Helping Stepfamilies Blend

Today, at least one-third of all children in the U.S. can expect to live in a stepfamily before age 18.  The ‘blended family’ is becoming more of a norm than an aberration.  Stepfamilies face unique stressors and challenges.  The most difficult aspect of stepfamily life is parenting.  And, parenting problems in stepfamilies and the perception of favoritism can become critical issues that break up these marriages. 

Research indicates that children under age 10 adjust easiest and seem to be more accepting of a new adult in the family. Younger adolescents, age 10-14, seem to have the most difficulties adjusting to a stepparent as they are adjusting to so much that is new and confusing within themselves.  Older adolescents, age 15 and up, need less parenting and are generally less invested in stepfamily life.  Most blended families are able to live together successfully.  However, it may take 2-4 years for a new stepfamily to feel ‘adjusted’ to living together.

Being in a stepfamily can be like walking on a field of land-mines, so don’t hesitate to look for professional help if your stepfamily seems to be rife with conflict and unhappiness.  Talk to a therapist if a child is angry, resentful, isolated or constantly argumentative; if one of the parents feels overwhelmed and depressed; if one of the stepparents openly favors one of the children; or, if the family’s normal activities are frequently disrupted by strife.

Here are some keys for effective parenting in stepfamilies.

  • Talk to your children about blending your family long before your re-marriage.

  • Bring the two families together prior to the marriage for get-togethers and outings.

  • Don’t push-let the new relationships develop naturally and slowly.

  • Include the children from both families in the marriage ceremony to strengthen the sense that the children are central to the newly created family.

  • Don’t expect your stepchildren to call you ‘mom’ or ‘dad’.  Let them decide what they want to call you.

  • Assure your children that they will continue to have a relationship with their non-resident parent.

  • At first, set up relationships with the children in which the stepparent is more like a friend or camp counselor than a disciplinarian. 

  • Come up with a list of family rules that apply equally for everyone.

  • Establish new traditions and celebrations in the family.