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Good Cop, Bad Cop: The Stepparents Guide

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The ol’ good cop/bad cop routine is what you see police partners use to manage suspects and conduct investigations in crime dramas. One cop is the heavy, who lays down the law and stays firm. The other cop takes a softer approach, gaining the suspect’s trust. The method uses basic psychology to get cooperation from the subject in question. At iMOM, we think this routine should be in chapter one of the Stepparents Guide because it is key in overcoming major stepparent struggles. A friend of mine shared recently that 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 a set of new rules and her stepdad was able simply to serve as a sounding board when Jordan wanted to talk about it. Wise stepparents can guide and nurture stepchildren without blowing up a fragile relationship. Here’s how to apply the “good cop” principle in a relationship with stepchildren.

Let your spouse take the lead 99 percent of the time.

One of the biggest stepparent struggles is the fragility of the relationship between a stepparent and stepchildren. 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.

Walk softly with your stepchildren.

To walk softly doesn’t mean that you don’t have authority in the home. It just means 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 be 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 regardless of the fact that their marriage ended. In those cases, do all 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 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 or she is a good kid, he or she might just try to live up to your expectations.

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

Dana Hall McCain writes about marriage, parenting, faith and wellness. She is a mom of two, and has been married to a wonderful guy for over 18 years.


Do you feel like grownups really listen to you when you talk?

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