3 Steps to Successful Step Parenting

3 Steps to Successful Step Parenting

Dr. Christine Holding LMFT

3 Steps to Successful Step Parenting

The other day a discouraged couple shared in their session,“We are discouraged, it seems we can’t do anything right when it comes to helping our children adjust to our marriage.” This couple is realizing that blending two families together is much more challenging than expected.  If you are facing similar difficulties, here are three steps parents and step-parents can take to make the transition to a new blended family a little smoother:

Step 1: Slow Down. Forming new attachments takes time. Try not to get discouraged if  happily ever after doesn’t happen immediately.  Love grows slowly over time so expect some rejection initially and try to keep sense of humor.  Researchers point out that “Themes of rejection and abandonment are common for children of divorced parents and also common among stepparents. In the early stages of a developing a stepfamily, stepparents are the “outsiders” both historically and emotionally (The Emotionally Focused Therapy Casebook by Susan Johnson and Brent Bradley, p 282).” Be patient. It can take several years for new family roots to take told and grow.  

Step 2: Work As A Team. Whenever possible, let the child’s biological parent do the disciplining and set the boundaries.  A step-parent’s role can be that of a mentor, a friend, and a role model. Work together with your new spouse to decide house rules that work for everyone and to create structure in the home; this will help you maintain a united front. Check in with the family regularly to hear concerns and validate that figuring out a new way for the family to be together is up to everyone. Everyone plays a part and has a voice in the new family.  

Step 3: Strengthen Your Marriage.  Finally, remember why you are doing this work. One of the major mistakes made by many couples with stepchildren is to focus on the distress in the forming of a new family and as a result, the couple relationship if sometimes forgotten. Nurturing the marriage often helps smooth out parenting challenges. Over time, your love and commitment to each other will motivate children to accept newly established structures. Keep your love alive and healthy, date regularly, and express your affection for each other in the presence of the children.

With time these few simple steps can create more realistic expectations for blended families. For additional suggestions for stepparents, I recommend Step Parenting: Everything You Need to Know to Make It Work by Jeanette Lofas and Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Susan Johnson.

An Introduction to Attachment

married couple linking arms

What is Your Attachment Style?

Dr. Debi Gilmore LMFT

What is attachment and why is it important?

Attachment refers the particular way in which you relate to other people. We each have a certain style of attachment that was influenced and developed at the very beginning of life. The most important years of attachment development occur during your first two years of life, and is influenced by your most consistent caregiver or mother-figure.  Once established, your attachment style remains in place and directly influences how you relate in intimate relationships and in how you parent your children. It is important to identify and understand your style of attachment and how you felt and developed in your childhood because it offers you insight into your present relationship patterns. It also clarifies ways that you are emotionally limited as an adult and what you need to change to improve your close relationships and your relationship with your own children.

Early Attachment Patterns

From the early hours of life and through the early years of childhood, infants need to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver in order for their social and emotional development to occur normally. Without this consistency in interaction, secure attachment is negatively impacted, and children can suffer serious psychological and social impairment. During the first two years, how the parents or consistent caregivers respond to their infants, particularly during times of distress, establishes the types of patterns of attachment their children form.  These patterns will go on to guide the child’s feelings, thoughts and expectations as an adult in future relationships.

Secure Attachment:

Ideally, when an infant cries out, their caregiver responds consistently. The baby begins to formulate confidence in the idea that when they have a need, someone will be there for them. This is essential during the first year of life and must be consistent during the first two years of age. As a result of this consistency, they form an emotional attachment to an adult who is attuned to them, that is, who is sensitive and responsive in their interactions with them. It is vital that this attachment figure remain a consistent caregiver throughout this period in a child’s life. During the second year, children begin to consider and use the adult as a secure base from which to explore the world and become more independent. A child in this type of relationship is more likely to become securely attached. In order for a child to feel securely attached to their parents or care-givers, the child must feel safe, consistently recognized, and soothed.

Avoidant Attachment:

Some adults are emotionally unavailable and, as a result, they are insensitive to and unaware of the needs of their children. They seem to have little or no response when a child is hurting or distressed. These parents discourage crying and encourage independence. Emotions are seen as being negative and a sign of weakness. Often their children quickly develop into “little adults” who take care of themselves. These children pull away from needing anything from anyone else and are self-contained. They are likely to develop an avoidant attachment with a misattuned parent.

