The stigma associated with stepparents and stepchildren is a strong one in our culture. As children, most of the fairytales we read and movies we watched portray an evil stepparent and wicked stepchildren. It is ingrained in our psyches from a young age that “step” means “bad.”

When I married my husband and we blended our family of four children from each of our respective previous marriages, it was a journey we had to navigate together with unconditional love and patience. We are not alone in this journey. Even though the divorce rate is steadily dropping, if trends continue, the data shows one-third of our peers will divorce. Those numbers do not account for stepchildren from single parents where only one parent is alive or active in the child’s life. Through my own experience, I have learned that love makes a family. As you navigate becoming a stepparent, here are some helpful ways to bond with your new stepchildren.

1. Love makes a family. 

Your stepchildren, or as I like to call them, “bonus children,” are your kids.  When people ask how many children my husband and I have, we always answer five. They often respond with “You had all of these children?”—which I do not mind answering, as I am so proud of the family we have built. I may not have birthed all of them, but I love them all equally. My husband will say the same about my girls, his stepdaughters. I worry about them, parent them equally with my husband, and love on them immensely. Your stepchildren will feel safe and secure enough to build a bond with you when they see they are loved and treated equally to your biological children.

2. You can still parent as a stepparent. 

Often we as stepparents make the assumption, “I am not their parent, I am their friend.”  My bonus children entered my life when they were four and six. They needed a lot of love, attention, and early interventions to help them deal with some developmental delays in learning, speech, and social skills. They needed the nurturing and support of an additional parent, and my husband needed a partner to navigate meeting their needs, in lieu of his ex, who was not as active. In the beginning, I deferred to her as their mother to make all of these decisions. However, it became a tricky terrain to navigate when teachers, coaches, tutors, and other parents would come to me offering updates and looking for communication and support.

As I regularly tell my stepchildren, I will never take the place of their mom, but loving them as my children, I have filled in where needed. Do not be afraid to step in where there is a void in your stepchildren’s lives. Maybe their mother or father is not an athlete, or they do not cook, or aren’t able to attend school activities, or don’t understand medical and emotional interventions. Recognize where you can proactively make a difference in your stepchildren’s lives and do not be afraid to step up as any parent would. No one ever was hurt by too much love, attention, and nurturing. Our kids have enough friends; I want them to see me as a confidant and someone who will always put them above myself and my needs.

3. Be the bonus. 

Kids need more than just having us present. They want us to play an active role in their lives and upbringing. Building on what I shared above, if you are great at sports, coach your stepchild’s team; if you have a love of travel, take them with you to see the world; if you are exceptionally good at cooking, love on them with nutritious, fun meals. The best part about being a stepparent is that you are a bonus in their lives! Do not be afraid to add to their lives in any and every way you can.

4. Don’t rush anything. 

The process of becoming a stepparent and bonding with stepchildren is a marathon, not a sprint. There will be days when they miss their other parent, days when they come to you with sadness over their mom or dad not being present, or days when they just need you to hold space for them as they process. Do not take anything personally. Recognize that they are navigating this new relationship in their lives just as you are. Being patient will pay in dividends.

5. It is not you versus their parent. 

Your stepchildren have a parent, who is not your spouse, whom they love very much. That person may let them (and you) down, but they are still loved very much by your bonus children in their own way. Hold space for your spouse’s ex to play an active role in their lives. Invite them to birthday parties, vacations, sporting events, and school activities where appropriate. Do not be phased if the other parent speaks disparagingly about you. Continue to remind your stepchildren of their mom or dad’s love and that all parents show their love in different ways. It can be incredibly helpful to speak about the other parent in a positive manner, inquire about time spent together, and bring them up in conversations, especially if deceased. This inclusion gives your stepchildren permission to speak about their mom or dad in your presence in a healthy and supportive way. Bonding is a lifelong process. Your stepchildren will remember the respect you showed their biological parent. Be the bigger person, even when it is difficult.

6. Enjoy them!

Stepchildren are truly a bonus. At times it may not be easy. At times you would want to do something different than what their mom or dad. does That is okay. Enjoy them for the unique little (or big) people that they are. Recognize with gratitude the richness they bring to your life and the gift of their addition to your family.