Step Parenting and Step Family
Updated: Jun 7
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.
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.
Different rules and expectations.
Feeling left out.
Yours versus Mine.
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
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
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
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. http://www.bccf.bc.ca/hm/inside.php?sid=38&id=105
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 http://www.bccf.bc.ca/catalogue/product_info.php?cPath=26&products_id=69