Stepfamilies are structurally different from first-marriage families. New relationships, new roles, and new traditions need to be developed. In the process of developing a unique family style, stepfamilies may need to face and overcome certain obstacles. This article discusses some of the major obstacles to a new family identity and ways to deal with them. These obstacles include a belief in myths about stepfamilies, holding unrealistic expectations, having few established guidelines about stepfamily living, mourning losses and making adjustments, and divided loyalties.
Belief in Myths About Stepfamilies
Believing in myths about stepfamilies can be a formidable obstacle to overcome. Some of these myths include a belief that stepfamily blending occurs quickly, stepfamilies are the same as first-marriage families, and love occurs instantly in stepfamilies. Myths such as these lead a stepfamily to hold unrealistic expectations, which, if unmet, lead to frustration, disappointment, and feelings of failure and inferiority (see the article, Recognizing Stepfamily Myths, Realities, and Strengths for a full discussion of myths in stepfamilies).
Lack of Established Guidelines
While stepfamilies are not new and they have been increasing in number for several decades, there is still a fair amount of uncertainty among stepfamily members about roles, rules, and ways of doing things. Because of the lack of knowing what is expected in these roles, some stepfamilies may struggle to solve problems independently of established guidelines. Of course, every family must make adjustments. However, in stepfamilies it takes time to figure out what is appropriate behavior toward one another--something usually taken for granted in first-marriage families.
Mourning Losses and Making Adjustments
Stepfamilies are usually formed after a divorce or the death of a parent. Either event represents the loss of an established way of family living. In addition, there may be feelings of loss regarding the intervening time spent in a single-parent family. These events require adjustments that can be especially difficult for children. For instance, a child who was once living with both biological parents in one home may now be alternating living with them in separate households. Stepparents who try to make inroads with their new stepchildren during periods when the children are mourning the loss of their previous family arrangement may invite resentment. Spouses may also have difficulty resolving feelings with a former spouse and may still be emotionally attached to them.
Stepfamily members may feel that an investment in the new family threatens the existence of relationships that preceded the remarriage. For example, a stepson may feel guilty about caring about his stepfather, thinking it will damage the relationship with his biological father. Or, a stepmother may worry she is neglecting her own children by paying lots of attention to her stepchildren. Confusion and conflict over how much time to spend with whom is a common report.
Ideas for Developing a Unique Family Style
- Realize that stepfamilies are good families. They are different from first marriage families--not better, not worse, just different. It is important that you avoid any undue comparison of your family with first-marriage families. Learn to appreciate the unique qualities of your own family.
- Recognize that myths exist about stepfamilies. Read the publication on myths mentioned earlier and discuss which ones you believe your family holds. Be aware that these are myths.
- While stepfamily structure creates challenges, realize you can turn these challenges into strengths, such as gaining confidence as you deal with change and loss, establishing new rituals, enhancing your flexibility and creativity, and gaining a new understanding of family relationships. Having a lack of guidelines thus frees you to design a family structure all your own.
- Allow relationships to develop slowly. Don't rush or push. Good relationships don't develop overnight--they take time. Trying too hard to form a good relationship may create more resentment than good feelings.
- Allow relationships to change. As new relationships form in the stepfamily, other relationships will change too. This is a normal process in stepfamilies. For instance, for a stepdaughter to allow her new stepfather "in" to her life may require her to adjust the relationship she has with her biological mother. When families resist these changes they inhibit family success.
- Clarify new roles. Roles played in previous family arrangements will change. One who was once only a biological parent is now also a stepparent to stepchildren. A child who was the oldest in the biological family may now be the youngest. It is natural for family members to wonder where they fit in and what they are supposed to do. Make it clear where each person stands. For example, decide what disciplinary role, if any, will be played by the stepparent.
- Retain/combine appropriate traditions and establish some new ones. When a stepfamily is formed, each brings traditions from previous families formed over many years, even generations. Arguing about traditions can create a battleground. Instead, spend some time identifying the traditions you want to keep and new ones you want to establish. For example, maybe one family had the tradition of opening Christmas gifts on Christmas eve but the other family did it on Christmas Day. Perhaps these traditions can occur on alternating years.
- See that each child has special one-on-one times with their parents to help lessen their feelings of loss. Children need time with both of their biological parents, whether they live with both of them or not. Unless it is not in the best interests of the child, foster the positive development and maintenance of relationships with both parents. Don't do or say anything that would make the child think less of their parents. If you have negative feelings toward your ex-spouse, keep them to yourself.
- Feelings of loss and grief are normal as a child says goodbye to one kind of family and enters into another. Let your children have their own feelings and encourage them to share their feelings. They may shout and throw tantrums, but these reactions are normal. If you deny or belittle their feelings, children are denied the opportunity to work through them. Your children need time to grieve the loss of a family, and everyone needs to be patient as they adjust to a new one. Support expressions of sadness. You can best support them by simply acknowledging feelings ("You're feeling sad about this") and practicing good listening skills.
- Family members brought together in a new stepfamily will undoubtedly feel strongly that the way they did things in the previous family is the "right" way, and they may be hesitant to try different ways of doing things. It's important to recognize that ways are different, not right or wrong.
- Use family councils for problem solving and giving appreciation. Through regular family councils, each person gets a chance to speak out and be involved in solving problems and making decisions. These meetings shouldn't always be used to air concerns and solve problems, however. Talk about fun things, too, like vacations and parties, and point out the positive. Select a chair for running the family council. Set ground rules that are agreeable to everyone. Prepare an agenda beforehand using ideas submitted by family members. Invite everyone to attend the meeting. The chair calls the meeting to order. Rotate conducting responsibilities between parents and older children. During family councils, each stepfamily member should feel free to express feelings, thoughts, and opinions without fear of being insulted or blamed for an opinion. Everyone takes turns talking without being interrupted. The chair makes sure that everyone has a turn to contribute. If there is a problem to resolve, everyone has a chance to discuss it. Some strategies for problem solving include the following: 1) Define the problem from everyone's point of view, 2) Brainstorm solutions by having everyone say or write down their suggestions, 3) Discuss suggestions, 4) Choose a solution to that makes the most sense to everyone.
Solving problems and making decisions together helps build the family unity necessary for becoming a strong stepfamily.
Written by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
- Fitzpatrick, J., Williamson, S., Duncan, S. F., & Smith, T. (1989). The remarried family: Meeting the challenge (Publications 607A-H). Auburn, AL: Alabama Cooperative Extension Service.
- Visher, J. S., & Visher, E, B. (1999). How to win as a stepfamily. New York: Routledge.