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Feature Article


Building Stepfamily Relationships

Angie Nickell, Former Graduate Assistant, Human Development and Family Studies, University of Missouri

After divorce, the majority of men and women eventually remarry, or move in with a new partner. When you consider dating or begin to date, it is important to think about how your new relationship will affect you and your child. Parenting can be a challenge in any family situation, but if you decide to remarry or live with a new partner, it is important to be aware of the unique challenges that come with parenting in a stepfamily. Building stepfamily relationships may seem like an overwhelming task at times, but there are a number of things you can do to help your child adjust to a stepfamily and develop positive relationships with other family members. Below are a few suggestions for building strong stepfamily relationships.

Tips for parents who are dating:

  • If you are dating after a divorce or separation, consider whether your child has had a chance to adjust to the divorce and is ready for you to date. Each family change is stressful for children. If your child is still distressed from your divorce, your dating may add to the stress your child already feels and may be very difficult for him or her to accept. You may want to give your child more time to adjust to the family changes first.


  • When you decide to begin dating someone, tell your child before your first date that you are going to have an evening out with a new friend. Let your child know when you will be home and reassure your child about your love for him or her.


  • It is usually not a good idea to introduce your dates to your child on the first date, especially if you are dating many people, as this may confuse your child. However, if you are dating someone repeatedly, let your child meet him or her and allow your child to spend some time with you and your date. The initial meetings may go more smoothly if they occur somewhere outside of the home and involve a fun activity (e.g., going to a sporting event or park together).


  • Be sure to allow time to spend with your child. Never let dating interfere with planned activities with your child.

Tips for building stepfamily relationships:

  • Ease into the stepparent role; be flexible and patient. Try to build and maintain a friendship with your stepchildren before trying to parent them. Bonding in stepfamily relationships can take years to occur, so patience is important from everyone in a stepfamily.


  • Hold family meetings on a regular basis to give all family members a chance to share their concerns about relevant issues or to help make family decisions. Children will be less likely to resent their responsibilities in their new family if they have participated in the decision-making process.


  • Be sure to discuss rules, methods of discipline, and other important issues with your new partner and children so everyone understands what is expected. Until the stepparent-stepchild relationship is stronger, discipline may be more effective if the stepparent allows the biological parent to discipline with the stepparent’s support. It is important that you two work together in discipline matters. In time, the stepparent can gradually assume more discipline for the stepchildren.


  • Nurture the couple relationship. It is important to continue to build your new relationship with each other by spending time together without the children, being honest and open with each other, and practicing good communication skills.


  • Establish new traditions. Family traditions help create a sense of identity and solidarity among family members. While it is important to leave some traditions in place from previous families for the sake of familiarity and stability, new family traditions can be incorporated into previous family traditions.


  • Find activities that the entire family can enjoy together. Participating in enjoyable family activities helps members get to know each other better, strengthens family bonds, and creates lasting memories. Allow all family members to assist in planning the family activities.


  • Spend time with family members on a one-to-one basis. It is important for the children to spend alone time with both their biological parent and their stepparent. Spending time with the biological parent allows the child to feel important despite the family changes. Spending time with the stepparent allows both the adult and the child to get to know each other and build a relationship.


  • Assure the children that love is bountiful. Just as you can love your biological children and your stepchildren, they can love a stepparent and still love and care about the nonresidential parent.


  • Accept the child’s other biological parent. You don’t have to like the child’s other parent, but do not criticize the other parent in front of the child. You cannot erase the bond between the child’s other parent and the child and failing to accept the other parent is likely to lead to problems.


  • Try to learn as much as possible about child development and effective parenting. Join support groups, participate in parenting classes, or read books.



Last Updated 05/12/2009


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