8 Real Signs of a Bad Stepmother (Strict Isn’t Always Bad)

Most blended families have a tough time at first – what with everyone trying to figure out how to ease into this new dynamic they’re going to be a big part of.  

It’s a learning experience, and most stepmothers are bound to make a couple of mistakes early on. That said, there are a few critical errors that you need to deal with as soon as they come up.

These aren’t the type of problems that’ll go away in time, but ones that could ruin your family if left unchecked. Below are a few warnings signs of a bad stepmother:

  1. She wants to control everything in the family
  2. She has to be the only one that’s right
  3. She wants to pretend your other parent doesn’t exist (or doesn’t care about you!)
  4. She constantly undermines, criticizes, or disregards personal boundaries
  5. She tries to coerce or intimidate the kids for the sake of “discipline”
  6. She has no intention of improving as a stepmother
  7. She dredges up conflict in the family
  8. She makes the children feel unwanted

It can take a while for a stepmother to figure out their role in this blended family, but there’s a big difference between mistakes caused by inexperience and mistakes caused by toxic mindsets. It’s much harder to unlearn the latter, and enabling them could seriously hurt the family.

Signs of a Bad Stepmother

She Attempts to Monopolize Control

woman scolding her child

Blended families can throw the power dynamic into serious disarray, leaving everyone at a loss as to where they stand with one another early into this change. It’s particularly tough on stepmothers since they have the least idea of what they’re walking into.

It’s natural that they seek out some semblance of control during the transition, but it’s a bad sign if they want this control to extend to everything involving the family.

They’re allowed to make decisions that affect the household, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of everyone else’s agency. A bad stepmother wants the entire household to answer to her and may get angry if decisions are made without consulting with her beforehand.

This can be especially worrying for stepchildren, as they’re already the stakeholder with the least power to make decisions in the new blended family.

Healthy families need to decide things together, or at minimum need to agree on who’s in charge of making that call for the family. Blended families should focus on harmony and compromise. If a family is defined by control, it’ll just end up cultivating a resentful household.

A good stepmother needs to make decisions alongside her family. A bad stepmother wants to decide on behalf of her family – regardless of what they have to say about it!

She has to be Right (And Others have to be Wrong!)

mother and daughter screaming at each other

In the heat of the moment, most people end up focused on “winning” an argument rather than addressing the underlying issue. Things get more complicated when the existing power dynamic is uneven between parties – and this won’t be changing.  

A parent and child will never be on equal terms. One is responsible for the other, and they can’t ever bridge that gap. It’s not a bad thing, but something to always be mindful of.

There’s no problem with arguing, but it’s important that a stepmother can recognize that there can be more than one right answer. It’s even better if they can accept that the wrong answer can be understood or even justified in certain situations.

Compromise is a necessary component of any healthy long-running relationship. A stepmother incapable or unwilling to meet their family halfway will struggle to grow closer to them. Their hardline stance could foster further conflicts, straining everyone’s patience with one another.

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The “My way or the highway” approach can ruin good relationships – it’ll do even worse for ones still getting off the ground! A stepmother already starts off as an outsider in this blended dynamic, and the last thing they need is to add another divide between them and their new family!

Someone else being right doesn’t detract from you being right as well. Empathizing with a person’s perspective while still disagreeing with them is perfectly fine.

A good stepmother will acknowledge the perspective of others, regardless of the power dynamic. They’ll give the explanation provided enough importance to address those concerns.

  1. Can you reason with your stepmother, or does she view any form of that as disrespectful?
  2. Is she truly listening when you explain your side of things?
  3. Is she addressing your concerns in her responses?

If your stepmother does all of these things, she’s giving you importance. She’ll make you understand why they believe you to be mistaken, but not call you wrong solely on principle alone.

You can disagree with her punishment, but have to accept that she’s putting in the effort to discipline and educate you properly.

