On the outside looking in? Insider/Outsider relationships in stepfamilies

Feel like an outsider in your own home? Let me guess, you’re a stepparent, right?

Stepfamilies are different from first-time families. Despite that seeming like such common-sense, many adults in stepfamilies still assume their stepfamily will function just like a first-time family. Those expectations of fitting a round peg (think stepfamily) into a square hole (think first-time family) causes us stepparents a whole lotta grief. Unachievable and unrealistic, these expectations lead us down the path of unwanted feelings – of rejection, of being invisible, and of frustration – ending at the dreaded destination of full-on resentment.

Dr Patricia Papernow (leading stepfamily expert and academic) describes the ‘stuck insider’ and ‘stuck outsider’ roles that exist in stepfamilies, but not in first-time families. These roles are present in almost every new stepfamily and they hang around for years or for as long as the family exists depending on the age of stepchildren, personalities and co-parenting dynamics.

In first-time families, children will feel closer to either their mum or their dad at different times while they grow and develop. This closeness generally shifts back and forth from one parent to another and can cause some hurt for either biological parent when they aren’t the one who is ‘in’ at the moment. The toddler who will only let dad put her to sleep is a good example. This may happen for a few nights or weeks and mom may feel a bit put out. Especially if she’s a stay at home mom. In stepfamilies this same phenomenon occurs, but there generally isn’t any shifting back and forth between who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. The stepkids feel closer to their biological parent (rightly so) and the stepparent gets stuck in the outsider role.

Picture it – you and the love of your life finally sit down to talk after a long day. Your stepson bursts in wanting to talk about soccer practice. Your partner – who you love because he is such a good dad – turns away from you to focus on his son and you feel … hurt and rejected. You let your partner know before bed how that made you feel and he feels … torn and probably inadequate. He as the biological parent is stuck on the inside balancing between the people he loves. You are stuck on the outside feeling lonely and unseen. And, your stepson is oblivious. He’s not intentionally trying to hurt anyone. He’s just seeking the parental attention and connection that all kids want and need.

So, how can you and your partner become unstuck?

  • Let go of first-time family expectations. Stepfamilies don’t function like a first-time family (nor should they), so neither should you. Educate yourself on stepfamily dynamics. We have a lot of research-based information on our blog right here. Be careful when searching the net. There are lots of blogs and coaches out there with the best intentions but little evidence. Stick to the sites and counsellors who have specific research-based knowledge and experiencing working with stepfamilies. Dr Papernow’s book ‘Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamilies’ is a great resource.
  • Spend more time one-on-one. Yes, that includes you and your lover. But, it doesn’t stop there. Your stepkids and your partner need their own time together. You and your stepkids (when they are ready) need time without your partner. When it comes to your time with the kids try ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ activities – hiking, cooking, playing video games. These types of activities take the pressure off. They are less conversationally intense, let kids have an active out if they are feeling uncomfortable and don’t require a lot of direct eye contact. Perfect for those teen years and when a relationship is strained.
  • When you do do family time, do things that the stepparent and stepchild are good at but the biological parent isn’t. For example, if you and your stepkids are skiers but your partner not so much, skiing is a great family activity to help shift the insider/outsider roles a bit. You and the kids have something in common separate from your partner and that puts your partner closer to an ‘outsider’ for a bit of time. You and the kids can work together to teach your partner to become a better skier and you can enjoy some time as an ‘insider’ while doing so.
  • Don’t take it personal. Children shift between parents in all families. It’s okay and natural that they would lean towards their biological parent in a stepfamily.
  • Reconnect with your partner. After any interruptions, make it a priority to instigate a reconnection. Move back towards your partner and pick up that conversation (& connection) where you left off.
  • Use the time your partner is having one-on-one with his kids to do something for yourself. Catch up with a friend, get a massage, have a glass of wine. Take care of yourself. It begins with you.

We’d love to hear all about insider/outsider stories in the comments below.


  1. I am a mother of 3 daughters twin girls who are 10 and a half years old and my youngest just turned 9. My fiance has 4 children of his own and they are 22, 19, 8 and 5. So between us, we have 7 children. It’s very hard at times. The oldest who is 22 doesn’t work and isn’t studying. He stays up late playing video games and watching his TV shows. So then he doesn’t get up until after 2 pm the next day. This goes on every day. I am sick of it and feel that every time I bring it up it creates an argument and my partner feels like I am picking on him and his parenting which is not my intention. My intention is to give ways to help the situation but he feels like it is an attack on him.

    Then his youngest son who just turned 8 he is a year younger than my youngest daughter. I know boys mature later but come on, my partner makes excuses for him all the time and babies him too much. I feel that if a child interrupts a conversation between 2 adults it doesn’t matter who they are they should have to learn manners. This is considered rude and I don’t tolerate it.

    Yes, I understand the child wants time with the biological parent but manners are important too. I don’t feel that the stepparent should have to wait while the child is allowed to butt in and take over the biological parents time.

    Tell me if I am wrong but we teach our children manners from a young age why in this situation is it different.

  2. Candice, I have found that a lot of times in stepfamilies, guilty parenting doesn’t allow much room for manners….

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