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When the Parent Won't Parent: Help for Stepfamilies

When the Parent Won’t Parent

“I’m about to lose my mind,” stepmom Sandi roared.

“I love my husband, but he is driving me crazy and so are his kids”.

No matter how often I ask, or how nicely I plead, he refuses to discipline his kids. They are allowed to leave clothes, toys, and food all over the house.  They have no chores or accountability with electronics. They watch TV, play games, and use their phones until all hours of the night.

If I try to correct them, or bring any order to our house, they ignore me because my husband wont back me up. I don’t know how much longer I can live like this.”

Sandi is experiencing one of the most common issues facing today’s stepfamilies. And it’s not just the dads who don’t parent the kids, mom often won’t either. And the stepparent ends up looking like a bully, or a dictator if he/she attempts to instill boundaries, consequences, or discipline into the madness.

First, we must address the WHY of this situation.

After the death, uncoupling, or divorce of the original family parents often have a difficult time implementing and maintaining discipline with their kids. This is true because of the emotional stress and how everything has significantly changed. The 2-parent home has now become a single parent home.

Here are the common reasons why single parents don’t discipline:

·      The child is only in the home periodically

·      The parent may be grieving the loss of the marriage and child

·      The parent may feel guilty that the child is suffering

·      Single parents are often exhausted, it’s easier to just give in.

·      The amount of time the parent has with the child is limited

·      The ability to constructively parent has been diminished due to two homes

·      The discipline structure may be very different in the other home

·      The parent may be angry or frustrated that he/she has lost control over the child

·      The former spouse may be sabotaging the relationship between parent/ child causing the parent to want to “win the child.”

·      The parent often fears the child will not love or miss him/her anymore creating a “need to please” as opposed to parent.

·      They don’t seek out resources or classes to teach them.

If a parent doesn’t address these issues, and learn how to become a healthy, stable, balanced, single parent after the death or divorce, he/she will bring HUGE problems into a new relationship/remarriage.

THIS is the key reason why stepfamilies struggle.

Everyone wants to blame the ex-spouse, or other birth parent, for blended family combat. And sometimes the ex is wreaking havoc.  

However, if the parent learns what’s necessary to become a structured, sensible single parent, and he/she knows how and when to set boundaries and consequences for his/her former spouse and kids, things will go smoother in the next relationship.

Many men and women enter a blended family/stepfamily with these common thoughts:

·      “Whew, what a relief. Now I’ve got a partner to help me get these kids in shape. He/she will teach them how to behave.” OR

·      “I know we don’t have much structure in this house, but we do all right. They are great kids even after all they have been though. They need to be able to relax and have fun while they are here. My spouse will be OK with that.”

·      “We have no steps in this house. We view everyone as biological family. If we just treat everyone equally no one will get hurt”

Oh really…..?

This is when the problems begin.  

The two adults have entered the union with high expectations, and usually very little knowledge on what it requires to form a healthy stepfamily.

They don't know the hard work and extreme sacrifice it takes to create a thriving blend.

The most common problem:

The parent feels the stepparent is too harsh. The stepparent feels the parent is too lenient.

And the battle begins.

This is the NUMBER ONE REASON second marriages fail.

Who’s right?  Who’s wrong?

Often, it’s both.

If you are struggling with a partner that refuses to discipline or parent in the manner you think they should, here are a few steps to help.

·      Calmly sit down with your spouse and explain, “After reading some resources I now realize what we have been dealing with is normal. Stepfamilies often struggle with discipline and each spouse has a different view. I’m sorry if I have been too critical, abrasive, or pushy about your kids. Can we start over and implement some new ways to handle it?”


Your spouse is not your enemy. He/she merely doesn’t know how to do this–YET. Typically, your extension of compassion and kindness will invoke a sigh of relief in the parent.

·      Together review the root reasons listed above. Your attitude, tone, body language and word selection can make all the difference in the outcome of this conversation. If your spouse feels attacked or belittled it will backfire.

Calmly and without confrontation ask, “Do you think any of these apply to our situation? Do you think I/you/we parented well as single parents? Is it possible I/you/we didn’t set good boundaries, or parented out of guilt?”

Your spouse’s response to this question

will take you into one of three directions. 

1.     Teachable and Willing:

This is the best outcome. If your partner is willing to admit they are not parenting, you can work together. Fortunately, today there are numerous resources to help a parent learn how to parent in a blended family and how to coparent. Chapters 7 and 8 in the Smart Stepmom (even if it’s a stepdad) book will give you a hands-on step by step instructions with a guide. Dr Michelle Watson Canfield, the Dad Whisperer, has an excellent podcast for dads and wonderful resources.

2.     Unteachable and Defensive If the parent is stubborn and refuses to talk, address, or admit how they are parenting may be doing wrong, you have a completely different situation. Dr Phil McGraw is right when he says,

"You can’t heal what you refuse to acknowledge.”

In this situation you will need to share your feelings by saying something like, “I understand this is a sensitive subject. I know you love your kids and want the best for them. I am not accusing you of not being a good parent. I very much want to learn how to be an encouraging stepparent, but I can’t do that without your help.

We are a couple, and we need to work together on these issues. Are you willing to see, or talk to, a stepfamily professional who can guide us?”

If the spouse says no, then you will need to learn what it means to step back in a healthy, loving manner.

You will need to calmly disengage from the situation and let your partner parent his/her kids in a manner they deem wise, even if you don’t agree. 

You can’t help someone who feels he/she has done nothing wrong or has nothing to learn.

There is a HUGE difference between stepping back and stepping out. This is a very fragile and difficult thing to do in a loving manner because your spouse will accuse you of not loving your stepkids. It typically requires help from those who know how to do it successfully. (Life coaching, zooms and booklets on this situation are available from Laura, her contact is below).

3.     Accusatory and Belittling: If your spouse is unwilling to listen to reason, totally defends his/her child, AND blames you for all the family stress, then you have a marriage problem not a stepfamily problem. This requires professional help, or the union will likely dissolve.

A marriage can’t thrive when toxic accusations, mistrust, and inflammatory actions continue to escalate and morph into emotional destruction. 

I highly recommend life coaching with a stepfamily expert (Laura's link is below).

Or can help women in abusive or manipulation situations.

This is a complex yet common subject.

But there is HOPE if the couple is willing to learn.

It is impossible to cover all aspects of this complexity in a blog. I hope this information has helped to reveal helpful steps to take. This FREE booklet below on setting boundaries has steps that can help. If you sign up for Laura's newsletter on her website she sends monthly help on numerous subjects.

Start Healthy Boundaries
Download PDF • 4.37MB

Contact Laura for more help.

Copyright © 2024 Laura Petherbridge. All rights reserved. May NOT be duplicated without permission.

Laura Petherbridge is an international author and speaker who serves couples and single adults with topics on stepfamilies, relationships, divorce prevention, and divorce recovery. She is the author of When “I Do” Becomes “I Don’t”—Practical Steps for Healing During Separation and Divorce, The Smart Stepmom, co-authored with Ron Deal, 101 Tips for the Smart Stepmom, Seeking a Silent Night: Unwrapping a stepfamily Christmas and Quiet Moments for the Stepmom Soul.

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