A bad stepmother would refuse to entertain what challenges her worldview entirely. She wouldn’t give your words importance and likely misconstrue your explanations as disrespectful. She wouldn’t discipline you so much as force you to fall in line with her judgment and authority.

She Wants to Downplay or Omit Your Other Parent’s Presence

A stepmother needs to recognize that the family didn’t begin with her joining it – hence the term “blended family”. They’re allowed to form their own opinions on their partner’s ex, but they must accept the role that person played in raising the children before them.

Refusing to do so is horrible – especially if the other parent is still doing their best to be present in their child’s life. You can’t pretend that the time before you didn’t exist, and a stepmother that tries would not only be lying to herself but to her stepchildren as well.  

Custody battles can get messy, and we can’t fault someone who sides with their partner over their partner’s ex. It does have to be clarified that a stepmother who does this isn’t supporting their partner, but depriving their stepchildren of parental support out of spite towards the provider.

There might be an argument made if said ex is a toxic influence on your stepchildren, but it’s not a decision a stepmother should make on her family’s behalf! It’s also far from the norm – most divorced couples still deeply love the children they had together.

A stepmother isn’t obligated to play nice with their partner’s ex, but a good stepmother understands the importance of that person’s role in their stepchildren’s lives. A bad stepmother would prioritize punishing their partner’s ex, even if their stepchildren also have to suffer from that choice.

She Disregards (Or even Rewrites!) Boundaries

mom scolding her daughter

Boundaries are protected mostly by the respect held between individuals. Anyone willing to overstep despite knowing better demonstrates how little they regard the person who set them.

Stepmothers tend to have a challenging time with their stepchildren early on. They might try to clarify those boundaries and seek compromises whenever possible.

Sometimes though, their attempts could be a little backhanded in nature. They might try to make light of these boundaries, refuse to acknowledge themselves overstepping, or even attempt to “correct” boundaries they personally disagree with. This is not acceptable.

Think of it this way: stepchildren are one of the least influential stakeholders in a blended family. They have to put up with their stepparents despite their own reluctance or even outright refusal!

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All they have left are the boundaries they set. A bad stepmom would take away even that for the sake of her own convenience. Their “convenience” would come at the cost of inflicting serious psychological duress on their stepchildren, making them feel helpless at this encroachment.

Everyone is entitled to set their own boundaries and the right to have their boundaries respected in kind. This applies to everyone in the family, regardless of age.  

It’s still understandable for parents to nudge their children towards trying new things, but forcing them to act in ways they find discomforting is way out of line.

A good stepmother doesn’t have to understand her new family’s boundaries immediately – she just needs to recognize and accept their existence. They would try to challenge their stepchildren to develop further, but never through disrespectful means or social pressure.

She Tries to Intimidate (Or even Scare!) her Stepchildren

While discipline is a healthy component of parenting, how it’s enforced must be considered. Children past a certain age need to understand that their actions have consequences. Punishments may be necessary, even if the children don’t agree with the extent.

These punishments, however, should be restricted to revoked privileges or stern lectures. They should never resort to threats, intimidation, or outright coercion of any sort!

Discipline isn’t about punishment, but education. A good stepmother understands that her children need to learn what they did wrong, why it was wrong, and what consequences follow that. Their punishments should be firm, fitting, and safe – they shouldn’t ever induce fear or trauma.

To give an exaggerated example:

Let’s say a child swiped a cookie without being given permission. As punishment for their theft, they were locked in a dark room for half an hour to think about what they did wrong.

Do you believe that the child here would think about their mistake?

No. They’d be scared by their punishment. When this punishment ends, the child will only remember their experience during it, not the actions that “justified” the penalty.

Punishing stepchildren this way not only deeply traumatizes them, but simply doesn’t work. The main takeaway they get through this is fear – not education, and certainly not discipline.

A bad stepmother gives into her frustration in lieu of calmer methods, harming the child without them understanding what they did to deserve it.

A good stepmother would make sure that the child understood their mistake and ensure that the punishment reinforced it. It wouldn’t be done just to “get even” with the child.

