to know and see this.

Acknowledge the child’s behavior

Lastly, rather than taking difficult or disrespectful behavior personally, stepparents should understand that a child being difficult is just another form of behavior.

Additionally, the beautiful thing about behavior is that it can be shaped. Don’t give up on the child because of them being difficult. The more that you as a stepparent try to gain their trust and strengthen your relationship, the easier it will become.

Give the child some time and be patient with them and yourself. Just like parenting, step-parenting didn’t come with a manual! Breathe!

Jaime Bronstein, LCSW

Jaime Bronstein

Licensed Therapist | Relationship Expert | Radio Host

Don’t be a pushover

Some stepchildren feel like they can disrespect and take advantage of their stepparent, and that’s just not the case.

You can show them that you deserve respect by not allowing them to do everything they ask to do and by you not doing everything they ask you to do for them.

Being a stepparent does not mean being a doormat. You are not the main disciplinarian however you are allowed to set realistic requests of your stepchild.

Schedule one-on-one time with your stepchild

When you have time together away from your spouse and any other children in the house, it allows you to form a bond. It’s a great opportunity for your stepchild to see that you are not only their stepparent, but you are also a person and it grants you the opportunity to get to know them better as well.

Whether it’s lunch, a baseball game, going to see a show, or a trip to the park, all of it can have a major positive impact on your relationship. Your stepchild will see that you care enough about them to spend time together, and they will feel loved (even if they don’t show it).

Have empathy for your stepchild

If you can look at your stepchild with empathetic eyes and an empathetic heart, you may feel differently about them. Their behavior, while not appropriate or permissible, will start to make sense more.

You will see that they are doing the best they can, and they are trying to adjust but sometimes it’s hard.

Schedule a therapy session

If your spouse is ok with it, schedule a therapy session for you and your stepchild. When an objective third party is involved, it creates a safe space for people to openly and honestly share how they are feeling, and oftentimes the communication gets better.

People feel heard, seen, and understood and that can benefit your relationship with your stepchild tremendously.

Nijiama Smalls

Nijiama Smalls

Life Coach | Author, The Black Girl’s Guide to Healing Emotional Wounds

Develop a relationship with healthy boundaries

This includes all of the child’s parents including the ex of your partner. When a relationship is present, this sends a message to the child that you are safe.

Often times, a stepchild may act out because they are confused by the new relationship and perceive it as a threat to their biological parent. A relationship with that parent shows that you are not a threat but a bonus addition.

In addition, it allows the parents to form a united front in raising the child and lets the child know that everyone is on the same page.

Never force the child into a relationship with the new lover

Allow it to grow gradually and continually ask them how they feel. Include the stepchild in important decisions. If you are buying a home together, ask for the child’s opinions and allow them to help select furniture, rooms, etc. This gives the child a voice and they will feel included.

Therapy is always beneficial

Both family therapy sessions, as well as private sessions for the children, will be helpful. It’s important the give the children space to state their feelings.

Host family meetings where all children are allowed to vent, respectfully. As parents, it’s our role to protect their feelings and emotions and we can’t do that if we do not know what they are or how they are feeling.

Stephanie Newman, Ph.D.

Stephanie Newman

Author, Barbarians at the PTA: A Novel” | Clinical Psychologist, Psychotherapist Next Door

Family situations can be tense, especially when maladaptive patterns of communicating and relating resurface.

For example, people tend to assume certain roles. For kids, this can mean they become the instigator or act as the peacemaker, or they are the baby who gets coddled. For parents, common roles can be “good cop, bad cop.”

Whenever groups convene and members interact, people have different interests that lead them to butt heads.

Families are no different. Any normal family tension is typically heightened in the step-parent situation.

Have a family meeting and clarify everyone’s roles

Use the sit down as an opportunity to set forth what is expected in relation to kids’ behaviors, while elaborating on how discipline will be approached. Knowing what’s to come, how things will be handled, often has a calming or normalizing effect on children, adolescents, and older “kids.”

Being clear about expectations solidifies the adults’ positions in the hierarchy, particularly with respect to the issue of rules.

Discipline is important when members of the younger generation of the family are disrespectful. But it has to be done right.

Claire Barber

claire barber

Certified Mental Health Consultant| Family Care Specialist, Treeological

Create a parental unit

Hopefully, you wouldn’t allow anyone to be blatantly rude or disrespectful to you, and especially in your own home. That said, it is how you respond that becomes the issue.

First and most important is to be certain that you and your spouse are united so that the child doesn’t use it as a weakness, which will inevitably be the downfall of your relationship.

