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Being a Stepparent in a Challenging Co-parenting Dynamic

By Erika Trowell M.Ed., LPC

If someone would have told me I was going to become a wife, a biological mother of

two, and a stepmother of two, all in a four-year time frame, I probably would have sucked my

teeth, rolled my eyes, and said “pssssh, yea okay.” While each of these roles carries its own

stressors and would require a lot, I had no idea the hardest role of them all would be the role of

“stepmom”. I knew it would be a learning experience, and I was looking forward to getting to

know two cool and sweet young humans.

When my husband and I were dating, he had given me the heads up the mothers of his

two children were challenging to co-parent with. As we continued to date and started building

our life together, I noticed a few common themes that were often the center of the conflicts

that would arise in the co-parenting dynamic. Structure and Scheduling, me building a

relationship with each child, self-regulation, and our marriage/relationship, were all elements

that I would soon become very acquainted with in different ways.

Structure and scheduling provided me with insight on how coordination must occur,

planning vacations must be particular, and visitation is sometimes used as currency. Even if a

parent is confrontational, bitter or manipulative, it may still come as a surprise, to see just how

far that parent is willing to go to create disruption. Sabotaged visitation weekends, excuses, and

downright refusal of court-ordered visitation (which is another topic I plan to discuss in an

article in the future), and the classic line of “Your kid is never going to see you again”, all started

to seem like the norm.

What I have learned so far as a stepparent, is to give myself grace with adjusting to the

demands of structure and scheduling. I find it helpful to ask for clarification on dates, times, and

inquiring about what visitation looks like during the holidays. Being open and flexible when

appropriate, also allowed me to grow out of some of my rigid thinking.

Does the idea of getting to know a child or adolescent sound like a layered, potentially

challenging, but also rewarding experience? Now mix in a biological parent who is so against it,

they will try multiple attempts to prevent the growth of that blooming relationship between

stepparent and child. Sounds like a recipe for plenty of ‘WHAT THE HECK?” moments.

As a therapist by trade, I have worked with more adolescents than I can count, and at

different levels of care. Even with the experience under my belt it still did not quite prepare me

for the journey of developing a relationship with my stepchildren. I remember meeting these

two sweet children, not knowing at the time that I would end up loving these children and

caring for them. As time passed, I have learned about their likes, dislikes, ideas, and things that

make them laugh. I also opened-up to them, because after all, how could we build a bond if

they did not have an opportunity to get to know me as well. Through it all, I was constantly

monitoring and sometimes overthinking where I needed to be mindful of boundaries, so I did not cross into the role or space of their biological mother. With that, came an increased

awareness of topics being discussed, answering questions, and showing healthy and meaningful

emotions and affection. Having a relationship with children who are not biologically mine, does

carry some ups and downs, but with the presence of love, patience, and dedication, beauty of a

blended family emerged.

Through the process of building a relationship with my stepchildren, I realized whether I

birthed them or not, I can love and care for them in a motherly way. I can nourish them,

encourage them, protect them, and even disagree with them. I had to spend a great deal of

time validating my emotions and not feel discouraged by any antagonizing behaviors, of a

biological mother who works endlessly to try and prevent the development of a healthy

relationship between her child and another woman. I began to realize engaging with someone

in that state of mind does nothing but create doubt, frustration, and confusion within myself.

As a stepmother, who is a human being first, I have the right to have boundaries that should be

respected. Having these boundaries allows me to create some peace for myself during the


There were moments in which I struggled with regulating myself emotionally and would

tell my husband “I not ready to deal with this right now”. The range of emotions I have

experienced in this journey is astonishing. I worked to get myself to a place where I could

acknowledge, validate, and work through the emotions that as a human being, I was

experiencing. Challenging negative thinking was also imperative because it gave me the chance

to realize the toxic behavior and energy being directed at me was simply the projection of

someone else, who struggled with acceptance and emotion regulation. Regulating myself took

time, patience, and willingness to explore and learn more about my triggers.

Now, for a marriage and relationship to thrive through the process of blending a family,

one can probably guess an occasional bump in the road will occur right? Well, the part that one

may not be as prepared for is the height of that bump, and just how frequently those bumps in

the road may occur. My marriage and the bond with my husband have experienced some real

growing pains as a result of those bumps in the road. Now this is not to say that every time a

conflict arises that my marriage faces conflict or disagreement, because honestly some of

things that have happened, gave us an opportunity to laugh, and realize nonsense of that

magnitude services no purpose or benefit in our relationship. However, a lot of work has been

done to separate my emotions from my husband’s, and understanding my triggers are not his

triggers and vice versa. I had to learn the importance of acknowledging, validating, and

honoring his experience as a father and as a human being in a challenging co-parenting

dynamic. Validating his emotions did not mean I had to reject mine, rather, there was a great

opportunity for me to have his back and create a supportive and safe space for him.

Knowing, Reflecting, and revisiting the fundamental elements of our marriage has given me the courage to face and accept the growing pains. The ways my husband and I have grown as individuals in this, has also created an opportunity for us to also grow together. We do not

have the blueprint on how to navigate every issue that comes about in the area of co-parenting,

but we do have our morals, values, and the goal of having a blended family that can function

and thrive through challenges.

As I continue to experience the journey of being a stepparent, I look forward to continuing to embrace it for what it is, and not labeling the experience as either good or bad. I would rather take the time to be reflective of the growth and progression. Keeping in mind the ways I can maintain communication, acknowledge and regulate emotions, and practice acceptance, I have a newfound confidence in my abilities to be stepmother to my amazing stepchildren.


Erika Trowell, M.Ed., LPC is an Outpatient Therapist and a graduate of Virginia State University, where she received a Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology, and a Master of Education in Community Counseling.

Over the course of her years in the mental health field, she has had the honor of working with children, adolescents, adults, and families. Erika has an aptitude for working with individuals from

different backgrounds, demographics, and cultures. Erika has worked in different settings to

include in-home, psychiatric hospital, community-based programs, and outpatient. She was also

one of two therapists who developed curriculum and facilitated the use of Exposure Therapy in

a therapeutic program, focused on treating School Refusal behaviors in adolescents, at a partial

hospitalization level of care. Using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy,

Erika has provided clients with support in navigating some of life’s biggest challenges. As a first-

generation citizen, Erika has developed a strong passion for supporting and encouraging the use

of therapeutic approaches to address cultural stigmas and biases about family trauma,

dysfunction, and unhealthy communication styles. Erika is licensed as a therapist in the state of

Virginia and continues to work in the outpatient setting today.


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