13 Things to Never Say to a Stepparent
Being a stepparent is hard enough without the insensitive comments from other people. Here’s how to avoid making a tough situation worse.
“You knew this was a package deal”
Parenting is the most difficult aspect of stepfamily life, especially if the kids are adolescents, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). Naturally, a stepparent may feel overwhelmed. But if you happen to be on the receiving end of a venting session and feel the urge to say, “Hey, you knew this was a package deal,” you may want to reconsider. Indiana stepmom Kate M. says that a statement like that is “a cute platitude people use to mean: ‘You’re on your own, I don’t know how hard your situation is, and I don’t care to.’” Her advice? Refrain from saying this because it makes stepparents feel isolated. It’s better, she says, to offer words of comfort or encouragement.
“You should love those children as if they were your own”
“I’m no longer a stepmom,” says California resident Amanda M.K., “but I remember hearing, ‘You should love them as if they were your own.’” This caused her a lot of pain. Why? “It’s hard to demand that someone feel a certain way toward a child. That can create several feelings of guilt and failure if you don’t,” she explains. “I wish someone had told me, ‘You will love them in your own way.’” Indeed, Mary T. Kelly, a Colorado-based marriage and family therapist, says that this statement is a “biological impossibility.” She explains that a person may not even like their stepkids, and that’s “nothing to be ashamed of.” It can also take time to develop a close, meaningful relationship with someone. She advises keeping all of that in mind, as well as developing “more compassion for everyone involved.”
“Step aside for the family photograph”
Lisa S.C., who lives in the greater New York City area, observed her biological daughter ask her stepfather—Lisa’s husband—to step aside for a family photo. This statement can also come from a variety of family members, not just a child, and Kelly explains that it can deepen “third wheel” feelings among stepparents. She says that while you may not want the stepparent in a family photograph, it’s helpful to remember that this is strictly about “a family that has at least one member that’s not biologically related”—and nothing more. She suggests skipping that comment, taking the photo, and remembering to be kind. Here are a few other things to never say to your family.
“I’m so glad you went through this, because now I know how to handle things”
Stepmom Kate M. cringes when people say this to her. “My friends are starting to get divorced,” she says. “They see me as a resource, not a friend.” She wishes people supported her all along, instead of only now because they can benefit from her stepmother insight. “None of them spoke to me or helped when things were difficult,” she says. If you weren’t supportive of a friend who experienced this and are only now reaching out since you’re suddenly in the same stepparent boat, think about how one-sided that may appear. Remember to support your friends during the good times and the bad, not just when there’s something in it for you.
“But you really have five children, not four”
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If someone has four biological children and one stepchild, don’t tell them that they have five children. Period. Children from a remarriage do not biologically belong to that individual, Kelly explains. Therefore, out of respect for the previous family dynamic, it’s best to refrain from statements that suggest a stepparent claim the stepchildren as their own. She suggests rephrasing the question by asking, “So, you have four children, and your husband has a son, right?” Here’s what one woman wishes she’d known before becoming a stepparent.
“You’re not the real mom (or dad)”
“The reality is that the biological parent is the biological parent,” says Lisa Bahar, a marriage and family therapist in Newport Beach, California. Ultimately, she says, the stepparent has to take a step back when trying to take on the role of parenting children of another biological parent, but this type of wording can be hurtful. Instead of expressing who a stepparent isn’t, Kelly suggests saying who they are. For example, you could introduce someone as your friend’s wife. It’s a truthful, cordial statement that doesn’t come with any potential baggage.
“You don’t need to (or shouldn’t) attend the school play”
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Or sporting event…or wedding…or any number of other events that come up in daily parenting life. While you may not want a stepparent to attend a specific event, overtly stating your desire may set off a domino effect. Bahar explains that the stepparent may feel rejected, the child may become torn, and the biological parent may ultimately end up in the middle of power struggle. Be mindful of this before making such a declaration. “Take a step back and put the children first,” Bahar advises. That should be everyone’s focus while being as respectful as possible. Don’t miss these powerful kindness quotes that will stay with you.
“Stop trying so hard with my children”
According to the APA, it’s not unusual for new stepparents to want to dive in and form close relationships with stepchildren. While this eagerness to bond comes from a good place, stepparents should approach the situation a little more gradually. Also, be aware that the child’s gender and emotional status may affect how it all goes. Interestingly, the APA notes that even in the best conditions, it can take between two and four years for a new stepfamily to adjust to living together. If you’re looking for some tips on how to make this transition as smooth as possible, check out these 50 habits that healthy families always have.
“You’re the least common denominator”
The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) says that for children, a new stepparent is often synonymous with loss and change. “Stepparents also create conflicts of loyalty for kids,” the group notes. “A child may think, ‘If I care about my new stepmom, I am disloyal to my mom.’” But this shouldn’t be your green light to tell a stepparent that they are the “least common denominator” within the family. Stepmom Kate M. says she felt “both angry and sad” when her stepdaughter’s biological mother said this to her. Sure, you may feel that a stepparent is the “least of” within the established family structure. But Bahar says that this statement really attempts to demonstrate a hierarchy—and one person’s superiority—within the family. She suggests avoiding statements that involve evaluations and instead focusing on the bigger picture: what’s best for the children.
“So, you’re the evil stepmom now?”
It may be said with a giggle, but it can still pack a big, painful punch. A small study published in the Journal of Family Issues in 2017 notes that negative stepparent stereotypes—particularly regarding stepmothers—still exist. The publication notes that the “wicked” stereotype is typically steeped in “gendered expectations of motherhood” and judgmental thoughts. Using the word evil can make stepmothers feel even lonelier and more misunderstood in their roles, Kelly says. Instead, it’s best to leave the E-word—even if it’s meant as a joke—out of the conversation altogether. The bottom line: Not all jokes are funny, and that’s even more true for children. Here are the 10 things you should never, ever tease your kids about.
“It’s not your place to complain”
“It’s deeply ingrained that stepmoms should a combination of Mother Teresa and Mary Poppins, where they shouldn’t complain or judge,” Kelly says. For that reason, you should refrain from telling a stepparent to hold off on voicing concerns. Instead, she emphasizes the benefit—for all parties—of becoming educated about the challenges that each individual may be experiencing. More importantly, the APA notes that seeing a psychologist can help stepfamilies deal with a variety of situations more smoothly.
“You’re only in it for the money”
This comment, and other similar bold assumptions “usually come forth under distress,” explains Bahar. “A direct comment like this is probably coming from heightened feelings of anger, resentment, or injustice—or the feeling that something happened that isn’t of goodwill,” she says. It’s not uncommon for you to feel this way, though. According to the APA, “remarriage may resurrect old, unresolved anger and hurts from the previous marriage, for adults and children.” Still, Bahar suggests that it’s best for both parties to avoid making—and responding to—such overt statements.
“I don’t need therapy—you do”
“Therapists with training and experience in stepfamily dynamics can help meet the challenges of stepfamily living,” the AAMFT notes. In fact, therapy can be good for couples, children caught in loyalty conflicts, and ex-spouses. Unfortunately, not everyone is always included in therapy. “I have found that the biological dad, for example, will have therapy, or go with the child and the biological mother, but will not include the stepparent,” says Bahar. It’s important to involve everyone. Otherwise, she says, a host of unresolved feelings and assumptions—on all fronts—may prevail. Here are 9 signs you should think about seeing a therapist.