What I Wish I’d Known Before Becoming a Stepparent

Being a parent is hard, but being a stepparent can be even harder. Here's how you can build an amazing relationship with your stepchild.

In 2002, at the age of 30, Mollie H. married her now-husband, Doug, and suddenly had an instant family. Not only was Mollie a new wife, but she was also now stepmother to Doug’s two small children from a previous marriage, Eric, 6, and Hannah, 5. The role of stepmom was foreign to her, since none of her close friends or family had been through a divorce. “I really didn’t have any interaction with people who were divorced or came from divorced families,” says Mollie.

Shortly after getting married, Doug and Mollie had two more sons of their own, Luke and Noah. Today, Mollie and Doug are the proud parents of a blended family of six, with four children ranging from 13 to 23 years old. While Mollie loves being a parent to all four kids, there are a few things she wishes she’d known before becoming a stepparent—and a few things you should know if you’re in a similar situation.

You are joining an established family unit

Becoming a stepparent means that you’re walking into an existing family unit that already has its own dynamics, rules, and quirks. “You are becoming a part of someone else’s family,” says Mollie. “You really need to respect that family unit that’s already there.” While you will certainly forge your own relationships with each family member, it can still be a struggle to find your role as the non-biological parent. To become a supportive stepparent, try these tiny (but powerful) ways you can encourage your kids every day.

The relationship might get harder as the kids age

Mollie became a stepmom when her stepchildren were 5 and 6 years old. “When they were little, they were always excited to see me,” says Mollie. “We played games and watched movies.” However, as the kids got older, their relationship with Mollie became more tumultuous, especially during the middle school and high school years. “Kids go through their regular phases. Middle school was really hard, just like it is for your biological children, but it’s a different type of hard,” she says. “I think a lot of the struggle just had to do with them growing up and maturing.”

Your stepkids will probably always side with their biological parent

Stepchildren are generally very loyal to their biological parent. So if you’re a stepmom, don’t be surprised if your stepchildren always seem to side with their biological mom. Also, brace yourself for the times when your stepkids say that you’re not their real parent—and the times when they’re comparing the two of you. “They will compare you to their other parent,” says Mollie. “There would be times when they would come to me with a line of questioning, and I could tell that they were already comparing notes. They’d already had the conversation with their mom, would come to me and ask what I thought, and then compare notes.”

The biological parent will always be a part of your family

“When I married Doug and became a stepmom, I didn’t realize that their mom would also be a part of my family,” says Mollie. “I naively went into this marriage thinking, ‘Oh, it’s me and my husband, and his kids, and then we will have our own kids, and that will be our family unit,’ but it’s not that way and it shouldn’t be.” Like it or not, when kids are in the picture, your spouse’s ex also becomes a member of your new family—and one who will always be a part of your life. “You work really hard to create your own family unit, but you have to realize that it will always involve the mom or other parent,” Mollie adds. Don’t miss these 8 ways to enjoy the holidays with a blended family.

Don’t air divorce drama in front of the kids

Divorces aren’t always amicable, but you should do your best to keep any animosity away from the kids. And certainly, don’t complain about or disparage their biological parent in front of them. “It’s important that mom and dad’s relationship is separate from the parent relationship with the kids,” says Mollie. “Although there were disagreements, we really didn’t like to air any of that in front of the kids. We wanted to be positive about their mom.”

Your stepkids won’t like you all the time

“Just like any mom, the kids won’t always like what you’re doing, and it’s the same case with the stepmom,” says Mollie. “Just like regular parenting, it’s not always easy, and you don’t get a lot of thank-yous.” To make your home life run a little more smoothly, try these 50 habits of healthy families.

Family vacations and experiences are key

“I think family vacations and family experiences are important,” says Mollie. “Shared experiences are needed to make memories together.” For inspiration and ideas, check out these 40 affordable destinations for a family vacation.

There will be a readjustment phase when the kids go from parent to parent

Mollie’s stepchildren would spend a week at their mother’s house, then a week at her and Doug’s house, switching off every Monday. “I liked that they were at our house for a week and that they could establish a routine, but I always called Monday the readjustment phase.” No matter how seamless you try to make the transition, remember that it is still a transition. After spending a week at their mom’s, the kids had to get reacquainted with being back in Mollie and Doug’s house.

You might feel alone at times

“There were years when I felt like I was an outsider in my own home,” says Mollie. “Doug’s related to all four of the kids, and I’m only related to two of them, and there were times when I felt not the same.” If you’re feeling disconnected, these are 17 little things you can do to connect with others.

It’s possible for your stepkids and biological kids to get along

Since Mollie’s stepkids and biological kids were young and close in age, she and Doug didn’t face too much pushback in terms of blending the family. “When they were little, I had this wish that they’d be really close together and be good friends, and we’re just starting to see that now,” says Mollie. “I feel like my biological kids really benefited from having older stepsiblings. Both have benefited from sibling love. They have different moms, but they’re all really lucky to have each other.” Mollie also recommends not using the words step and half. Instead, just say sibling when talking to your kids. “We explained to them that they were half-siblings but told them they were siblings for life,” she says. No matter how old you are, your relationship with your siblings is very important. Don’t miss these 11 ways to become BFFs with your siblings as grown-ups.

The stepchild/stepparent relationship is one of a kind

Like all relationships, the stepchild/stepparent relationship will always be a work in progress. It can be difficult at times, but it can also be incredibly rewarding. “It’s not likely going to be like a parent/child relationship for many reasons, but that doesn’t make it less-than or insignificant,” says Mollie. “My hope is that I can be everything my stepkids want and need me to be to them.” No matter how you become a parent, it will be a learning curve. Here are the things parents really wish they knew before having kids.

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