Being a step-parent can be a real challenge. A step-parent is somewhat like being in middle management – you get the complaints from 'above' and 'below'. It is important to try and not get caught in the middle. One way out of this dilemma is to step out from the middle and simply be part of 'senior management'. Successful employment of that strategy will require cooperation from the biological parent. But if you don't have that already, that may well be a major source of the difficulty to begin with.
Like any change in relationships, adjustments take time. Attempting to force the situation will likely result in frustration to all parties. The biological parent may well be threatened by the need to 'share power' and the child will typically resent being guided by someone not 'officially sanctioned'.
Here again, cooperation of the biological parent is key. Honestly communicating frustrations in a non-confrontational way gives that parent the opportunity to hear what needs the step-parent may have that are being thwarted. Experience suggests that no-quick fix or instantaneous change is likely to take place. Several calm, mature discussions will need to occur before a meaningful, lasting shift can take place.
The step-child, too, will necessarily be part of the equation. Seeing another adult in the role of step-parent, rather than intruder, will take time. How much time will depend on the age and individual personality of the child. The child shouldn't be allowed to dictate terms – adults need to remain the term-setters in the house. But a sincere respect for the child's context will benefit all parties.
One way to ease this transition is to have the biological parent, the step-parent and the children sit down for a quiet, unhurried talk. This assumes the children are older than about three or so. During the discussion, which the biological parent should initially lead, an age appropriate 'statement of policy' can be revealed and talked about.
The two parents should have prepared this in advance and agreed on any compromise beforehand. The discussion should not be one of simply 'laying down the law'. Children need a sense of control and freedom to choose just as adults do. But the adults are necessarily in the role of ultimate 'decider' in the household.
Showing the children that the adults are united in this area will go a long way toward avoiding playing one parent off the other – including those in another household. It will provide the children with clear guidance that will need to be reinforced by actual experiences and occasional reminders.
Such an arrangement, formalized by the discussion, will help to relieve anxiety on the part of the step-parent about what he or she should expect. The step-parent, too, needs to know where to assert authority, and when to take a back seat.
All parties benefit.