Insiders and Outsiders

Stepmother: When your kids are here, I might as well be a piece of furniture.

Dad: But they’re my kids, what do you expect?

Stepmother: I expect you to treat me like I’m your wife!

Dad: How many times have I told you, don’t make me choose!

In a stepfamily, even though the new couple may be very much in love, the hard-wired, pre-existing attachments lie between parents and their children. So do the established agreements about everything from whether Grape Nuts is a breakfast food, or a form of cardboard, to the “appropriate” price for a new pair of sneakers.

This means that every time a child enters the room, or the conversation, the stepparent and the parent have very different experiences. The stepparent is a stuck outsider. Stuck outsiders feel left out and invisible. The parent is a stuck insider. Stuck insiders feel torn between the people they love.

It helps to know that this insider/outsider thing is not because you and your partner don’t love each other, although it may certainly feel this way. Nor is it because the kids are brats. It comes with the territory. It is a normal, if painful, result of living in a stepfamily.

If you both bring kids, you may switch insider and outsider positions, depending on which child is present. Even when both adults bring kids, the stepparent of a child who is struggling more than most, will be more of an outsider. The parent of that child will be more of the stuck insider.

Meeting insider/outsider challenges

Here are some tips. There are lots more in Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships.

    1. Connection in a stepcouple comes from empathizing with each other, not from feeling the same way.If you are the stepparent, remember that your partner’s experience of being caught between the people he or she loves is also very painful. If you are the parent, remember that being rejected on a daily basis, up close and personal, is extremely distressing to the sanest of us.


    1. If you are the stepparent, try to reach for comfort rather than attacking or withdrawingThe experience of being left out is nobody’s favorite! It may be easy to begin telling yourself a story like, “Obviously my partner doesn’t care about me.” Do try to hold on to the real story: Stepfamilies make stuck insiders and stuck outsiders. Both positions are painful.Try to resist dealing with your feelings by attacking your partner (“How could you be so clueless?) or withdrawing (with or without sulking). Make requests that your partner can successfully meet. “I could use a hug.” “I think I know what would help. Could you look at me a couple times during dinner? Could you play footsie under the table with me?” Ask your partner for time alone together. Meanwhile, support your partner’s time with his or her kids.


  1. If you are the parent, remember that …It can be very disappointing, and quite anxiety provoking, when your new love and your kids are struggling. Many parents urge their new partners to “just participate.” Try to remember that the realities make this very difficult for stepparents.You and your children have a bedrock of connection that your partner simply does not share. Furthermore, kids need their parents, not their stepparents. Children who are struggling with losses, loyalty binds, and too much change often need distance from their stepparents. You may not notice it, but often, your kids address themselves only to you without even looking at their stepparent. They may make hostile gestures to your partner behind your back, not because they are inherently sneaky. Rather, it is because they love you and need you and don’t want to disappoint you, but they are upset about having a stepparent.You can’t make your kids and your new partner love each other. However, you can help them both feel loved by you. When your partner complains about feeling left out, believe him or her! Take a breath and open your arms. “That has to be tough. Let me give you a hug.”

What has it been like for you to be the insider or the outsider (or both) in your stepfamily?

Published on: November 27, 2013
About the Author
Photo of Patricia Papernow

Dr. Patricia Papernow is widely recognized as one of the world's foremost experts on "blended families" and post-divorce parenting. Her groundbreaking new book, Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn’t is available at amazon and on her web site,

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Recent Comments

Hi BS,
I am so glad my post was helpful. I understand the part of you that says, “I made this bed, I have to lie in it.” But this isn’t actually the bed you made. You made a bed with a loving, cooperative husband. And you are right, you need to protect your son.

The word “abusive” is a strong one. I don’t use it lightly. But, if it is accurate, it can be a real relief to label it clearly. There is a terrific book by Patricia Evans that can help assess and respond. It is called The Verbally Abusive Relationship, also available on kindle sr=8-2keywords=verbally+abusive+husband#reader_B004GUS7OG

For anybody who needs control, ADHD can be very triggering. This is true for parents, much less for stepparents. It is especially for someone was raised with what I call “Jump!” “How high?” parenting. That may or may not be your husband. But calling a child names and arguing raises the child’s cortisol level (stress hormone) which actually makes ADD worse and gives a child even less control. Kids with ADHD especially need adults’ warmth and calm for self-regulation.

The arguing is also bad for your younger child. The research is telling us that even moderate tension between adults has a significant negative impact on children’s attention, social interaction, and immune systems. Kids feel it in their bodies, even if they don’t know what’s happening. The tension affects children’s sleep. Sleep is so critical that it creates these other impacts. Bummer.

It sounds like your husband can calm himself for awhile. That means that, until or unless he can maintain his calm, you are going to have to keep drawing the line. I am sorry to say that there is some danger in these situations that a yeller will get more abusive. Your husband may not. If you have any hint of escalation, make a plan with a friend you can stay with who has room for you and the kids, or find out where the shelters are in your community. Have a bag packed in your car, and a set of keys stashed where you can get to them.

