All families face challenges. But stepfamilies encounter unique obstacles that can make or break their family. These unique challenges are inherent to all stepfamilies. Fortunately, there are strategies you can successfully use to foster a healthy stepfamily.
Whether you’re thinking about becoming a stepfamily, you just joined one or you’ve been a stepfamily for years, knowledge of how stepfamilies work is valuable at any stage. Below, you’ll learn the differences between first-time families and stepfamilies, the challenges stepfamilies face and how to overcome these obstacles.
The Stepfamily Differences
There are key differences between first-time families and stepfamilies, and knowing these distinctions is important for the success of your family. First-time families have a built-in bond, as well as bonds that have developed over time. In a first-time family, the adult couple usually “has some time to connect and to develop shared ways of doing things,” said Patricia Papernow, Ed.D, a psychologist in private practice in Hudson, MA, and a nationally recognized expert on stepfamily relationships.
First-time couples create rituals like reading the paper together on Sunday morning or having dinner at home most nights. They have the time to work out some of the kinks in their relationship, however big or small.
Then a child is born into this kind of cohesive relationship. Of course, “the birth of a kid interrupts the behavior or intimate connection of the couple, but they still have the memory or sense of intimate connection,” said Papernow, who’s also author of the book Becoming a Stepfamily: Patterns of Development in Remarried Families, and the upcoming book Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships (Routledge, 2012).
“When things go well enough, children are born hardwired to connect to their parents and parents are hardwired to connect back,” she said. Aside from certain genetic wiring, kids “arrive into parents’ relationships somewhat unformed.” Over time, the family develops its own rhythm and identity. “By the time, kids are six or seven, there’s a lot of shared ground about thousands of things we’re aware of and many we’re not aware of at all,” she said.
If a family splits up, a child experiences both big and small losses, everything from daddy not making pancakes in the morning to having to switch schools, Papernow said. Then, as the family becomes a single-parent home, new rituals are again formed and solidified. Early in her practice, Papernow worked with a woman who was devastated by her divorce. She’d play John Denver records really loud to make herself feel better. This became a ritual with her kids. Papernow and her daughter had a special place they’d visit every summer.
It’s not surprising, then, that when single parents start dating, the stepparent becomes an outsider. He or she enters a household that has already accumulated years of history, ritual and structure, Papernow said. Plus, as she explained, while the couple may be madly in love, “the primary attachment still lies between the parent and children.”
The Stepfamily Challenges
There are five challenges that all stepfamilies face, according to Papernow. Fortunately, there are specific ways you and your family can overcome these challenges. Below, you’ll find the challenge, followed by tips to overcome them.
1. Challenge: The Stuck Insider Outsider
In a first-time family, children tend to feel closer to mom or dad at different times during their development, which is painful enough for parents, Papernow said. In a stepfamily, though, the roles are stuck. The stepparent is the stuck outsider, and the parent is the stuck insider, she said. This can cause stepparents to feel disconnected from both their spouses and stepkids.
For instance, any time kids have a problem, they naturally move toward the parent. Even if the couple is having a serious talk over lunch, when the child bursts through the door crying, the parent will naturally switch attention from stepparent to child. This can leave stepparents feeling abandoned and can cause a rift in the relationship.
How to overcome it: First, as Papernow said, it’s important to expect that this will happen and to know that it has nothing to do with your spouse’s feelings for you. People often wonder who comes first: the kids or the new spouse, said Christina Roach, a national certified counselor and president and founder of Success for Steps, a resource dedicated to stepfamilies. But she said that the very question cultivates a competitive environment, where members of the stepfamily are working against each other.
Instead, Papernow recommended having an agreement between the couples that stepparents will simply do their own thing (like going for a walk or calling a friend) while the parents and kids talk. Parents do need to reconnect with their spouses later.
2. Challenge: Loss & Loyalty Binds
For kids, the new couple represents a loss, Papernow said. “Even under the best circumstances [of a divorce], there is still a lot of loss and grieving for all the people involved,” said Lisa Blum, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in private practice specializing in working with children, families and couples in Pasadena and West Hollywood. For some kids, this is very profound. They feel like they’ve lost a parent, their lifestyle, social position (“child of a divorced family”) or a sense of stability and security, she said. Papernow added that “research is establishing that the transition into a stepfamily is actually more challenging for children than divorce, partly because it compromises the parent-child relationship.”
“The entry of a stepparent creates both losses and a loyalty bind,” Papernow said. The new stepcouple pulls the parent’s attention away from their children. And, for many kids, connecting with their stepparents feels like betraying their other parent. This is especially common if a child has a particularly close relationship with the parent in the other household. If someone is badmouthing any of the adults in a child’s life, the bind intensifies.