Ambivalent/Anxious Attachment:

Some adults are inconsistently attuned to their children. At times their responses are appropriate and nurturing but at other times they are intrusive and insensitive. Children with this kind of parenting are confused and insecure, not knowing what type of treatment to expect. They often feel suspicious and distrustful of their parent but at the same time they act clingy and desperate. These children have an ambivalent/anxious attachment with their unpredictable parent.

Disorganized Attachment:

When a parent or caregiver is abusive to a child, the child experiences the physical and emotional cruelty and frightening behavior as being life-threatening. This child is caught in a terrible dilemma: her survival instincts are telling her to flee to safety but safety is the very person who is terrifying her.  The attachment figure is the source of the child’s distress. In these situations, children typically disassociate from their selves. They detach from what is happening to them and what they are experiencing is blocked from their consciousness. Children in this conflicted state have disorganized attachments with their fearsome parental figures.

Adult Attachment Styles

Secure Personality:

People who formed secure attachments in childhood have secure attachment patterns in adulthood. They have a strong sense of self-worth and they naturally desire close relationships with others. They basically have a positive view of themselves, their partners and their relationships. Their lives are balanced: they are both secure in their independence and in their close relationships.

Dismissive Personality:

Those who had avoidant attachments in childhood most likely have dismissive attachment patterns as adults. These people tend to be loners; they regard relationships and emotions as being relatively unimportant. They are cerebral and suppress their feelings. Their typical response to conflict and stressful situations is to avoid them by distancing themselves. These people’s lives are not balanced: they are inward and isolated, and emotionally removed from themselves and others.

Preoccupied Personality:

Children who have an ambivalent/anxious attachment often grow up to have preoccupied attachment patterns. As adults, they are self-critical and insecure. They seek approval and reassurance from others, yet this never relieves their self-doubt. In their relationships, deep-seated feelings that they are going to be rejected make them worried and not trusting. This drives them to act clingy and overly dependent with their partner. These people’s lives are not balanced: their insecurity leaves them turned against themselves and emotionally desperate in their relationships.

Fearful-Avoidant Personality:

People who grew up with disorganized attachments often develop fearful-avoidant patterns of attachment. Since, as children, they detached from their feelings during times of trauma, as adults, they continue to be somewhat detached from themselves. They desire relationships and are comfortable in them until they develop emotionally close. At this point, the feelings that were repressed in childhood begin to resurface and, with no awareness of them being from the past, they are experienced in the present. The person is no longer in life today but rather, is suddenly re-living an old trauma. These people’s lives are not balanced: they do not have a coherent sense of themselves nor do they have a clear connection with others.

It's Never Too Late!

There is good news—it is never too late to develop a secure attachment. The negative effects of not having an ideal attachment experience early in life are absolutely reversible. Even though your patterns of attachment were formed in infancy and can follow you throughout your life, it is possible to shift your attachment style into a healthier one. The first step is to become aware of your present style of attachment.

Research on attachment demonstrates that awareness of your present attachment style and making sense of childhood experiences is actually the best predictor of future security in relationships. Research also shows that by forming an attachment with someone with a secure attachment style can influence our own sense of security in the relationship.

Getting Help

It may be helpful to meet with a therapist who is an expert in attachment theory. The therapist can help make sense of the insecurities and offer steps to shift and change the attachment patterns that have become barriers to healthy attachment. This process helps us to get to know ourselves through understanding our past experiences. This process takes time and varying levels of courage. However, in doing this, we strengthen our ability to navigate through the world with a more grounded sense of security that helps us better withstand the challenges and trials of life.


Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Vol I. Attachment (1st and 2nd ed.). New York, NY: Basic Books.

Fraley, R. C., Booth-LaForce, C., Owen, M. T., Holland, A. S., & Roisman, G. I. (2013, May). Interpersonal and genetic origins of adult attachment styles: A longitudinal study from infancy to early childhood. Personality and Social Psychology, 104(5), 817-838.

Meyers, L. L. (2003). The role of attachment style, gender, and relationship history in romantic partnership satisfaction and partner selection (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest.

Roisman, G. I. (2007, Jan). The psychophysiology of adult attachment relationships: Autonomic reactivity in marital and premarital interactions. Developmental Psychology, 43(1), 39-53.

Seedall, R. B. (2011, Oct). John Bowlby - from psychoanalysis to ethology: Unraveling the roots of attachment theory. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 37(4), 509.