Tips for Stepfamily Success

Approximately 40% of families with married parents and children in the United States are stepfamilies. These blended families are often formed in hope of new beginnings after a divorce or the death of a spouse. As 4 out of 10 of the marriages in the US are remarriages and about 75% of divorced people in the US will remarry, many children will live in stepfamilies before they reach adulthood.

While blended families all have different makeups, background stories, and thus a unique set of difficulties, research “supports the notion that the same ingredients vital to developing healthy first marriage families are also essential in remarriages. First and foremost, it is important for every husband and wife to acknowledge and understand that the marriage relationship is the most important relationship in the family. In a stepfamily especially, the marriage must be strong not only to endure the many pressures stepfamilies face but also to provide the children with an example of a healthy marital relationship to follow so that they don’t repeat the cycle of divorce.

Brent Scharman and his wife Janet Scharman are both licensed psychologists who are parents of their own blended family. They wrote an article entitled “Blended Families,” where they presented the factors below that have been proven “to help blended families move forward in constructive ways.”

Losses are acknowledged and mourned.

With the formation of a new, blended family, all the family members will have experienced a significant loss. Each individual needs to have the time necessary to work through those losses, which may include relationships, money, prestige, security, and dreams. The amount of time necessary will vary for each person. Divorce is often harder to overcome than the death of a spouse “because of guilt, worries about failure, unresolved issues, and continued interactions with the former spouse concerning children.” It may take longer to heal from this type of loss than others.

Children also face difficulties that are much different than their parents. “They may see a remarriage as an end to their hopes of parents’ reconciling at the very time when the adults are full of optimism for a new beginning.” Allowing children to talk about their worries to an adult is often helpful.

Expectations are realistic.

Remarriage is not a second chance to get the first marriage right, nor is it a replacement, but it is a new, separate marriage. Individuals need to be open to the new possibilities to move forward in their new family. Children may still hope that their biological parents will still get back together even after both parents are happily remarried. “Understanding this particular dynamic can help parents to proceed carefully, making it possible for each individual to determine to what degree they will bond on an emotional level, be best buddies, or settle for a relationship that is less close. Openly acknowledging that the integration required for a group of people to feel like a family typically takes years, not weeks or months, can allow individual members the time and space they need to become comfortable with each other.”

Another common issue, especially for children, is loyalty conflicts. Children may feel that loving their step-parent is betraying their biological parent. Parents should help children understand that love is not exclusive or restrictive, because this problem will be a powerful and persistent one to break.

The couple is unified.

Robert E. Wells was raised in a stepfamily and is a parent of his own stepfamily. He has observed, “Familial unity starts with the parents. Solidarity and love between couples help generate solidarity and love among siblings. That is why the primary relationship in a strong, unified family is the relationship between husband and wife.” Remarried couples may be tempted to put off their marital relationship to focus on the other family issues, like forming relationships with their stepchildren. However, “it is critical that couples view time together as a necessity rather than a luxury. Spending time together is not only desirable for the couple; it provides good modeling and reassures the children about the stability of the relationship.”

It is also important for the couple to be unified in parenting. This comes with time and it is best for the biological parent to be the primary discipliner of the children at the beginning then fade to both parents parenting more equally.

Satisfactory relationships are formed.

Step-relationships are not the same as biological relationships and, as such, should not be expected to be exactly the same. Most stepparents find it most satisfying to develop a friendship with their stepchildren. Over time these relationships can progress into very meaningful, important, and rewarding experiences.

It is also important to consider the many family members and friends who don’t have an input in the decision but will also be affected by the remarriage. It is often best to reach out to concerned family members to help them still feel included in the family.

Families are informed.

Reading the relevant literature on blended families and learning what other families have found to work for them can help with this transition. Building a support system with similar families can also be beneficial. The average stepfamily needs between 5 to 7 years to form a family identity. In movies, love between adults and bonding with children happens quickly; in real life, it happens gradually. Families need to realize that it’s normal for children to have mixed feelings about their new steparent and stepsiblings but that with consistent effort on the part of the parents to be compassionate of their children’s journeys and understanding of their ambivalent emotions (while maintaining a strong and united marriage) the discord will pass with time and the kids will learn to adjust and adapt.

Constructive rituals are developed.

Remarriage allows for families to create new traditions on how to spend holidays, birthdays, and vacations together. This can be a complicated situation with two sets of parents and a larger extended family all wanting to be a part of these special times. These issues can be solved and forming new traditions can be “part of the fun of remarriage”, making the best of what is often a difficult situation.

A final note: love conquers all.

As children in stepfamilies have previously experienced loss (most commonly through the divorce of their biological parents), it’s to be expected that they will have difficulty adjusting to the new family arrangement. Research shows that stepchildren face greater levels of family conflict (compared to nuclear family children) and are at increased risk for developmental behavioral problems, health problems, and substance abuse.

So it is imperative that couples who remarry do everything in their power to blend their two families together to form a cohesive, strong family. If you are a parent in the process of blending a family, please move slowly and allow time for your children to adapt and adjust. Let them know that you love them and that by getting remarried you are doing what’s best for them so that they have another chance to experience a healthy marriage.

Remember, the home is the primary context in which your children will hopefully learn and experience the character of love. Love can be what holds the jigsaw pieces of a successful stepfamily together, resulting not in a bunch of broken, disconnected pieces, but a home.

For more information, view the ACPeds patient information handout: Tips for Stepfamily Success

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All quotes taken from the Scharman and Scharman  article which you can view by visiting the following website:  http://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1294&context=marriageandfamilies

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