One recommendation that stepparents hear frequently is “don’t overstep your bounds,” or “stay in your lane.”  It’s an important principle to remember, but it can be frustrating because it’s rarely clear where your lane is.  Furthermore, as your relationship with your family deepens, and especially as your children get older, that lane changes.  So how do we as Plan B parents figure out where our lane is at any given time?  This week, let’s discuss some principles for figuring out where we fit into our unusual and challenging families.

1.         Court Orders and Case Plans.

  The first and most obvious set of boundaries is whatever custody orders and case plans are in place.  Stepparents have to work within whatever visitation rules and rights govern their spouses.   These documents, no matter how much we dislike them, set the outer boundaries of the decisions we can make.  Following them may be a constant irritant in our lives, but we have to learn to live with them.  The best option is to learn to be creative within those limits, and to always, always work with our kids’ best interests in mind.

2.         We Are Not the People Who Are Supposed to Be In Our Kids’ Lives.

One unalterable fact is that, from our kids’ perspectives, we are not the people who are supposed to be there.  If our children had a magic wand, they would be living with both their biological parents, not us. We might be their school teachers or the nice neighbors next door, but we would not have any parental role in their lives.

That fact will set many of our lane boundaries for us. No matter how wonderful we are, we cannot replace our kids’ biological parent.  That fact can show up in small ways — such as not asking our kids to call us “mom” or “dad" — or in larger issues.  For example, many stepparents want to support their kids by helping in extracurricular activities.  But if our kids’ biological parents are also involved in the sports team or drama club, our trying to help may just create a difficult dilemma for our kids.

In all these situations, we can only do as much as our kids want and will let us do.  I’ve learned, for example, that while my kids want me at big events like graduation and weddings, I shouldn’t claim the spotlight.  My lane is to be just one of the guests, wishing them well and supporting my husband.  None of these situations is about me, and my focus has to be on what my kids need from me, not vice versa.

Finally, we cannot set ourselves up in competition with our kids’ biological parents.  If we do that, we will lose.  Of course, it’s human nature to want our spouses to believe that we are more wonderful than their exes.  It’s also human nature to want our kids to see how wonderful we are as well.  But facts don’t care about what we want, and the fact is that the only way we can “win” a competition with biological parents is to not play the game.

Knowing that we are Plan B parents does not mean that we are second-best.  An Oscar for Best Supporting Actor rather than Best Actor is still an Oscar.  We can still have an important impact on our kids by loving them and taking a step back in favor of their biological parents.  Our job is to be loving mentors and role models, not substitute for their biological parents.

3.         Let Your Spouse Take Point with His/Her Biological Kids.

Because each of us is a Plan B adult in your kids’ lives, we have to give precedence to the person who is supposed to be there — our spouses and our kids’ biological parents.  No matter how much we love our stepchildren, they will instinctively look to their biological parents for guidance. Our lane is to support our spouses as they provide that guidance.

Supporting our spouses can be difficult when we think they are wrong.  But, aside from safety concerns, it’s not our job to correct them.  It’s our job to help and support them.  And, frankly, I’ve always found my husband to be more receptive to my ideas when he feels supported rather than criticized.  To be honest, being critical (I call it analytical) is much easier for me than being supportive (I call it touchy-feely).  But I am a Plan B parent, bonus parent, stepparent — whatever you call it, I am not the parent.  My lane is to support the person who is the parent.

Of course, my providing an extra set of hands did help my husband when we still had kids at home, and he voluntarily off-loaded many tasks to me.  He always said, for example, that the boys listened more to me than to him about clothes-shopping, and we soon learned that I could be less emotional talking to the boys’ mother about visitation issues.  The key to making those decisions work, in other words, was that we both agreed on my lane ahead of time and talked through what was involved.  I wasn’t jumping in and taking over (which I admit, I’m prone to do).  I was giving my husband the help that he wanted, and that he explained to the kids was now part of my role in the family.

4.         Take Your Time.

It’s very easy to jump into a new marriage or relationship with all four feet, trying enthusiastically to take care of your new family and solve all the problems.  If you do that, however, you are almost certain to overstep your bounds.  Your spouse and his/her kids already have an established way of doing things, and you need to take your time to figure out where you fit in that routine.

You also need to connect with your kids before trying to take over tasks in the family.  Relationships have to be organic, and they take time to grow.  Don’t rush your kids and your spouse.  Give everyone the time and space to figure out what these new relationships will look like and where everyone fits into the routine.

Finally, expect your lane to change as your relationships develop and especially as your children get older.  As you feel more comfortable with each other, there will be more opportunities for you to be part of your kids’ lives. Then, when they hit puberty, everything may come to a screeching halt.  Teens and preteens start becoming more independent, and part of that development is pushing back against adults in their lives. I often joke that teens are cave-dwelling mammals, who emerge only to forage for food.  So don’t take it personally when your lane suddenly turns into an off-ramp.  Simply respect their limits and be available when they need and want you.

5.         Make a One-Way Commitment to Your Family.

The final principle is that we have to love our spouses and kids without limits and commit to their welfare.  Those commitments need healthy boundaries, but they also need to be one-way.  We can’t love our children in order to have a good relationship with them.  Good relationships grow out of their knowing that they are loved.   Our commitment and love for our families has to set the foundation from which a relationship can grow.

I know from experience how hard it is to stay committed to family members who ignore or reject you.  It’s human nature to pull back and wait for someone else to make the first move.  In those situations, we may have to stand on the sidelines and watch, but we still have to find it in ourselves to be committed to helping our family whenever they indicate that they want us there.

The practical outgrowth of this commitment is that our lane is what our spouse and our kids need from us.  That doesn’t mean we read tea leaves and jump to conclusions.  The best way to help is to offer and then respond to what they say.  They may not want our help.  But if we can ever find an opportunity to let them know, in a way that they will accept, how much we love them, we need to be ready and able to do just that.


It’s easy for people to say to us that we should stay in our lanes.  It’s much harder to know where those lanes are.  We can start by paying attention to the reality that we’re not supposed to be there and that our primary role is to support our kids’ biological parents.  Then we need to take our time, give our kids space, and learn how to make one-way commitments to our families.  Those principles will give us some helpful guidelines for knowing where our lanes are in our individual situations.

Email me or comment to let me know how you have found your lane or any other markers I might have missed.


Debbie Ausburn

Helping foster parents and stepparents learn how to be the person who is not supposed to be there.