Disengaging Stepmoms: Signs It’s Time To Step Back

It’s no news that every blended family not only looks different, but functions different. Dynamics between one blended family and another can be great. Parenting isn’t a one-size-fits-all, and what may work for your family in the beginning may not work out the entire time you are raising your children. Just like our children change and grow, so do the challenges of parenting and especially co-parenting.

Stepmothers enter the relationship with the magical vision of creating a new family, and often times they are met with complexities that they never saw coming. I know personally, for the first 8 years of stepmomming I was very close with my stepdaughter, and treated her like she was one of my own children. But as children grow they require different things from their parents. Stepmom’s are not exempt, in fact, the changes and challenges may be greater for her than for other parents involved.

Stepfather’s are often better off. Unlike stepmothers, they don’t turn into the disney villan, evil stepmother, or witch on a broom when they say “I do”. Through a lot of pain and suffering, many stepmothers have learned the hard way that the word “parent” should not be a part of stepparenting.

“Studies show that children resent parenting attempts by their parent’s new spouse, even when one of their parents is deceased (Martin, 2009).

It can be especially hard to “parent” as a stepparent during child custody battles and the pre-teen/teen years. Certain things can occur though all stages of child development that make it impossible to co-parent or even play a role in parenting as a stepmother.

Maybe the relationship with your stepchildren is a bit rocky, you aren’t on the same page as your significant other about rules and discipline with the kids, or you’re constantly looking like the bad guy…

Here are five signs it might be time to disengage:

  • You feel angry and resentful a lot of the time. When your sincerest and most loving intentions are met with an absence of enthusiasm at best, and apathy or scorn at worst, bitterness can seep into all the places where love used to live (Snyder, 2013).
  • You are more invested in changing your stepchildren’s behavior than their father (or mother) is. Even if you and your partner agree on most parenting points, when you are the parent spending the time and energy required to enforce rules, require hygiene, and instill discipline, a dynamic often occurs where your partner abdicates parenting responsibilities. This can be extremely stressful, especially if you are also seeing that out of all parents involved you are putting forth the most effort.
  • You frequently realize that you’re requiring things of yourself that are not appreciated or desired. “Stepmothers often run themselves ragged trying to fill what they see as their appropriate role” (Snyder, 2013). Unfortunately, the expectation that they have for themselves doesn’t always line up with what the children, or biological parents want, and so angry and resentful stepchildren and biological parents result and an already fragile relationship suffers.
  • You’re spending more energy on being a stepmother than on being a wife. Ultimately, your relationship with your husband is the most important. It’s the one that will remain when the children are grown and move on in their lives. It’s also the relationship your children see modeled as what is to be expected as normal in romantic relationships. If your marriage is to survive, it’s imperative that you prioritize it appropriately.
  • Your self-esteem is wrapped up in your relationships with your stepchildren. “Overinvestment in your role as a stepmother, your stepchildren’s behavior, or in how others perceive you in your family role, is a sure path to disintegrating self-image, anxiety or depression – and a broken relationship” (Snyder, 2013).

“Disengaging isn’t some nasty, hostile tit-for-tat. It isn’t, “You let your kids treat me badly, eff you, I’m not doing anything for you or your kids anymore.” Disengaging is a thoughtful, planned strategy in which a woman who is partnered with a man with kids hands parenting and caretaking responsibilities back to him in an attempt to improve herself, her partnership and her relationship with his kids.”

Wednesday Martin, PhD

In our family, when our kids were younger, I played a huge role in the everyday parenting… after building the foundation and relationships with my stepdaughter, I felt comfortable saying “No”, or enforcing consequences. It just made sense given I was home with the kids more than dad was.

I had no problem suspending phone use, taking away tablets, or enforcing chores. The kids were receptive, and followed the household rules, which were no different when dad was gone than what was expected when he was here. We were on the same page with SD’s biomom as well, so the rules and expectations were fluid between households.

When we embarked on the teenage years, we all felt a shift in our household. Not only did I notice that I was the only one enforcing rules and having difficult discussions, but I noticed that my stepdaughter wasn’t as receptive to me playing this role as she once was… and neither was her mother.

