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Feature Article


Handling Challenges of Stepfamily Life

Erin Angst, M.A., Human Development & Family Studies Graduate, University of Missouri-Columbia

Between 75% and 85% of all divorced people remarry. It has also become quite common for people to choose to cohabit or live with a romantic partner instead of getting remarried. About 1/3 of all children in the United States will spend some part of their life in a cohabiting or remarried stepfamily.

Forming a stepfamily brings both challenges and rewards. Being aware of challenges that stepfamilies commonly face and openly discussing them can help prevent or minimize problems and foster positive stepfamily relationships.

Common Challenges for Stepfamilies

Defining the role of the stepparent.
Often parents, stepparents and children have problems figuring out how the stepparent should act with the children. Usually, children respond best to the stepparent if at first the stepparent tries to be more of a friend instead of a parent. This means that the stepparent doesn't try to discipline the children, but supports the biological parent. The following quotes from a stepchild help demonstrate this:

"I didn't like my stepdad, because I didn't even know him and he immediately took on a huge disciplinarian role. One day I was playing outside, and the next day I was doing laundry and cooking, and that happened when he married Mom."

"When I would go to visit my dad and stepmom, she didn't try to discipline me, and I thought she was cool. We got to be good friends, but she never tried to be a mom to me."

This quote from a stepchild helps demonstrate how being a friend and letting the parent be the one who disciplines helps the stepchild and stepparent develop a better relationship.

Competition for parent's attention.
Many children see a new stepparent as a threat to their relationship with their parent, and they see the new stepparent as a source of competition for their parent's attention. This is especially true of daughters who built very close relationships with their mothers during the time period where they lived in a single parent family. One stepchild had this to say:

"With my dad's remarriage, I always felt like I was in competition with my stepmom for my dad's attention, and I never won".

Another stepchild reported problems with her stepdad:

"He moved us out and cut off a lot of our access to Mom, and I resented him a lot. One day I was sleeping with my mom, and the next day I was sleeping on the couch".

It may not be practical or possible for parents to continue to spend the same amount of time with their children after their remarriage as they did before, but parents should try to still have some one-on-one time with each of their children.

Loyalty conflicts
Children often feel that they are torn between parents and stepparents. Young children are especially likely to worry about choosing sides, and fear that it is not okay for them to love both of their parents or even like a stepparent without being disloyal to another parent. One stepchild made this comment:

"If Mom hadn't badmouthed Barb (stepmom), it would have been a lot easier for me. She made me feel like I was choosing sides if I liked Barb".

Adjustment to a stepfamily is easier for children when their parents support their relationships with new stepparents, rather than criticizing them.

Building positive relationships

Building a positive relationship between stepparents and stepchildren can take a lot of time. Children will often rebuff attempts that stepparents make to be nice to them, and stepparents may eventually stop trying to connect with the children. Stepparents who are successful at building good relationships with children are often stepparents who don't push too much and try to take it slow. One of the most effective ways of building a positive relationship with a stepchild is by spending one-on-one time with the child doing things the child wants to do. These quotes illustrate that engaging in activities and one-on-one conversations go a long way toward building positive stepparent-child relationships:

"Out of all of my parents, my stepmom is the one I was closest to. We would stay up late at night and talk about stuff, everything."

"When I was 15, I moved in with my dad and stepmom. She and I got along pretty good. She was there for me when no one else was. Dad worked a lot and wasn't around much. She taught me how to drive and stuff."

Biological parents can also help the stepparent and child build a good relationship by encouraging them to share activities and helping them understand each other.



Last Updated 05/12/2009


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