Children enter a stepfamily more connected to their parents than to their stepparents. In addition, stepfamilies create losses and loyalty binds for children. This only increases the need for some children to distance their stepparent, adding yet another layer to the stepcouple’s outsider insider relationship, she said.
How to overcome it: “Parents and children need regular, reliable time alone together,” Papernow said, “not multitasking time!” This is a bond that stepparents can’t share, Roach added. Stepparent and child also need their own time to get to know each other, without the parent being present. As Papernow recalled, she and her stepdaughter would be connecting while playing cards, but as soon as her dad came home, the stepdaughter would whip away from her.
Roach suggested engaging in side-by-side activities, such as baking cookies or making lunch together, which are less intense than sitting face-to-face together. Stepparents can teach stepkids new skills. Papernow taught her stepdaughter how to sew.
She also emphasized the importance of having a “loyalty bind talk.” Let your child know that lots of kids feel confused when they have a parent and a stepparent. Be clear with your child that the stepparents don’t replace parents. For instance, if the child is younger, you can say something like this, Papernow recommended: “Your mom will always have a permanent place in your heart. All moms do; permanent like the sun and mountains, and nothing will ever change that. You have a permanent place in my heart, too. I like Susan [the stepparent], and I hope you’ll come to like her. Even if you do, she’ll have a different place in your heart.”
Stepparents also can have this talk by reiterating that they’re not trying to replace the parent. When trying to bond with stepkids, “create rituals that are new and different,” especially if the other parent passed away, Blum said.
3. Challenge: Parenting
Parenting can divide the couple, and it’s one of the biggest challenges a new couple will face, Papernow said. Every household has its own rules, and every parent has his or her own way of disciplining the kids. Seemingly small things like grape nuts and sugar cereals can become points of contention, like in Papernow’s household.
How to overcome it: Research shows that it’s best for the parent to remain the disciplinarian. If an issue with a stepchild comes up, speak to your spouse about it. Because parenting is a sensitive subject, Papernow said, it is important to raise these things with sensitivity and care. She teaches her clients a technique called “soft, hard, soft” when bringing up a parenting issue to your spouse. Say something caring at first, such as “I know your kids aren’t used to this, and they’re doing their best.” Then, say the hard thing but with the same soft energy, followed by another “soft” comment. As Papernow said, this is very different from criticizing and labeling.
Also, don’t create a bunch of rules and boundaries right off the bat. Pick one to two rules that are non-negotiable. Have some conversations about your parenting styles and what’s appropriate and not appropriate in your household, Blum said.
Teens can be involved in the rule-making process and share their ideas, making sure that they know parents have the final say, Blum said.
4. Challenge: Cultural Differences
Stepfamilies are more likely to be different ethnically and religiously than first-time couples, Papernow said. “The number of differences can be stunning,” she said. It can be something as small as how a person likes their silverware organized or the music they enjoy. The woman whose kids loved John Denver? Her new husband couldn’t stand his music.
How to overcome it: Expect that there will be lots of differences, Papernow said. Avoid setting lots of new rules immediately. Part of the reason is that you don’t know the culture of your family yet. Some differences may be obvious, while others are subtle and it can take months or years to see them. Find two or three things that are really important to both of you, and negotiate something that meets the needs of both the stepparent and the kids, or for both sets of kids.
5. Challenge: The Ex
“Whether, they’re dead or alive, good or bad, ex-spouses are part of the family,” Papernow said. Naturally, this affects the stepfamily. For kids, “according to research, the worst thing isn’t divorce, it’s conflict,” she said. Even tense, quiet conversations between ex-spouses affect kids profoundly, whether you see it or not. Research has shown that moderate tension increases kids’ cortisol levels and affects sleep, attention and school functioning.
How to overcome it: Parents must protect their kids from tension and conflict. Don’t badmouth your ex-spouse. This not only upsets kids but it also makes them more defensive and likely to side with the other parent. Talk with your ex when your child is out of earshot, Papernow said. If your ex starts a fight at pick-ups, turn away and move on as quickly as you can, she said.
If face-to-face interactions are difficult, arrange pick-ups so you don’t see your spouse. If talking is difficult too, communicate over email, Blum recommended. This “just takes the intensity and emotion out of it,” she said. Also, respect the other parents’ rules in front of your child.
Being part of a stepfamily is difficult and requires time and effort to make it work. Have realistic expectations, know the challenges, keep communicating and keep working at it.