When Is a Stepparent Overstepping Boundaries?

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Almost one-third of all children in the United States live in a stepfamily before they turn 18 and it’s the fastest growing type of family unit. Despite how common stepfamilies are, navigating a stepparent-stepchild relationship can still be extremely complicated.

A stepparent may inadvertently overstep boundaries, despite their best efforts to be considerate. Or, they may have a different parenting style, which may be inconsistent with what the child is used to. Either way, it can lead to conflict in the family and take a toll on everyone involved.

This article discusses the importance of respecting a stepchild’s boundaries and outlines some scenarios where a stepparent may overstep. It also suggests some strategies that can be helpful for stepparents, to avoid overstepping a stepchild’s boundaries.

Importance of Respecting Boundaries

A stepparent may hope to establish a bond with their stepchild right away. However, the child may not necessarily be on the same page, which can be confusing and disheartening for the stepparent.

Most children struggle with changes to their family unit and need to process this transition on their own timeline, says Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University.

Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD

It’s important for stepparents to respect boundaries because the addition, loss, and transition of parental figures can be extremely difficult for children to manage.

— Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD

Children are often dealing with their own feelings of loss and mourning the family they had, says Dr. Romanoff. She explains that this can place a tremendous cognitive load on the child, which may be further exacerbated when stepparents are demanding, forceful, or disrespectful of the child’s pace, or if they assume the role of a parent before they earn the child’s trust, respect, and connection.

Stepparents tend to make the mistake of assuming they will automatically have their stepchild’s trust and respect without taking the time and effort to let it develop naturally, Dr. Romanoff adds. She says children on the other hand need time to negotiate their relationship with the new stepparent and come to grips with how the stepparent’s presence impacts their family.

Scenarios Where a Stepparent May Overstep

When it comes to the stepparent-stepchild relationship, boundaries can often be invisible and difficult to navigate. A stepparent may overstep their boundaries either intentionally or inadvertently, even though they might have the child’s best interests at heart.

These are some scenarios where a stepparent may overstep their boundaries.

Disciplining the Stepchild

Stepparents may overstep boundaries in the beginning of their relationship with the stepchild when they assume the role of disciplinarian, says Dr. Romanoff. The child may not have accepted the stepparent as a parental figure and may resent any the stepparent's efforts to enforce discipline. 

Trying to Replace Their Parent

Stepparents may try to assume the role of a parent by forcing the child into activities ordinarily reserved for their parent, says Dr. Romanoff. For instance, they may try to engage the child in designated parent-child activities or ask the child to call them "mom" or "dad."

This can also happen if the child’s parent is no longer in their life, if the parent has passed away or is estranged, for instance. The child may not appreciate the stepparent trying to slip into the role of their missing parent, particularly if it feels like the stepparent is not respecting the child’s love and memory of their parent.

Enforcing a Parenting Style

A stepparent may try to impose their beliefs or parenting style onto the child. The child may not be receptive, particularly if it differs from their parents’ values.

Coming Between Their Partner and the Child

Stepparents may occasionally come in between their partner and their stepchild. For instance, if the partner is having a disagreement with the child, the stepparent may side with the child against their parent, who may not appreciate it. 

Bad-Mouthing the Child’s Other Parent

Stepparents may not have the best relationship with their partner’s ex, i.e. the child’s other parent. However, no matter how much they dislike them or disagree with their actions, bad-mouthing them to the child can cross a boundary, even if the child is the one complaining about something they’ve done.

Impact of Overstepping Boundaries

Children may struggle to define or articulate their boundaries. However, crossing their boundaries can have a severe impact on their mental health nonetheless.

“When their boundaries are violated, children tend to feel isolated, controlled, and in turn, angry. They might become more oppositional and display defiant or aggressive behavior, or they might internalize the pain and become depressed or closed off,” says Dr. Romanoff.

Furthermore, overstepping boundaries can also drive a wedge between the child and stepparent, according to Dr. Romanoff, as the child is likely to rebel and act in defiance of the stepparent’s wishes. 

How to Avoid Overstepping Boundaries

These are some steps a stepparent can take, to avoid overstepping boundaries:

  • Outline roles clearly: Stepparents need to be clear with themselves and the child about the role they will have in the family from the beginning, says Dr. Romanoff. It’s important to establish their presence in the family, without trying to replace the child’s parents.
  • Respect the parents’ parenting style: Stepparents need to work with their stepchild’s parents and understand their parenting style. Respecting it and sticking to it can maintain consistency and help the child feel more comfortable.
  • Leave discipline to the parent: “Stepparents need to manage their reactions when it comes to discipline. Instead of getting worked up and reacting to the child’s actions, they should report the misconduct to their partner, for them to decide what action to take,” says Dr. Romanoff.
  • Give the child time: Respecting the child’s process, giving them time to get comfortable, and earning their trust can help the stepparent build a bond with the child, without it feeling like they’re overstepping boundaries.
  • Understand that the relationship may be different: It’s important to understand and accept that the stepparent-stepchild relationship may differ from the relationship the child has with their parents. Stepparents can eventually become respected and loved mentors to children, but first the threat of them replacing the original parents must be neutralized, Dr. Romanoff explains.

A Word From Verywell

Step parenting can be difficult, because depending on the circumstances, a stepparent may face a lot of resistance from their stepchild or their partner’s ex. 

Even the smallest of actions can cross a boundary or trigger a negative reaction, and it can be hard to know what’s the right thing to do. Should they volunteer to go to a parent-teacher conference? Help the child study? Pick them up at school? Clean their room? Take them shopping? Attend their birthday celebration? Join in when their partner is spending time with the child? 

It can be helpful to take things slowly, make an effort to understand things from the child’s perspective and be respectful of their process. Being patient with the child and taking things at their pace can help develop trust and an emotional connection.

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