One Stepfamily at a Time


Many of our notions about stepfamilies are based on hypothetical comparisons to an idealized, and largely mythical, form of the nuclear family. Contrary to popular understanding, today's marriages don't have shorter durations than our ancestors'. The average  marriage in the late 1700's lasted only seven years before one partner died. In fact, a hundred years ago, 20-30% of marriages were second marriages, just as they are today. The only difference is the reason for the ending of the first marriage. Divorce is largely a function of our increased life span; namely there is substantially more time 'til death do us part.


Our concerns about children are also heavily influenced by a nostalgic view of ages gone by. Estimates are that in the 1800's, 23% of children had lost both parents by age 5, 50% by age 13, and 70% by age 24.


Researchers report that it is not the structure of the family that determines how happy, academically proficient, or socially well-adjusted children are and that prolonged exposure to conflict is almost always harmful to children. It is the quality of the relationships, not the type of family, that makes a difference in a child's psychological well-being.


This does not mean, though, that divorce is not generally an extremely painful event. It is. We need to get much better at working out the difficult aspects of these transitions so we can provide safe and secure families for our children. We also need to get much better at working out the relationships between all members of stepfamilies.


Where a nuclear family has a number of years for negotiating the first two developmental stages of the family - marriage and the birth of children the stepfamily must cope with the equivalents of these stages simultaneously. Because one or both partners have already established bonds with their children from a previous marriage, it is imperative that a strong couple bond also be established and maintained. Private time and activities for the new couple must be planned to support the crucial primary bond between the partners. This bond not only protects children from another family loss, but also gives them a positive example for their own eventual adult relationships.


Although stepparents can relate to stepchildren in several ways, it seems that the time it takes children to accept another adult in a parental role is greatly underestimated. Most children need a time period equal to their age at the time of transition. Therefore, a child of six months would only need six months to accept the new adult in a parental role, but a child of six years would be twelve before the stepparent is fully accepted as a parent.


With this formula in mind, stepparents shouldn't anticipate they will assume a parental role with children who are teenagers at the time of transition. The developmental task of adolescence is to experiment with independence from parents. This doesn't mean, however, that older children can't develop and benefit from a relationship with another adult. Remember, stepparents, you are different from all other adults in your stepchildren's lives. You have your own special qualities and talents to offer in the role of friend, confidant, and mentor that will enrich these children's lives.


No matter what role a stepparent chooses, it is best for the biological parent to remain in charge of decision-making and limit-setting. Stepparents can remind children about Mom's or Dad's rules, but not to create them. The stepparent's role is to intentionally nurture the children in nonthreatening activities in an attempt to bond with them. Once the children have had time to learn to respect and trust the stepparent, usually 18 - 24 months, they will adjust more easily to a stepparent's discipline.


Of course, comfortable rules for living in the home should be negotiated by the adults together. Explore your parenting styles and consider taking a parenting or stepparenting workshop together. Some rules will be non-negotiable, but invite children in establishing the other guidelines. This is an excellent time to share how things were done in former homes, discuss why some things are meaningful to different family members, and generally get to know each other. Keep in mind that it is the task that is important; not the way the task is accomplished. Remind family members that there is no "right" way to get things done in the new household.


Finally, relationships with the divorced biological parent should be supported. Although courteous relationships may be difficult to maintain, studies have shown that children who have contact with both parents on a regular basis adjust better to divorce situations and ultimately step family arrangements. It is important to communicate directly with the other biological parent, in person, by telephone, or through a counselor or mediator. Keep your child out of the middle. Keep your focus on your mutual concern for the welfare of your children and on what you can control in the situation. There is no way you can make everything work the way you want it; you can't control how your ex dresses your kids or make your ex return your children on time after every visitation. So be creative in removing yourself from no-win battles, which would only leave you feeling helpless and angry. Save your energy for enjoying your new family.


The stepfamily is a different kind of family with special obstacles and opportunities. Trying to make it like the family you came from, only better, will cause everyone unnecessary stress. Be kind to yourself by remembering that creating a family where everyone feels comfortable takes time. The benefits of living in a stepfamily appreciating different value systems, learning to negotiate and compromise, and having more caring people in your life - are worth the struggles you will experience as you proceed through the normal passages all stepfamilies travel.

©2007 Integra Counseling Services
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©2010 Integra Counseling Services
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Contact Dr. Zimmerman at or 715.386.9011