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Successful Stepfamilies

April 04, 2020

Successful Stepfamilies

With many marriages ending in divorce, stepfamilies are becoming even more commonplace. Though your may find your family growing in number, cultivating a successful stepfamily takes time, compromise, and motivation. 

Stepfamilies Defined

Traditionally, a stepfamily has been defined as a family where a parent has at least one child not biologically (or legally, in terms of adoption) related to the other parent.  This child may live with one biological parent and visits the other biological parent, or he or she may equally split time between both original parents. Other times a child has a lost a parent and the living parent will remarry.

 

There are many variations of stepfamilies.  Whereas the term stepfamily once referred only to married couples, cohabitating relationships where one or both parents had existing children are now recognized as stepfamilies.  Grown children, in the case of parental death, will often refer to their parent’s new spouse as a stepparent, even though they never lived under the same roof.

Blended families are also a form of stepfamily.  This is where both partners come into the marriage or relationship with existing children.  Blended families have many of the same challenges as other stepfamilies as well as unique ones.

Transition Process

As a stepfamily or blended family is beginning the process of transition, there are often some growing pains along the way.  Adapting to new routines requires compromise for everyone.  Emotions usually run high; guilt over a divorce, anger about sacrifices made, worry about the stepfamily transition, and jealousy between stepsiblings are fairly common responses. 

 

Stepparents may struggle in the transition process to figure out their new roles.  Questions over discipline, rule-setting, and household responsibilities are priorities to address.  These may cause insecurity and uncertainty in the new stepparent.  Parents also worry about perceived favoritism between biological and stepchildren. 

Similarly, kids face transitional unrest.  Children may feel caught between both biological parents, not wanting to upset either one.  In addition, your child will need to learn how to “share” you with your new spouse.  Sharing may also extend to their home and belongings if your new spouse or partner moved into your home.

Struggling Stepfamily Signs

With all these changes, stress is at an elevated rate.  Here are some key warning signs of a stepfamily struggling with change:

  • Behavior- A child may show unexpected anger or behavioral aggression toward another family member. Children may cry more than usual and isolate themselves from other family members and friends. 
  • Activity challenges- Families sometimes face difficulty finding a shared activity they all can enjoy. Heightened emotions and constant conflict make shared family time challenging.
  • Discipline- The stepparent has difficulty disciplining a stepchild and/or disagrees with current discipline methods. This can cause conflict within the marriage. 

Strategies for Successful Stepfamilies

Tension and family distress do not have to be the norm for beginning stepfamilies.  The following suggestions are designed to improve unity within the family:

 

For Everyone:

  • Consider- Give everyone a say. Parents may have the final word, but considering everyone’s thoughts and feelings may help eliminate irrational fears about the stepfamily transition.
  • Process- Transition takes time. Attempting to rush the process to adapt will only cause more stress.  Respect the process, as trusting relationships between stepparents, children, and stepsiblings take time to develop. 

For Parents:

  • Respect- Be cautious not to speak poorly about your ex in front of your children. Shaming your former spouse or using your children as messengers is not a good policy.  Never ask your child to spy on your ex and his/her new partner or speak negatively about them.  This places your child in an unfair and unfortunate situation, so be respectful to both your child and ex. 
  • Make Time- Carve out time with your children to participate in their favorite activities. Let them speak honestly about their fears and concerns with the new family.  Reassure them you will always love them.
  • Don’t Assume- Even grown children who are independent adults may struggle with knowing their place in a new stepfamily situation. Listen to their concerns and encourage them to play a positive role in the new family. 

For Stepparents:

  • Space- Every child needs some amount of privacy. Rather than feel shut off from the child, respect the space they need to function better.
  • Don’t Personalize- Stepchildren may not warm up to you immediately. Try not to take things personally, as their reactions may be more about the process itself than you as an individual. 

For Stepfamilies with a New Baby:

  • Explain- Talk to your children about the possibility of a new baby. Explain how things might change.  Give opportunities for them to express fears or concerns about the new baby. 
  • Teamwork- Allow the children to help with the new baby. Feeling included helps alleviate feelings of being overlooked and forgotten. 

While the challenges are very real for today’s stepfamilies, so are the rewards.  If your stepfamily is still experiencing growing pains in the adjustment process, ask for help.  Family therapy is an excellent tool for working through everyone’s emotions in the transition.  For additional help, check out the National Stepfamily Resource Center at www.stepfamilies.info

 

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Sources

http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/childrens-health/in-depth/stepfamilies/art-20047046

http://stepfamilies.info