The Post-Divorce-Parenting Glossary

Divorced-Parenting Term

Bonus Parents


What is a bonus parent?

A bonus parent a more inoffensive term that has the same meaning as a step parent.  Aside from the inherent challenges in assuming the role of step parent and being apart of raising someone else's child(ren), the stigma that has surrounded the role of step parent presents an additional burden.  The term step parent has developed a negative connotation over the years as illustrated by the phrase "evil stepmother" in the movie Cinderella or sensationalized stories of abusive stepfathers.  Such images have highjacked the term or role, possibly sabotaging positive connections within blended families.  The change from step parent to bonus parent or bonus family is an attempt to shift from conflict laden post-divorce families to a collaborative post-divorce relationship among ex-spouses and their new partners or spouses. 

Does the concept of a bonus parent involve a larger societal shift?

Yes.  Many consider the negative perception associated with step parents or step families as significant to perpetuating the conflict in divorced or separated families.  While this shift toward using terms like "bonus parent", "bonus child", "blended family", "bonus family", and "parenting time" is part of a larger societal change in how divorced parents and divorced families construe post-divorce parenting.  Changing to the term bonus parent is reframing the situation and seeing having an additional parent as a bonus versus a detriment.  But changing the phraseology is only a small symbol.

Changing a name such as from step parent or step children to bonus parent or bonus children won't solve the challenges that blended families face.  Yet language follows mindset or philosophy and visa versa.  This change in mindset related to divorce is intertwined with the co-parenting and child-centered divorce movement, which strives to help divorced families move away from entrenched high-conflict parenting toward collaborating by putting the children first.  This acknowledges that divorced families are a significant part of most societies, and a different, less bleak approach can be taken to support the best interests of the child(ren) involved. 

How should bonus parents view their step child's other natural parent?

It is important to acknowledge that bonus parents are not birth parents, and thus, cannot replace them in the sense that children will always only have two biological parents.   Even if the other biological parent is not directly involved in the child(ren's) lives they will always have an influence on their children.  In this regard, it is important for blended families to avoid bad-mouthing an absent biological parent as this can damage the child(ren's) self-esteem or overall self-concept as said parent is inevitably apart of them.  At the same time it is important for children to openly express their feelings regarding an absent biological parent.  Parents can acknowledge and validate their child(ren's) feeling i.e. hurt, frustration, anger, without ridiculing the other parent or engaging in parental alienation

Although bonus parents cannot replace biological parents, a bonus parent can be a significant asset toward child's development.   Each blended family is different.  Factors such as age of children and length of time that the family has been blended significantly influence the roles of bonus parents.  It is not necessary for a bonus parent to be a disciplinarian to have a stabilizing, nurturing, and supportive presence within the family.

What is a primary bonus parent?

A "primary" bonus parent, like a primary custodial parent usually resides in the same residence that children reside the majority of the time.  In families that blended when the children were very young or have been blended for a long time, bonus parents may have a similar relationship and often assume the same responsibilities as a biological parent.  In this situation, or when a non-custodial parent parent has abandoned or has had little contact with the childre, the children may look and refer to the bonus parent as "mom" or "dad".  These situations may evolve to where a bonus parent legally adopts the child or children.  

What is the "other" bonus parent?

Most bonus parents don't fall into the category of primary bonus parent but rather "other" bonus parent.  This situation often involves more stress and difficulty as the children and the non-custodial parent need to maintain a relationship.  Therefore, parents in the category of "other" bonus parents have to navigate their role in their blended family, realizing that two biological parents are the primary parents.

This often translates to "other" bonus parents not being in the role of disciplinarian.  In the early stages of forming the blended family, they may find that the are not respected with the authority of a biological parent, which can lead to tension and uncomfortable dynamics possibly fueling significant conflict within families if not addressed thoughtfully.

It is important for spouses or partners to openly communicate about their feelings and expectations regarding the roles within the blended family.  Bonus parents in these situations may feel disempowered.   The biological parent may feel uncertain as they have to consider the non-custodial parent's and child(ren's) needs.  If both spouses are able to communicate effectively, it is likely role expectations may change over time as relationships within the overall blended family evolve. 

What is a "friend" bonus parent?

Often bonus parents are unable, due to factors of timing and age of the children, to enter into a parental or maternal role.  Therefore, bonus parents engage in a "friend" role with the children.  Typically "friend" bonus parents reside in a different home than the child(ren).   This is often a more comfortable dynamic for older children helping both to develop rapport and a genuine relationship over time.  Friend bonus parents can play a very important role and act as a mentor for their bonus children.  

What are guidelines for bonus parents?

