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.