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When Is a Stepparent Overstepping Boundaries Importance of Respecting Boundaries

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 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 in their family unit and need to process this transition on their own

timeline. Stepparents need to respect boundaries because the addition, loss, and transition of parental figures can be extremely difficult for children to manage

Children are often dealing with their feelings of loss and mourning the family they had, 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

Trying to Replace Their Parent

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 parent’s 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 disagreeing 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 behaviour, or they might internalize the pain and become depressed or closed off.

Furthermore, overstepping boundaries can also drive a wedge between the child and the stepparent, 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. 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, so they to decide what action to take.

  • 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.4 Stepparents can eventually become respected and loved mentors to children, but first, the threat of them replacing the original parents must be neutralized.


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