Starting A Stepfamily: Here’s What You Need To Know

hands holding paper cutout of puzzle piecesHere’s an interesting statistic: less than 50% of all kids under the age of 18 are living in a home where their parents are in their first marriage. Moreover it is likely that more than 40-50% of all adults will have a step relationship at some point in their lives.

A blended or stepfamily is a family where either one or both parents have been married before and one or more of the children have come from the previous marriage.

Parenting seems hard enough but step parenting is often even more of a challenge. In addition, partners marrying for a second or third time often struggle with some of the same issues they could not resolve in their previous marriages. Now they have new partners and additional children to manage.

The merging of families can be an exciting adventure as well as a huge challenge. Creating a stepfamily is serious business and understanding some of the dynamics will help lead to a successful experience.

Stepfamilies Have Become Normal

Step or blended families are more normal nowadays than ever before.

Almost everyone knows someone who, after a divorce, meets someone new, falls in love and gets married again. More often than not one, if not both, of the new spouses has at least one child. Thus a stepfamily is created.

This trend is increasing.  It is thought that today approximately half of the families in America are step rather than nuclear families.

This phenomenon has created new challenges in the realms of parenting and co-parenting. It has changed the way many people view and understand families.

The members of a new stepfamily face many new challenges. Families have no history together and have to learn how to share their lives for the first time. Children are dealing with the loss of a parent who is not a part of this new arrangement. Kids are often torn in their allegiance to the parent they don’t see as much and the one they live with.

Spouses need to pay special attention to the fact that there are some real differences between stepfamilies and first families. Every stepfamily is formed either from a divorce or death of a family member. Many feelings, including grief and anger, often need to be addressed before good relationships can be developed.

Couples frequently don’t have much time to get everyone, including themselves, accustomed to the idea of being a new family. Bonds need to be formed and feelings need to be understood.

There are often initial hurdles to overcome such as: recognizing that there will be grieving over the loss of the nuclear family; supporting the original parent-child relationships; fostering the development of friendship between the new step-siblings; cultivating and developing skills for making decisions as a family (even going out to dinner can be a challenging experience for a new stepfamily) and keeping the love alive between the spouses as they navigate through unchartered territory.

Tips For Stepfamily Success

Despite the many complexities of stepfamily life, there are certain principles that I believe are fundamental to its success.

Don’t rush the process: Take the time to understand and get more comfortable with what is going on in your new family without trying too hard to make things work. You can’t be perfect so don’t act as if you are. There will be mistakes made, especially at the beginning, so take it easy and don’t be too hard on yourself or others in your stepfamily.

Know the differences: Stepfamilies and first families are very different. Don’t try to make your stepfamily into your first family…it won’t work. For one thing the children living with you may not even be yours so you cannot treat them as if they are. New rules apply so recognize that things will be different…including your role.

Understand discipline: Spouses must get clear right from the start as to how they will discipline the children. The first rule almost all of the time is that the biological parent must be the primary disciplinarian. Depending on the ages of the children, disciplining them can be shared at some point. If you have left your first family you may be feeling guilty about the child you left behind.  Those guilty feelings may get in the way of appropriately handling your kid’s behavior when he is introduced into your stepfamily.

Clarify responsibilities: It is in the stepfamilies’ best interest for the co-parents to agree as soon as possible on how they want to handle household responsibilities. The children need to have clarity on what they are expected to do in this new arrangement. Kids will likely respond more favorably to a show of unity and certainty coming from the co-parents.

Be prepared: Many stepfamilies experience the equivalent of an emotional roller coaster, especially when it comes to the children’s feelings. The kids’ emotions are often torn and confused between what might be genuine fondness for the new step parent and a deep loyalty to the biological parent. As a child begins to feel closer to the new stepparent he may suddenly feel as though he is betraying his biological parent for having those feelings. As a result he may push back and end up behaving badly. Knowing in advance about this dynamic can help you deal with it more effectively.

Keep the spirits high: Stay positive, light hearted but centered and use your sense of humor whenever possible. There will likely be many times that your patience will be tested and your attitude will probably determine how well things turn out.

Keep your spousal relationship first: In both first families and stepfamilies the relationship you have with your spouse can determine the success of your family. A strong, loving relationship between the marital partners will convey unity and harmony to the rest of the family and encourage all members to try their best.

There will be many hurdles in creating a new (step) family that you have likely not yet thought through. You stand a greater chance for successfully dealing with those hurdles if you and your partner seek premarital counseling.

About the Author

Dr. Stan Hyman is a licensed psychotherapist and life coach in private practice in Miami, Florida. He works with couples struggling with powerful issues such as premarital counselinginfidelity, careers, and intimacy. He also specializes in treating addictions, anger, anxiety, stress, depression and work-life balance.