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Avery Post

Step Parenting and Step Family

Updated: Jun 7, 2021

Step Parenting
Step Parenting and Step Family

What is a stepfamily?

A stepfamily is any spousal union where at least one of the partners has a child or children from a previous relationship.

Stepfamily Statistics:1

  • Fifty percent of all children in the US (About 30% in Canada) under the age of 13 currently live in some form of a stepfamily.

  • Stepfamilies are not new; they have always played an important part in our communities. In fact, remarriage rates have changed very little over the past 200 years. Historically, stepfamilies were formed following the death of a spouse. Given that in 1850, the average life expectancy was only 40 years, the average length of a marriage was, on average, less than 10 years. In the early 1800s, fully 50% of children had lost one or both parents by age 13. Remarriage was essential to the continuing well-being of the family.

  • Thirty percent of all stepfamilies fail within the first two years. Fifty percent fail within the first six years.2

  • Children are seriously impacted by family breakdown. Many experiences persisting academic, social, emotional, financial, and relationship difficulties as a direct result of family breakdown.

The Good News:

  • Most of the problems stepfamilies experience are rooted in the stepfamily situation, not in the people involved.

  • When stepfamilies in difficulty are provided with information and guidance in addressing issues specific to the stepfamily situation, the majority can go on to become stable, loving, and healthy family environments.

The Challenges of Step FamiliesMyths about Step Families:

  • Each member’s role.

  • Fitting in.

  • Mutual respect.

  • Different rules and expectations.

  • Feeling left out.

  • Co-parenting.

  • Managing conflict.

  • Yours versus Mine.

  • Handling ex-spouses.

  • Visitation rights and frequency.

  • Participation of extended family.

Myths about Step Families:

  • The stepparent must adapt.

  • The stepparent will always be the outsider.

  • It will be just like a nuclear family.

  • You should be your stepchild’s friend.

  • The stepparent should come first.

  • Your spouse will side fairly with you and your child.

  • Your spouse will make the stepfamily work.

  • The stepparent should never discipline a stepchild.

  • Stepmothers are evil.

  • Stepfamilies never work.

Types of Conflict in Step-families

  • A child’s other biological parent doesn’t want the new stepparent to “parent”

  • A disrespectful stepchild whom the biological parent does not discipline

  • The biological parent does not support the stepparent in disciplining a clearly misbehaving stepchild

  • The stepchild doesn’t accept the stepparent no matter how hard s/he tries to bond

  • Merging children who have been raised by completely different parenting styles

  • Different rules between homes when shared custody

  • A stepparent who refuses to allow a stepchild to live in the stepfamily home

  • A stepparent who wants “instant authority”

  • The attraction between the step-siblings

  • Ex-spouse who controls the biological parent through guilt (and continued court costs)

  • A biological parent won’t allow the stepparent to discipline, even when a child misbehaves

  • The biological parent “rescues” child or stepchild from discipline by the other parent

  • The children had not been told about the stepparent prior to the joining of households/marriage

  • A stepchild controls everyone in the stepfamily by their anger, acting out, attention-seeking behaviour

The Developmental Tasks of a Stepfamily:

Stage 1: Make peace with your stepfamily’s past

  • Accept the past family into your new stepfamily: discuss in great detail history, family beliefs, rituals, roles, house rules, curfew, activities, sharing chores, parenting style, discipline,

  • Plan according to the strengths, needs, preferences, and abilities of all members to address any obstacles – who will talk to whom when/how

  • Hold stepchildren accountable for their behaviour

  • Stepparents need to avoid attacking each other regarding each other’s children

  • Create a parenting team – common goals, checks and balances, common front with the children (discuss differences privately)

  • If possible, parents should develop a similar parenting style

  • Negotiate and compromise to get similar rules: bedtime, phone calls, meals, cleanliness of bedrooms, school work, TV, computer access, borrowing the car

Stage 2: Observe, listen and learn

  • Don’t try to fix everything at once, go slow, relax

  • Develop a stepfamily joint vision

  • Yield to win

  • Focus on marriage

  • Show interest in your stepchildren, learn about them

  • Be a “good enough” stepparent

  • Lower expectations of joint ventures like trips, holidays

  • Continue to clarify roles, be clear on expectations

  • Be patient, consistent, and inclusive

  • Develop rituals of connection (hi, goodbye)

  • Jointly plan chores with choice and rotation as much as possible

  • Be honest about alienation – don’t exclude people from conversations, address people ignoring you, don’t isolate yourself

  • Debrief conflict with an eye to fair play rules, what worked, what would make things better

  • Stepparents need to make decisions together – not unilaterally

Stage 3: Assert your role in the family

  • Co-parents need to agree to support each others role as the disciplinarian in the family

  • Clearly communicate to the children status of step-parent to discipline

  • Only discipline when you have a mutually trusting relationship with your stepchild

  • Talk to your spouse right away about problems

  • Check-in with each other regularly about the parenting team (at least once a month)

  • Appreciate each other’s efforts and contributions

Stage 4: Navigate the extended family circuit

  • Identify extended family members (grandparents, aunts, and uncles, cousins, close friends, etc.) and quality of relationships with stepchildren

  • Explore what type of relationship is possible with extended members of the stepfamily

  • Decide what to call extended family members

  • Don’t pressure or assume relationships will develop, but be clear of expectations around respectful communication

  • Be patient

  • Appropriate extended family is supportive of the stepfamily, share resources and history

  • Create a relationship (be empathetic about difficulties negotiating roles, be an asset to them, don’t resent ties to ex-spouse)

  • Plan involvement of extended family in your family

Stage 5: Keep the marriage healthy

  • Handle conflict by communicating regularly, fighting fair, accepting responsibility, complaining without criticizing

  • Appreciate intention and effort

  • Spend positive time together

  • Love your partner and accept his/her children

  • Develop and stick to a financial plan for groceries, eating out, clothing, toiletries, leisure, hobbies, sports, vacations

Stage 6: Continue to fine-tune

  • Adjust to the developmental growth of the children

  • Adjust to the developmental growth of the marriage

  • Celebrate success

Stage 7: Create stepfamily traditions

  • Take the best of what is important to you and your family and engage in regular rituals

  • Merge new into old

  • Be flexible around scheduling holidays, important dates, and vacations – yield to win

Advantages of stepfamilies:

  • Stepchildren learn to navigate relationships at an earlier age

  • Stepchildren learn appropriate boundaries at an earlier age

  • Stepchildren see and understand differences in how adults act and react

  • Parents get a second chance

  • Everyone learns about who they are as individuals and what is important

  • Everyone’s life can be enriched over the long term

  • More adult relationships to support children

  • As adults, more opportunity of support from step-siblings

Helpful Resources:

Suzen J. Ziegahn. (2002). The stepparent’s survival guide: A workbook for creating a happy blended family. New Harbinger Publications. ISBN 1-57224-305-8

Susan Wisdom & Jennifer Green. (2002). Step-coupling: Creating and sustaining a strong marriage in today’s blended family. Three Rivers Press. ISBN 0-609-80741-2

Sussan Gamache: Step Family Life and then some.

BC Council of the Family.

Susan Gamache: Building your stepfamily: A blueprint for success (revised). $3.00 through the BC Council of the Family at


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