She Has No Intention of Improving  

Becoming part of a family demands a lot from everyone involved, and these responsibilities will only evolve over time. Feeding the baby becomes taking the child to nursery… watching them play in their crib eventually turns into sleepless nights helping them with homework.

As the children’s needs shift over time, the parent’s responsibilities follow in kind.

This transition is far from intuitive, and everyone in the family needs to chip in where they can. Caretaking is not a passive task – it’s more than just a checklist of whether your children have eaten and showered enough for the day. It requires active effort and constant improvement.

A complacent stepmother means everyone else has to pick up the slack. The remaining parent will have to go above and beyond for their children. It would be admirable, but it shouldn’t have been necessary if everyone had managed their responsibilities properly.

In some cases, the stepchildren might have to grow up faster to compensate for the lack of support. Children are only young for once in their lives, and they deserve to fully enjoy that experience. There’s a big difference between a responsible child and a child forced into responsibility.

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If a stepmother has no intention of improving, they might as well just be some lady your parent is dating now. That’s actually a good outcome, but it needs to be made clear to everyone involved.

Being a stepmother is a big responsibility, and if they aren’t willing or able to meet these demands they’d be better off disengaging with their stepchildren entirely.

She Pits People Against Each Other

jealous child mom favors another sibling

There’s more than enough conflict in the world already, and certainly no need to bring more of that home. Some bad stepmothers actively try to provoke arguments in their household. In cases where the parent clearly favors their partner over their children, this sadly furthers their abuse.

It’s fair to say that every parent has some complaints about their children. The problem comes when those complaints aren’t constructive in nature.

Are they…

  1. Painting character traits or boundaries as flaws?
  2. Omitting crucial information or context to make things look worse?
  3. Phrasing things to be as provocative as possible?

Complaining about family is probably as old as the concept of family itself, but if you want a healthy family you’ll need healthy complaints.

Healthy complaints are constructive in nature. They should be brought up to clarify issues, reaffirm boundaries, and inspire solutions. They should never serve as an excuse to pit family against one another. If it’s starting to feel that way, your stepmother is doing it wrong.

Alternatively, she could be setting stepchildren against one another.

This might be done through deliberate exclusion (i.e. only recognizing one child as her stepchild, with the other being referred to as “my partner’s kid”) or selective affection (i.e. treating stepchildren with different degrees of warmth and acceptance).

This tends to be a more notable concern if said stepmother happens to have brought in children of her own into this blended family. It’s a sick, traumatizing thing to do to children and a big warning sign that you’ve got a bad stepmom ready to deteriorate your family dynamic beyond recognition.

She Makes the Stepchildren Feel Unwanted

Lastly, a bad stepmother would make her stepchildren feel like a total nuisance in her life. They’d make them feel neglected, worthless, and unwanted. They’d ignore their children’s needs or defer responsibility to their partner.

To clarify, the problem here isn’t that the woman isn’t willing to love her stepchildren. In fact, some families would be better off with a stepmom that disengaged from them entirely.

Some people find out too late that being part of a stepfamily isn’t for them. It’s their prerogative, and it’s better the role be left vacant than filled by someone who loathes the position. This clarity allows the rest of the family to recognize this and function as a cohesive single-parent household.

Stepmom or not, no one has the right to make children feel unwanted within their own families. Doing this is the pinnacle of selfish behavior, and will spell disaster for your household.

A child raised to feel that their existence is a burden will believe that well into adulthood, carrying those emotional scars even after leaving their homes. A stepmother willing to put children through that would be better off uninvolved or gone from the family’s lives entirely.

Final Thoughts

A strict stepmother cares for her children and might use “tough love” to empower them. A bad stepmother uses “tough love” as an excuse for their shortcomings, refusing to adapt or improve.

Blended families can be daunting to find one’s place in, but a good stepmom finds where they belong. A bad stepmom insists on carving space out for themselves, even if it hurts the family.

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