On the positive side, I have seen the right medication (often an antidepressant) be very helpful to someone who finds himself getting mad easily. If he is open to it, an assessment by a good psychopharmacologist could be very helpful. “It’s just with your son,” is not a reason to not take meds, by the way. If he is losing his temper with a vulnerable kid, that’s a problem! Likewise, “It’s just a little anger, what’s the big deal?” is an incorrect assessment of the impact of adult name calling on children. As I said in my last post, I am guessing that this is not really who your husband wants to be in his heart of hearts. I have seen the right meds, especially combined with good therapy, help many a person to be the person they want to be.

I am so sorry if your husband is threatening you around custody issues. I know that is terrifying, but try not to let that control your thinking. It is a common strategy for someone who wants control. I am not a lawyer, and you may want to consult one about this, but in most states, mothers have to be very very abusive and off the wall to lose custody. If you are concerned that he will put a very different face forward to the public, you can tape him several times (in your pocket) so you have that data. Figure out how to download the data to your computer and send them to a trusted friend.

It is so sad to have to be thinking this way about someone you wanted to make a life with!
I wish you the best.


Dear BS,

You are in the ultimately painful insider role. I am so sorry. In my response to Danika’s comment (posted on the previous blog) this is generally (not always) exactly the dynamic that is not workable. It sounds like you are stuck between you son, who is vulnerable and dependent on you for protection, and a man you love. (I am betting at least part of you still loves him, even though another part would like to throttle him. That’s human.)

Arguing with a child and calling him names is the way some of us were raised. It may be the way your husband was raised. However, decades of research establishes the best parenting for kids, on every measure imaginable. It is called “authoritative” parenting. Authoritative parents are loving and kind, and they calmly set developmentally appropriate limits.

I am betting that you know this in your gut: Arguing with a child and calling him names is never ever good parenting. When a stepparent does this, it is particularly toxic to the relationship and to the child. What a heartbreaking bind for all of you.

My hunch is that your son is struggling more than the other kids are, for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that his stepdad is being so harsh. Your son may be a more vulnerable kid, he may have more of a loyalty bind with his own dad, or he may have experienced more losses and changes. Or he may just be a different kind of kid than your husband’s kids.

It sounds like this may behard for your husband. That is understandable. But, when stepparents (or parents) handle their feelings by being abusive to a child, that is not OK. That’s a strong word, but I am afraid that it fits your description. My hunch is that in his heart of hearts, your husband would not want to be abusive.

On your son’s behalf, you have a very hard row to hoe. For a parent, a stepparent who calls a child names is a deal breaker. Parents do need to insist that stepparents find a way to be kind to their stepkids. My general advice is, if stepparents cannot be kind, they need to keep their distance, or, sadly, they may need to leave.

Your husband may wish you to be more firm with your son (most stepparents do!) He may or may not be correct. But the research is crystal clear. Stepparents cannot directly discipline until they have built a caring, trusting relationship with their stepchildren. Until then, even authoritative (moderately firm, warm and empathic) discipline by a stepparent backfires.

Again, authoritarian discipline (harsh, cold and hard, not loving) is always toxic in a stepparent-stepchild relationship. Meanwhile, the research provides the guideline: The stepparent gives input (calmly and kindly) about what he would like to see you do, but the parent needs to have final say.

You might try giving your husband a copy of my book. (Or just leave it around where he can see it!) Readers find it very accessible and practical, and lots of stepparents have told me that it helped them calm down, understand what was going on, and find their way. Reading it may also help support your own sense of confidence and clarity. “Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn’t”. You can get it at amazon: /dp/0415894387 .

I would also suggest looking for a good couples therapist who knows something about stepfamilies. Even here in the Boston area, though, it isn’t easy to find a good couples therapist who is current with stepfamily dynamics. If you email me at and tell me where you live, I will let you know if I know of anybody in your area. If your husband is not willing to go, find somebody for yourself who can help support you.

Thank you for writing. I will be thinking of you.
Patricia Papernow

Thank you! I have been afraid of labeling his behavior as abusive, but the thought has also crossed my mind. He was amazing with my children when we met and dated. It was when our first son together was born that things went downhill….fast. I am living in a constant state of stress. We only argue about my son, who you are correct, has a more difficult time. He was diagnosed ADHD and struggles to pay attention and follow a set of directions the first time. He’s a good boy all around, but I can see how my husband’s behavior is negatively affecting him. I want to leave, but have no way out financially. I have told him to stop treating my son this way, and he does for a while, but never in the long run. When I told him I was thinking of leaving, as I was that miserable, he threatened to take our sons away from me and leave. I don’t think he could do this, but as our youngest is a baby, the thought terrifies me.

Part of me feels like I made this bed, and I need to lie in it. I need to do the best for my little ones, but at the same time I need to protect my oldest.

Thank you so much for your kind words and advice! I will be looking at your book, hopefully there is a Kindle version, as I would like to start reading it today!

What about when your new husband, the stepfather in this situation, is constantly arguing with your child ,calling him names, and saying there must be something wrong with my kid because our kids don’t act that way. I am living in he!!