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The Overprotective Parent

Problems arise when a biological parent continually tries to guide, guard, and direct the stepparent’s every step.
By Ron L. Deal

Children in blended families often experience multiple losses: from the death of a parent or death of their family through divorce, to the economic changes of living in a single parent home, to the emotional loyalty conflicts they face in a blended family. And parents know it, which is a big reason they can become overprotective.

Tim, a biological father of two and stepfather of two, had a hard time finding his place. “My wife is very protective of her kids and it has taken the better part of two years for her to feel ready for me to discipline them,” he said.

“If she is out of the room and she hears me talking to the kids she will still ask me what the problem is, so she can be aware of what I might be asking them to do. Then she goes to them and gets their side of the story; that usually backfires on me.”

It’s natural for a biological parent to seek to protect her kids from harm and create peace within the household.  But problems arise when a parent continually tries to guide, guard, and direct the stepparent’s every step. These parents defend their children at all costs, go behind their spouse’s back to undo what he or she has done, and might even block efforts to create emotional bonds with the children.


Moms seem to struggle with guarding their children a little more than dads. For example, moms who are overly connected emotionally to their children often make the child’s dependence on them a priority. They will block stepdads, biological fathers, and all would-be outsiders from challenging her enmeshed relationship with the kids.

This kind of over protectiveness results in arrested child development and fosters jealousy within a stepfamily. Ironically, these mothers also train their children to manipulate them against the stepdad.

Don shared that his stepson, age nine, was compliant to his teachers at school but wouldn’t listen to any of his directions. “He whines when he doesn’t get his way because he knows his mom will give in. He plays her against me and then she blames me for provoking him. I am completely lost.”

It’s hard enough for stepparents to build a relationship with their stepchildren, especially during the fragile early years when their attempts to connect are sometimes rebuffed by children, especially adolescents. It’s even more difficult—and discouraging—when the biological parent is blocking the stepparent.

Talk about fears

If you find this dynamic at work in your home, start by humbly acknowledging it with one another. Don’t cast blame or you will end up on opposite sides.

Instead, the biological parent should talk about his or her fears regarding the children that are driving the overprotective behavior. What are you concerned will happen if you don’t intervene? What must change for you to risk letting go of control?

If this conversation highlights some actions or attitudes in the stepparent that are hostile, angry, or fear-provoking, then they must take responsibility for them. If the stepparent, for example, has a hot temper, take responsibility for it, or don’t expect your spouse to trust you with the kids.

Whatever the underlying fears, make it your goal to eliminate them so overprotectiveness will be unnecessary. And remember to articulate to one another the goal of supporting each other’s role with the children as your blended family grows over time.*


Take action:


When in balance, all of these roles are needed from biological parents.

  • Gatekeeper—protecting your kids from the stepparent and/or the stepparent from the unpleasant realities of parenting your children
  • Defender—of either your kids or the stepparent
  • Interpreter—trying to bridge the gap between your kids and the stepparent
  • Tutor—helping the stepparent to understand and parent your kids

When a parent is out of balance—too heavy on one of these roles—a destructive atmosphere is created.  Discuss how well the biological parent is assuming these roles, and whether any are out of balance.



Encourage stepparents to develop close bonds with stepchildren. The stepparents that do this remain persistent in their efforts to communicate with stepchildren and establish a warm, friendly relationship. They do so by engaging the child in activities that are of interest to them (not just activities that are only of interest to the stepparent) and find opportunities to communicate empathy and compassion for the child, and share their desire to get along.

Adapted with permission from The Smart Stepdad by Ron L. Deal. Published by Bethany House Pub., © 2011.

FamilyLife is a donor-supported ministry offering practical and biblical resources and events to help you build a godly marriage and family. 

Meet the Author: Ron L. Deal

Ron Deal

Ron Deal is a marriage and family author, conference speaker, and therapist. He is founder and president of Smart Stepfamilies™ and director of FamilyLife Blended™, the ministry initiative of FamilyLife® to stepfamilies (for more visit and 

Ron is author of The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family (and DVD series), The Smart Stepdad, Dating and the Single Parent, The Smart Stepmom (with Laura Petherbridge), and The Smart Stepfamily Marriage: Keys to Success in the Blended Family (with Dr. David Olson). A highly sought-after, recognized expert in marriage and blended families, Ron is a member of the Stepfamily Expert Council for the National Stepfamily Resource Center, and is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Licensed Professional Counselor with over 25 years experience in local church ministry and family ministry consulting. He is a featured expert on the video curriculum Single and Parenting (2011, Church Initiative) and his material is widely distributed by a variety of family education initiatives

Ron served as a member of the Couple Checkup Research Team (headed by Dr. David Olson, PREPARE-ENRICH) which conducted the two largest studies of marital strength ever accomplished. They surveyed over 100,000 marriages and remarriages (over 200,000 people) and examined the qualitative differences between highly satisfied marriages and low-quality marriages. The results of their groundbreaking research for couples are published in the books The Couple Checkup (Olson, Larson, & Olson-Sigg, 2008) and The Smart Stepfamily Marriage (Deal & Olson, 2015), and are featured in Ron’s newest seminar for dating, engaged, married, and remarried couples, the Couple Checkup Conference.

Ron is a popular conference speaker and has appeared in dozens of national radio and TV broadcasts both in the U.S. and Canada. His daily 60-second radio feature, FamilyLife Blended, is heard by thousands each week around the country and online. He has appeared on Fox News, MSNBC, ABC’s Nightline, WGN-News, The Mike Huckabee Show, FamilyLife Today, Focus on the Family, HomeWord with Jim Burns, Celebration, and The 700 Club, and his work has been referenced online (e.g.,,, in magazines (e.g., Essence), and in newspapers throughout the world (e.g., USA Today, New York Daily News, Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal, and Minnesota Star Tribune). The May 2012 issue of Ladies' Home Journal featured Ron's therapy work with a blended family couple in their popular feature column “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” Ron has written feature family articles addressing a variety of family matters for a variety of publications and online magazines including Focus on the Family magazine, ParentLife, The Family Room, Gospel Today, Christianity Today, and HomeLife magazine. On a regular basis Ron trains therapists, marriage educators, and ministry professionals at conferences around the country and has spoken at the National Stepfamily Conference, and the Utah and Arkansas Governors' conferences on the family.

Ron and his wife, Nan, have three boys. Their middle son, Connor, died unexpectedly in February 2009 at the age of 12. In his memory, the Deal's have partnered with Touch a Life Foundation to rescue and rehabilitate children in Ghana, West Africa, from trafficking. They would be honored if you would help them sing Connor's song. Visit Connor's Song to learn more about this ministry and to hear Connor sing.

In addition to FamilyLife sponsored events Ron is available to present his Couple Checkup Conference or Building A Successful Stepfamily conference in your church or community. Learn more here.



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