Good Cop, Bad Cop: The Stepparents Guide

stepparents guide

The ole good cop/bad cop routine is one you see police partners use to manage suspects and conduct investigation in crime dramas. One cop is the heavy—laying down the law and being firm, while the other cop takes a softer approach, gaining the suspect’s trust. The method uses basic psychology to get the cooperation the police need from the subject in question. We think this method should be in chapter one of the Stepparents Guide.

You only need to watch a few fairy tales to know that, on the whole, stepparents get a bad rap. The wicked stepmother narrative is as old as time. Maybe that’s because maintaining good relationships in a blended family can be tricky. This is where the good cop/bad cop principle can be effective!

A friend of mine shared recently that when her 14-year-old daughter, Jordan, needed some major correction. She and Jordan’s dad took the reins and allowed her husband—the stepfather—to play the role of “good cop.” Jordan’s mom and dad took the brunt of her anger about new rules they felt were needed, and her stepdad was able to simply serve as a sounding board when Jordan wanted to talk about it.

Bottom line: Wise stepparents can guide and nurture stepchildren without blowing up a fragile relationship. {Tweet This} Learn how to apply the “good cop” principle in your relationship with your stepchildren.

  • Let your spouse take the lead 99% of the time. Whenever possible, let your spouse take the lead in difficult conversations and moments of correction. The natural parent-child bond they have can take the strain of those moments better than your step relationship, even if you’ve been a part of the family for years. The natural parent can survive being the bad cop more easily than you.
  • Walk softly with your stepchildren. To walk softly doesn’t mean that you don’t have authority in the home. It just means that you possess the wisdom and self-control to exercise it, without yelling, belittling or adding to the conflict in any way. This is good advice for any parent, but it’s especially useful for stepparents. Remember, your stepchildren likely look for clues in your speech and behavior each day to discern how you feel about them. You may think you’re reacting to or correcting their behavior, but they feel as if you’re expressing how you feel about them. You, as the adult, must take the lead and model restraint to build a good relationship with your stepchild.
  • Defer to the other natural parent when possible. We realize this is tricky. Sometimes the other natural parent is no longer around because he or she has a lot to learn about being a spouse and about being a parent. In these cases, the full load of parenting falls on the natural parent who is still in the home and in the game. But there are many divorced couples who both parent well, their marriage just didn’t survive. In those cases, do all that you can to make the natural parents (and the child especially) realize you understand the role and importance of that other natural parent,and that you’re not attempting to take his or her place.
  • Play the role of encourager. Look for opportunities to say positive and encouraging things to your stepchild. When your spouse has been forced to play the bad cop and things in the home are tense, you may be able to come alongside your stepchild and say, essentially, “Hey, I know this is hard, and you’re upset with your dad right now. But he loves you and just wants what’s best for you. I love you too and think you’re a great kid. Things will get better, so hang in there.”
  • Err on the side of generosity and fairness. When in doubt, choose to believe the best about your stepchild. No, this is not a call to blind naiveté, but a reminder that sometimes we all need for someone to believe the best about us. And occasionally, it’s that confidence that propels us toward our better impulses. If your stepchild knows you think he/she is a good kid, they might just try to live up to your expectations.

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In The Comments

How does your blended family encourage good stepparent-stepchild relationships and minimize conflict?


  • Lindsay Dalley Stephenson

    THANK YOU for posting something for Step-parents!! So helpful!!

  • E Rodriguez

    Wow wish I read this a year ago, any suggestions on reversing how I handle situations, I always made mistake of feeling like I need to be the disciplinarian when it comes to correction with my stepson cus Im the make role figure in his life since his natural father can’t be counted on. But it seems as he has resented me instead and feels like I butt in too much and has thrown the “your not my father” several times. I do love him and know he loves me back but our relationship has gone downward since he started jhs (he’s 11) and his behavior has been terrible at home with his mom and at school now. Now my eyes have opened to the fact that maybe my trying to help is not actually not helping and I need to take a different approach. But how do I all of a sudden switch to good cop when he sees me as bad cop when he misbehaves?

  • Lila

    Another solid resource for blended families is a gentleman named Ron Deal. His site is smart stepfamilies dot com. You’ll also find him on Family Life and Focus on the Family. Blessings to your family!