Four Truths about Stepfamilies that You Need to Know
Stepfamilies are, and have been, on the rise. In fact, over 50% of American families are remarried or recoupled. Yet, there appears to be limited conversation around what is gradually becoming the “norm” for the American family.
If you are in the process of “blending” families, here are some important pointers to consider:
Families don’t blend overnight
Patience is key to the process of blending families. It can take up to seven years to form a successful stepfamily. Unrealistic expectations of a quick and fairly smooth transition to becoming a family can be a major source of disappointment and strife. Be prepared for a slow, but hopefully rewarding, process!
”Ghosts” can be the death of blending families
Ron Deal, founder of Smart Stepfamilies, calls these “ghosts.” The “ghosts” could be wounds from the previous marriage, or injuries from family of origin relationships, or even unresolved hurts from the present relationship’s history. You might notice yourself or your spouse becoming especially defensive discussing a particular topic or becoming exceedingly upset upon finding household items from your spouse’s previous marriage in your new home.
The danger of the “ghosts” lingering around without your awareness is that they often serve to place the “haunted” person in a posture of self-protection. It becomes difficult to build intimacy and form an “us” when both parties are busy protecting the “I.” You might want to ask yourself, “When I am not haunted by this ghost, how am I acting toward my partner in a way that is giving, serving and trusting?” (Deal, 2006). Or, if you notice your spouse struggling in the present with issues that have happened in the past, ask yourself “How can I show compassion to my spouse in this moment and not react defensively to his (or her) fear?” Forming a stepfamily involves a lot of risk-taking and courage!
The children are caught in the middle
While creating a stepfamily can be a time of great gain, it is also a season of considerable loss. A few of the losses incurred by the children may include the death of a parent, divorce or leaving a once familiar life. Give time for the children (and for yourself) to grieve these losses. It is not unusual to notice children feeling torn between wanting to be loyal to both biological parents. Occasionally children even take advantage of the fact that their biological parents are living separately and may not be on best terms with each other. For example, a child might find ways to avoid punishments or obtain extra privileges.
Step-parenting is a complex dance
You and your partner might have fallen in love with each other not fully knowing what you were bargaining for when adding the other’s children to the mix. Stepping into a child’s life is to be broached with caution. A rule of thumb for a stepparent is to enter the relationship gradually. Both boys and girls, though especially girls, prefer verbal affirmations, compliments, etc. as opposed to physical affection at the onset of the stepparent-child relationship.
Step-parenting is likely the most challenging aspect of forming a stepfamily. When it comes to discipline and nurturance, the biological parent takes the lead. It is recommended that the stepparent come in as a “babysitter” (Deal, 2006) or a “camp counselor” (APA, 2017) at first. This means that he or she is a responsible adult who is aware of and can enforce rules that are already in place but doesn’t create new rules. When both partners have children, it is important to have a consistent set of rules, even if each parent takes the lead with their biological children (Deal, 2006). To support a stepparent, the biological parent may say something like “I know ___ is not your real mom (or dad), but when I’m not around, she (or he) will be enforcing the rules we all agreed on.”
This is not to say that the stepparent has no voice regarding their stepchildren’s behavior. Those conversations and negotiations can happen behind closed doors (Deal, 2006). Over time, as trust and mutual respect begins to develop between you and your stepchildren, you may be able to move into more of a “parental” role, disciplining and nurturing the children.
For more information and tips on how to make a successful stepfamily, check out our Scoop It! page on titled “Navigating Separation, Divorce and Blended Families”.
Deal, Ron L. (2006). The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family.
Supervised by Amy Fuller, PhD, LMFT-S