What 13,000 Families Taught Jean McBride About Step-Parenting

Sometimes, step-parenting can feel like a lose-lose situation. Even with the best of intentions, there are so many factors that seem to be lining up against you. They can make the dreams you have for your step-parenting relationship can seem impossible to achieve.

Maybe you entered marriage hoping to be a trusted and treasured adult in your step child’s life. Maybe you imagined that you would be the parent the child needed but didn’t have. Many of you expected a giant Brady Bunch blended family, with family meals and fun outings. Instead, you find yourself in a place of near-constant conflict.

How can you work with your blended family to create a harmonious life that you can all benefit from and enjoy? What tried-and-true advice is available for bringing your new family together in a way that works, at least most of the time, for everyone? What does the research tell us about the best practices of blended families and the outcomes for children raised in them?

Jean McBride on Step-Parenting

My guest, Jean McBride, is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Colorado who has spent her career working with families in transition. Jean specializes in divorce adjustment, parenting after divorce, remarriage, and stepfamilies. She teaches an online course as well as divorce classes, and she’s the author of two books, Encouraging Words for New Stepmothers and Talking to Children About Divorce.

Not only is Jean an expert on helping blended families adopt strategies that really work. She is also a step-parent herself. Jean divorced her son’s father in the 1970s when co-parenting was still uncommon. Despite a lack of resources for divorced parents, she and her son’s father decided to keep their son removed from their conflict, and, in the process, she realized that she had developed tools that could help her divorced couples. She has now worked with more than 13,000 divorcing parents and thousands more through her classes and books.

Common Step-Parenting Mistakes

According to Jean, a mistake that many people make when entering into a blended family situation is assuming that love will be enough to overcome the obstacles.

“They think, ‘Well, we love each other and it all ought to be great,’ but it’s a really complex situation,” Jean said.

Not only are two spouses bringing their lives, backgrounds, interests, and issues together. But when children are involved, the adults need to consider the kids’ personalities and interests as well. And, of course, there’s the children’s other parent, all the grandparents, and, perhaps, the children’s other step-parent, too. Instead of simply making parenting decisions for a child, a stepparent must walk into a sea of choices. No matter what you do, there may be times when none of them are good.

Bringing Everyone Together

Jean says the best approach is for all of the significant adults in the child’s life to try to come together and talk. Think of this like a board of directors for the child. She says everyone doesn’t need to be friends, but to be something more like business partners.

“You need to be able to talk when you see each other,” she said. “When the kids are moving between households and they left their soccer clothes at one parent’s home or their French homework, they need to be able to get it without there being some kind of cold war.”

According to Jean, the term co-parenting is a shortened form of cooperative parenting. For most people, learning to effectively co-parent takes time and practice. Just as parents have to learn how to take care of a child over time, learning to co-parent is a process. And—just like parenting—it’s one that often includes missteps and mistakes.

Cooperative Parenting

“I think children benefit from as many good, helpful adults in their life as possible, whether that’s teachers, coaches, or family. A stepparent can provide a lot of other really good things,” she said. “A blended family can give kids additional siblings. Sometimes, a blended family brings more stability to the family, and that’s helpful. I am in a stepfamily as well, and I think that it’s good.”

According to Jean, cooperative parenting is really just another phase of parenting. With time, practice, good information, and support, anyone can become an excellent co-parent. As the world becomes more accustomed to divorce and blended families, more resources become available. This is making the learning curve less steep.

“Divorce is changing as co-parenting is becoming much more the norm, just as society in general is looking at families in a number of different configurations,” Jean said. “It’s changing, and I think it’s for the better.”

Join us for the other posts in this series. We’ll learn Jean’s thoughts on why step-parenting is so difficult—and why it’s even harder for stepmoms; some encouraging information for anyone in a blended family; and what some best practices are for handling the holidays and other tricky times.