Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Stepmother Questions Fairness of What Is Expected of Her

grown woman sitting with stepmom
Photo by Iryna Inshyna/Shutterstock

Dear Dr. Gramma Karen,

I’m a stepmother with no children of my own. I have a grown stepdaughter who is 28. She wants to tell me how things are going be in this family, and the expectations she wants me to fulfill. She even uses a third party to teach me how to parent her younger siblings. Is it fair? Please help.

Dr. Gramma Karen’s Response:

Being a parent is hard enough, but being a stepmother is even more challenging in many ways. As a parent you get to set boundaries, establish discipline, teach your values, make the rules: you are in the cat bird seat. Being a stepmom, however, is like being parachuted into a play that is several acts in: you don’t know the script, and although you may know the role you would like to play, the other players (i.e., family members) often have their own ideas about the role they want you to be playing.

Many times, these differing opinions are at odds, and the stepmom is resented and made to feel not welcome. This may describe how you are feeling. You ask if this is fair, but it doesn’t matter what you and I may think about fairness. What matters is how you can best survive, even thrive, in your difficult situation. I have several recommendations for how you might accomplish this.

Let me start by saying that when someone starts a new job, a common mistake he/she makes is to come in and start making contributions. After all, he/she was hired to make contributions. This is a mistake. As I said, the production is already in play when a newcomer joins the organization, or in this case, joins a family. There is a history of traditions and interactions that are unknown to the newcomer. As such, you are treated as an outsider because you are an outsider!

Starting Off as An Outsider

As such, your initial goal is to spend a lot of time listening and observing what’s going on in your new family – how people are interacting, how they treat each other, their routines, schedules, likes and dislikes. It is critical for you to try to understand how you can best and easily fit in, that is, be accepted. This is an important point: You can try to influence things and hope your views and opinions carry any weight only after you have been accepted. You won’t be accepted until you have proven that you understand the environment into which you are now a member and the dynamics fueling it.

This is hard to pull off, especially when you are observing things that you know could be improved or enhanced, for instance regarding discipline. In an article in which stepmoms share what they wish they knew beforehand, there is this advice from one stepmom: “Leave the disciplining to their parents until they’ve established a relationship built of respect … I have to say I wish I had followed that rule of not discipling stepchildren. I really wish I had known that it can cause a rift in the relationship really early. If you can hold off for a couple of years on not doing any discipline, you’re more likely to gain their trust and develop that sense of closeness.”

Granted, waiting as long as two years to earn the right to be more of an active and involved stepparent may seem like a long time, but the point is that trying to contribute prematurely will lessen your chances of success. You’ll know you have earned the necessary trust and respect when you are specifically asked for your opinion.

Proceed Slowly and Cautiously

If you have not been asked for your opinion or advice and you think that maybe you have developed enough respect and trust, you might test the waters by saying, “Might I share an idea with you about such-and-such?” That is, you seek permission first. The very act of asking permission first transmits that you are being respectful of what is already in place.

In your situation, it sounds like your 28-year-old stepdaughter has very definite ideas about childrearing practices. The fact that she is asking someone to tutor you in her ways may suggest that she feels you are being resistant and/or need to be schooled in more detail about her expectations concerning your role. My advice is that you go into “student mode” and make it your job to learn what she wants you to learn and to follow through in meeting her expectations.

Again, I reiterate that over time, once you have earned her trust and respect, as well as from other members of the family, you may be given some latitude to take a more active role in shaping family practices. (One exception to waiting to speak up is if any physical or emotional abuse is suspected or confirmed, in which case the children’s pediatrician and/or school personnel must be informed.)

Do Not Share Your Frustrations with Your Husband or Other Family Members

Yes, trying to meet your stepdaughter’s expectations may try your patience and cause you frustration. I understand. However, my advice is that you do not share your frustrations with your husband or other family members because doing so can put them in the awkward position of expecting them to support you over other family members.

It is fine for you to ask your husband what you can say and do to fit in better with the family, but it is not in your best interest to tell your husband that his daughter’s expectations are frustrating you. Rather, share your frustrations and concerns with someone outside the family, for example, a close friend.

I close by pointing out that you are far from alone in facing the challenges of being a stepmother. If you would like to learn more about how other stepmoms are coping, I can suggest these three resources:

  1. “Twelve Things No One Tells You About Being a Stepparent”
  2. “21 Things No One Ever Tells You About Being a Step-Parent”
  3. “The Best Stepmom Blogs of 2020”

I hope that over time you come to feel that you are a trusted and respected stepmother.

Note from Dr. Gramma Karen: I anticipate that many of my readers will be looking for more details in this situation, such as: What about the husband? What are the ages of the kids? What are some examples of where the stepmom and grown daughter disagree? As interesting as these details might be, knowing them would not change my basic advice in any way. That is, a stepmom is an outsider until she earns the trust and respect of her new family.

She should not come in and start rearranging the furniture until she understands the current arrangement. And it does not matter if she is a world-famous interior decorator! This same advice applies to a stepdad.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.

Email queries to [email protected]

Dr. Rancourt’s most recent book is

It’s All About Relationships:

New Ways to Make Them Healthy and Fulfilling, at Home and at Work

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