It’s difficult not to automatically resort to taking it personally, but we must remember that there’s no manual for stepparenting – changes can and will occur throughout your journey. I realized that I needed to react in a way that’s best for our family dynamic, and that meant that instead of attempting to re-establish my role as a parental figure, I needed to disengage. I didn’t want obedience, I wanted a healthy relationship with my stepdaughter. One built on trust and respect.

Imagine the resiliency needed to go from one home to another, adjusting to new siblings, step-siblings, rules, and different parents.

The act of disengaging

Disengaging meant letting go of my end of the rope. It meant respecting that I was not the mother, she was not my child, and there are two active parents involved in her upbringing, whether I agreed with their decisions or not.

It began with shrinking my duties as cook, cleaner, driver, tutor, nanny, and whatever else I was doing. It meant releasing myself from things that engaged and involved my stepdaughter. Detaching from parental conversations between biomother and my husband. Dropping my opinions and my ego, and just letting things be. After all, I didn’t marry my husband so I could be mother to his child.

I took a step back, gave my stepchild some space, let her come to me, and had her dad take care of the heavy conversations. My husband and I would have parenting conversations “behind the scenes”, and ultimately he made the final decision. I learned to bite my tongue, take a walk, and not to sweat the small stuff.

As someone who likes order and control, it wasn’t super easy right off the bat, but it was worth it! Ultimately it left less resentment and anger about simple things, and allowed more time for my stepdaughter and I to have a healthy relationship. Regardless of the titles.

How to Disengage from a High Conflict Personality

  1. Remind yourself that you do have a choice about whether or not to engage.
  2. Stop dead in your tracks remaining silent when you sense that once again, a discussion is heading in a bad direction.
  3. Give yourself a moment to think before you say more.
  4. Plan to revisit the issue at a time when everyone is more calm and in control.

“Disengagement is a skill that works in situations where tempers, emotions, and opinions are heading in and out of control. Often times we think we have to argue and defend ourselves, when in fact the rational thing to do is to stand back and think rather than react” (Baratta, 2013).

How has disengagement worked for you and yours? If you liked this post Like, Comment & Subscribe!


Baratta, M., (October 3, 2013), Disengaging From a Fight https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/skinny-revisited/201310/disengaging-fight

Merriam-Webster (n.d.), Disengage: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/disengage

Martin, W., (December 3, 2009), How and Why to Take the Parent out of Stepparenting https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/stepmonster/200912/how-and-why-take-the-parent-out-stepparenting

Martin, W., (February 24, 2011), Stepmothers on Strike: How Can Doing Less Save Your Marriage https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/stepmonster/201102/stepmothers-strike-how-can-doing-less-save-your-marriage

Scrimgeour, J., (October 8, 2018), What Happened When I Stopped Parenting My Stepkids https://www.jamiescrimgeour.com/the-poptart-diaries/when-should-a-stepmom-disengage-from-parenting

Snyder, B., (July 2013), Disengaging Stepmoms: 5 Signs It’s Time to Step Back https://www.stepmommag.com/2017/09/25/5-signs-its-time-for-a-stepmother-to-disengage/#.Xu997rhKifU

2 thoughts on “Disengaging Stepmoms: Signs It’s Time To Step Back

  1. “Imagine the resiliency needed to go from one home to another, adjusting to new siblings, step-siblings, rules, and different parents.” This is so true. I also feel for my bonus kids because they seem to take on the role of emotional caretakers for their bio mom, rather than it being the other way around. Like you, I was more involved when they were younger. Disengaging has been necessary and I’ve also learned to bit my tongue on many occasions. It’s not easy. Thanks for sharing your story and the useful resources.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Isn’t it terrible seeing your children take the role of an emotional caretaker for another parent? This is one of the hardest things for me, which is what encouraged a more open relationship with my stepdaughter. Being the emotional caretaker takes away support and understand for what our kids are going through. As a stepmom we can be there a bit more than the parents can, as an outside force. Not pushing conversations, but being willing to have them is so valuable to our children.

      Liked by 1 person

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