Lynne Kenney Markan, Psy.D, from the Melmed Center1, identifies that one out of a every three families in the U.S. is a step-family or blended family.  The following are rules or guidelines that she has named as important for blended families to help clarify roles and expectations:


  • Establish clarity around values, which provide a logical foundation for specific expectations and rules for your blended family.  Over time evaluate and change them accordingly.
  • Practice being a skillful planner, plan with the end goal in mind and be pro-active considering options.
  • Anticipate problems. Consider the analogy of identifying the potential traffic jam around the corner so you can respond or reroute accordingly.
  • Concentrate on developing and sustaining a secure foundation in your marriage (communication!).
  • Safeguard your marital bond.
  • It is a set up for conflict, resentment, and chaos to make your new spouse the messenger between you and the children.
  • Don't address or discuss issues related to the divorce in front of the children.  These issues are adult issues and to be discussed between you and your partner.  Review the Divorced Children's Bill of Rights!
  • Identify with the role of being a team-player.  Consider how you can approach the situation from this vantage point.  Blaming is pouring fuel on the fire as it involves shame.  Research shows that any conflict is seldom one person's fault.  If blaming is happening it is likely a red flag and the blaming is more of the problem.
  • Avoid black-and-white thinking.  Telltale signs are if you often use words like "always", "never", or "nothing".  Consider other ways of seeing a situation, and ppractice effective communication.  Research shows, in healthy relationships, partners first seek to understand their partner and accept there is a legitimate reason why their partner is saying what they are saying.  This applies to all relationships.
  • Consider the goal of reconciliation mindfully.
  • Identify the important developmental needs of each individual child.
  • Remind yourself how important it is to be patient and remember that patience is far easier said than done.
  • Allow or ask for feedback from all members of the blended family.
  • Have meetings where the blended family can talk openly.
  • Incorporate a suggestion box for the family.
  • Remember that time is the most critical factor in the healing process.
  • Anticipate obstacles.  The healing process is not linear, but like the stock market, it has peaks and valleys, hopefully with an upward trend!

How can bonus parents help partners in a high conflict divorce?

High conflict between parents is one of the biggest reasons that children can suffer long-term psychological effects after a divorce.  By focusing on high-quality parenting and detaching from conflict via parallel parenting techniques, conflict can be circumvented and children can thrive in much the same way they do in nuclear families.  As a bonus parent, it is important to recognize your role in the family dynamic and to understand that your presence may increase conflict -- not reduce it.  That being said, the following guidelines can help you find your place as a bonus parent in this high-conflict family.

  • Understand your role and don't overstep it.  As a bonus parent you are a caretaker, a parental figure but not the parent
  • As a bonus parent you are in a supportive role.  It is important you realize your supportive position in the family and do not undermine the role of the custodial parent or non-custodial parent.
  • Offer a consistent voice coming from reason versus agitation and instigating conflict.
  • Support the healthy development of the children.
  • Find out and acknowledge the uniques qualities of each child, engage them at their level, play with younger children.
  • Appreciate the children.
  • Before reacting, consider the other side of the story.
  • Remain out of the middle of conflict.
  • Establish that the children refer to you by something other than mom or dad.  Many bonus parents have children call them by their first name or a name from another language that has special meaning such as "Nina" or "Nita."

What is bonus parent alienation?

Parental alienation is a common problem especially in high-conflict divorces, whereby one parent routinely makes derogatory statements, that serve to brainwash a child into disliking their other parent or seeing them in a negative light.  Unfortunately, this same issue frequently occurs  toward bonus parents whereby their partner's ex-spouse may repeatedly make attempts to disrupt, undermine, and/or sabotage the relationship they have with their child(ren).   See parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome for information regarding this significant issue.  


How do bonus parents address parental alienation?

It is strongly encouraged that blended families experiencing issues with parental alienation seek counsel from a therapist that specializes in working with divorced and blended families.  In the past, bonus parents have felt very stuck and disempowered in this situation.  As a result, often parents and bonus parents would not say anything; however, saying nothing is actually speaking volumes as it serves to confirm in the child's mind that the alienating messages they have received from the other parent ar valid.  An alienating parent is a bully.

We recommend that bonus parents and their partners speak openly with one another regarding the issue and encourage both to consider how they will present correct information to the child(ren).  Even if the alienating messages have been very offensive, do not respond in kind by bad-mouthing the other parent to the child(ren).  This is not placing the child's needs first, but rather, placing them in the middle of escalating conflict and increasing the likelihood of further parental alienation.    

Dr. Richard Warshak, in his book Divorce Poison suggests using words like mistake or mistaken.  For example, you wouldn't say your dad is a liar but you can say your dad was mistaken.  The following is an example of a way of approaching a child who has been given alienating messages about their bonus parent:  Dear sometimes parents get upset just like kids do.  When upset sometimes we make mistakes like calling someone a name or saying something that we didn't mean.  So what your father said was a mistake and he probably said it because he is mad about something.  He, your mom, and I will talk and try our best to make up.  Sometimes that takes time.  But what I want you to know is that your dad, your mom, and me love you very much and that will not change.  



1.  Markan, Lynne K., Psy.D. "Being a Step-Parent - "A Bonus Parent"" Family Support. Melmed Center, n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2013.

What is a bonus family? desribes what a bonus family is and the reason for the term bonus family or parent.
Bonus parent defined.
Eight helpful tips are described for helping blended families and bonus parents.
Lynne Kenney Markan, Psy.D identifies important aspects of being a bonus parent
Lynne Kenney Markan, Psy.D, from the Melmed Center identifies and lists guidelines to help bonus parents adjust to their blended family.

bonus parents, bonus familes, step parents, bonus children

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