Understand the child

The stepparent should not be the sole disciplinarian, even if they are home more. Most kids will test boundaries. Try to uncover the reason for the difficulty and disrespect.

Many kids act out as part of their grief of the loss of their biological family unit. And sometimes it’s simply a normal symptom of adolescence that begs to be contained.

Try to create your own relationship with your stepchild by getting to know them, their interests, and passions. This is where you both will be able to express feelings and develop respect for each other.

Marla Stone, MSW

Marla Stone

Keynote Speaker | Owner, I-Deal-Lifestyle | Author, The Clutter Remedy™

Being a stepparent can be a tricky position to be in especially with a difficult or disrespectful stepchild. The top-down and in harmony relationship with the biological parent and the stepchild is easy to master with a few simple tips.

Establish rules at home

The first step is for the parents to come together and create:

  • Rules and guidelines list for the child
  • Responsibilities list for the child
  • Consequences list for the child (consequences are taking away privileges and things they love for a reasonable amount of time).

Talk to your child about the rules

Next, talk about the rules, guidelines, responsibilities, and the consequences with the child and get their input and feelings about the lists. Have the child sign each list.

It is very much like the fair and equitable practice of businesses and their employee handbooks. Successful companies outline rules and guidelines, responsibilities, and consequences so employees know what is expected of them. The same principle works quite well with children.

Children actually like rules and guidelines and to have responsibilities. It makes them feel safe. Having consequences helps children understand that you are participating as a parent in their upbringing and are paying attention to their behaviors. Kids thrive on boundaries.

Following through on consequences is the most important part

Yet, before you start taking away the phone, computer and their favorite tv shows using assertive communication to give them a warning is the fair and equitable practice. Using “I feel” statements followed by validation is the most assertive communication you can use.

It goes like this “I feel upset when you don’t empty the dishwasher in a timely manner and you’re so good about following through.”

Sharing and an emotional feeling word and then validating the child in a way that points out the opposite of the bad behavior is a little trick that will make bad behavior disappear within a few weeks.

When the child is exhibiting negative behaviors, calling it out only reinforces the bad behavior, while validating them with the opposite of the negative behavior reinforces good behavior.

Telling kids “you don’t listen,” or “you’re always late,” will keep them ignoring you and being late. Telling them how you feel about the behaviors and validating that they are great listeners and always timely will create a happier, highly esteemed child.

Nicole Arzt, MS

Nicole Arzt

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist | Mental Health Content Expert, Invigor Medical

Set healthy boundaries with your spouse

That means sitting down with them and hashing out what is/isn’t acceptable. What do you need your spouse to do for you? Do you need them to back you more often? Do you need them to convey the importance of respect to your child?

When the parent feels “put in the middle,” they often want to side with their child (due to guilt). Unfortunately, this leaves the stepparent feeling alone and sometimes resentful.

Be honest with your feelings

You aren’t a bad person for having them. Convey your love and dedication to your family, but be firm in asking for what you need.

If communication and tension continue to prevail, family therapy might be a good option. In therapy, everyone has a chance to express themselves. You can all learn how to identify your needs and meet the needs of others.

Olga Zakharchuk

Olga Zakharchuk

Founder & CEO, Baby Schooling

Establish a bond with them

Dealing with a stepchild that’s difficult or disrespectful can be particularly challenging. While you might want your stepchild to respect you automatically, that can be hard when there’s not a bond formed there. When you establish that bond, you can start to communicate much more effectively.

Instead of turning to discipline as a way to try to get your stepchild to respect you, try connecting with them over something they enjoy! Here are two specific examples of ways you could try to bond with your stepchild:

Offer to take them somewhere they’ve been wanting to go

If they’ve really been wanting to take a day trip to the beach, for example, you could surprise them one morning by being all packed up and ready to go.

Have them help you cook their favorite dish

Maybe it’s something their parents don’t typically make or enjoy, but that you could make together. Something fun to try to make at home with your stepchild is sushi or a special dessert!

Establishing that sort of positive connection with your stepchild should help motivate them to treat you with more respect!

Related: How to Motivate a Child Who Is Unmotivated

Share a story or experience from your own life that was particularly challenging

We all make better family connections when we open up to one another and share our feelings. By being willing to be vulnerable with your stepchild about the things that made you upset when you were younger, that might help them feel like they can talk to you more!

Establishing a bond with your stepchild can take some time, so it’s important to be patient with the process. Getting frustrated too early on could risk the progress you’ve made.

Try to keep in mind what they’re going through as a child who’s dealing with a new adult in their lives, and do your best to continue building that bond with them over time.

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