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Developing Your Own Unique Family Style

Latter-Day Saints Perspective

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.

Divided Loyalties

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.


  1. 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.
  2. Visher, J. S., & Visher, E, B. (1999). How to win as a stepfamily. New York: Routledge.

The Family: A Proclamation to the World declares it the solemn responsibility of husband and wife "to love and care for each other and for their children" (¶ 6). Mothers and fathers have distinct but equal responsibilities. By divine plan, fathers are to "preside over their families in love and righteousness and . . . provide the necessities of life and protection. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners" (¶ 7).

But what about families who don't fit the traditional mold? How do these roles and responsibilities apply to stepfathers and stepmothers, working to unite a blended family? The Proclamation states that such circumstances "may necessitate individual adaptation" (¶ 7). Modern scripture and other gospel publications give insight into how gospel principles can be adapted to the needs of a blended family.

Build a Foundation on Christ

Build and strengthen your new family with the scriptures and words of Christ. Remember, "Happiness at home is most likely to be achieved when practices there are founded upon the teachings of Jesus Christ".2 Sister Chieko Okazaki wrote, "It seems to me that the Lord has a tender and powerful interest in these second-try marriages. Blended families should make him a partner in their enterprise".3

Church attendance, family home evening, and family prayer can bring togetherness to blended families. "Pray in your families unto the Father, always in my name, that your wives and your children may be blessed" (3 Nephi 18:21).

Seek for Unity

Elder Wells counseled blended families to especially strive for unity.5 The Lord said, "If ye are not one ye are not mine" (D&C 38:27). This unity starts with solidarity and love between the parents. It is then built upon shared family goals and time spent together.

One way to develop unity is through family service projects. Elder Wells said of his own home, "Our 'blended family' was successful because we were given love and respect as well as opportunities to serve and sacrifice".5 He counseled all families to remember the words of the Proclamation: "Successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities" (¶ 7).

Have Patience and Show Love

The Lord said, "Be patient in afflictions, revile not against those that revile. Govern your house in meekness, and be steadfast" (D&C 31:9). Stepparenting requires a special measure of patience. "Because emotional attachments between stepparents and stepchildren require time, it sometimes may take years to establish a united and harmonious blended family".5 The principle that love takes time is especially relevant to blended families.

Elder Marvin J. Ashton taught that developing love is a process of patience and persistence. "The Great Shepherd had the same thoughts in mind when he taught, 'If ye love me, keep my commandments' (John 14:15) and 'If ye love me feed my sheep' (John 21:16). Love demands action if it is to be continuing. Love is a process".1

Elder Wells noted that, even after many years, some stepparents may still play a secondary role in the life of their stepchildren. Nevertheless, the stepparent should give relentless love and patience to build that new relationship. "Though some children may be reluctant to bond with a new parent, they should not have to compete for that parent's love. While a stepmother, for example, may never take the place of a deceased parent in a child's heart, she can create a place of her own in that child's heart by showing love and exercising patience".5

Set Your Finances in Order

"And again, verily I say unto you, that every man who is obliged to provide for his own family, let him provide, and he shall in nowise lose his crown" (D&C 75:28). Finances can be a complicated matter for blended families. Open communication and frequent family budgeting sessions can help sort things out. The following is an excerpt from Elder Wells' 1997 address:

"All family members need to understand the family's financial situation and monetary constraints. Establishing a sound budget and setting financial priorities with the help of all family members can limit misunderstandings. Review the family's financial situation often, and avoid preferential treatment in money matters. When necessary, advice from a bishop or qualified consultant can be sought.

"Blended families, like all families, need to remember the blessings the Lord has promised to faithful tithe payers.

"'One of the best ways that I know of to pay my obligations to my brother, my neighbor, or business associate, is for me first to pay my obligations to the Lord,' President Joseph F. Smith said".5

Successful Stepfamilies are Possible

In a 1997 General Conference, Elder Jerald. L. Taylor thanked the Lord for "my second mother, who loved me as one of her own".4 Happiness in stepfamilies is possible. Elder Wells wrote that, "Like nuclear families, blended families within and without the Church can be successful, loving, and unified". Unique challenges must be faced. Sacrifices and adjustments must be made. But "Those who pay the price of making their blended families successful can know the joy that comes when we 'live together in love' (D&C 42:45)".

Written by Megan Gene-Northrup, Research Assistant, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.


  1. Ashton, M. J. (1975, November). Love takes time. Ensign, 108-110.
  2. Nelson, R. M. (1999, May). Our sacred duty to honor women. Ensign, 38-40.
  3. Okazaki, C. N. (1998). Disciples. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book.
  4. Taylor, J. L. (1997, May). Gratitude. Ensign, 33-34.
  5. Wells, R. E. (1997, August). Uniting blended families. Ensign, 24-29.