The Unique Challenges of Stepfamilies

● According to stepfamily expert Dr. Patricia Papernow, trying to address stepfamily issues using a first-time family as a model is like “trying to navigate the streets of New York City using a map of Boston.”

The fact is, stepfamily challenges are not only unique but also greater than those faced by first-time families. In fact, psychologist William Merkel describes the stepfamily as “the most complex, unnatural and difficult set of relationships known to humankind.”

If it is that hard, how can a stepfamily ever succeed? The relationships in a stepfamily can be likened to the seams in a patchwork quilt. Even though the seams are weak when the stitching begins, when completed they can be as strong as the original fabric​—if they are sewn carefully.

Let us consider some common challenges that stepfamilies face and the steps that have helped many to “stitch” their lives together. Then, we will meet four stepfamilies who have found success.


“I expected to win my stepchildren’s approval with lots of love and attention, but after eight years I’m still waiting.”​—Gloria. *

STEPFAMILY marriages often begin with high expectations. Parents hope to avoid or to fix the mistakes made in a previous marriage and to find the love or security that has been missing. Some hopes may be little more than fantasies, but any that go unfulfilled cause stress. As the Bible says: “An expectation that drags on and on makes you sick at heart.” (Proverbs 13:12, Beck) What if unmet expectations are making you heartsick?


Do not bottle up your feelings, hoping that the disappointment will go away. Instead, identify an unmet expectation that frustrates you. Next, determine why you hope for this, so you can understand why you cling to it. Finally, try to find a more realistic expectation for now. Here are some examples:

1. From the start, I will love my stepchildren and they will love me.

Why? I’ve always dreamed of being in a warm, close family.

More realistic: In time, our love for one another can grow. What matters now is that we can feel safe and respected in our family.

2. Everyone in the new family will adjust quickly.

Why? We’re ready for a fresh start.

More realistic: Stepfamilies usually take between four and seven years to stabilize. Our issues are completely normal.

3. We won’t argue about money.

Why? Our love will help us to avoid petty disputes.

More realistic: Financial issues related to our previous marriages are complex. We may not yet be ready to pool together all our money.


“We adjusted quickly​—everyone in the new stepfamily was comfortable right away.”​—Yoshito.

“It took about ten years before I was fully committed to the success of our stepfamily.”​—Tatsuki, stepson of Yoshito.

LIKE Yoshito and Tatsuki, stepfamily members may not really understand each other. Why is this significant? As problems arise, you may want to act quickly to solve them. But to act effectively, you must first understand your family.

It is important to consider how you communicate, since speech can tear down as well as build up. As the Bible says: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” (Proverbs 18:21) How can you use your tongue to build understanding rather than stifle it?


• Be curious and empathetic about one another’s feelings rather than judgmental. For example:

If your son says, “I miss Dad,” acknowledge his loss. Instead of saying, “But your stepdad loves you and is better to you than your father,” try this: “It really must be hard. Tell me, what do you miss the most about your dad?”

Instead of accusing your new spouse by saying, “Your son wouldn’t be so rude if you had been a better parent,” share how you feel. Try this: “Could you please remind Luke to say hello to me when he comes home? It would really help me.”

• Use time together for meals, recreation, and worship to learn about one another.

• Have regular family meetings with everyone present. Allow each member to speak without interruptions, starting with something good about the new family, followed by a concern. Show respect even if you disagree, and let anyone offer a solution.


“My wife and her children huddle together and then gang up on me. I’m the outsider, an intruder.”​—Walt.

THE fear of being an outsider in your own family can be at the root of seemingly unrelated problems. For example:

• Children who got along fine with a prospective stepparent before the marriage tend to struggle afterward.

• A stepparent feels jealous of a six-year-old child.

• Big arguments erupt about apparently trivial household matters.

This issue affects biological parents too, since they can feel pressured if the stepfamily appears to be coming apart at the seams. As Carmen put it, “Being stuck in the middle between my husband and my two children is very hard.”

The Golden Rule provides the key to meeting this challenge. Jesus said: “All things, therefore, that you want men to do to you, you also must likewise do to them.” (Matthew 7:12) How can stepfamilies bring everyone inside without pushing anyone out?


• Put your marriage first. (Genesis 2:24) Spend time with your new spouse, and make his or her status in the family clear to your children. For instance, fathers could say something like this to their children even before they remarry: “I love Anna, and she will be my wife. I know you will be polite to her.”

• Schedule time alone with each of your children. Setting aside a specific time shows how important they are to you and will reassure them of your love.

• Spend time alone with each stepchild so you can build your relationship without the parent serving as a referee.

• Allow children to “join” the family without renouncing their previous family. It is usually best not to require stepchildren to use terms of endearment such as “Mom” or “Dad.” Older children may at first be uncomfortable using words like “family” or “we” for the stepfamily.

• Give each child household chores, a seat at the table, and a space of their own in the home. This includes those who stay with you only part-time.

• Consider either moving into a new residence or adjusting the existing home, so that new members do not feel like intruders.


“When I try to discipline Carmen’s children, she consoles them instead of supporting me.”​—Pablo.

“I feel cut to the heart when Pablo treats my children harshly.”​—Carmen.

WHY might childrearing cause conflict in a stepfamily? Discipline may have become lax in a single-parent family. When a stepparent joins the family, the emotional attachment to the children may not be fully formed. The result? The stepparent may think the parent is too soft on the children, while the biological parent thinks the stepparent is too hard on them.

The Bible recommends balance in rearing children: “Do not be irritating your children, but go on bringing them up in the discipline and mental-regulating of Jehovah [God].” (Ephesians 6:4) The focus here is on training your child’s thinking rather than on merely controlling his behavior. At the same time, parents are encouraged to be kind and loving so that their discipline does not become a source of irritation.


• Establish house rules, starting with those you already have. Consider the benefit of such rules in the following scenario:

Stepmother: Jennifer, the house rule is no texting until your homework is finished.

Jennifer: You’re not my mother.

Stepmother: That’s right, Jen, but I am the parent in charge tonight, and the rule is no texting until your homework is finished.

• Avoid creating many rules or changing routines too quickly. What seems like a simple request to a stepparent can be a burden to a child who feels that his entire world has already been turned upside down. Of course, some new rules may be essential, such as a household privacy policy and a dress code, especially if there are older children in the stepfamily.

• Discuss disagreements in private, not in front of the children. Focus on the child’s specific behavior rather than on some supposed flaw in earlier training.


^ par. 7 Some names in this series have been changed.

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A united stepfamily may seem like an impossible dream

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Listen carefully in order to understand each one’s feelings and concerns

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If there is a disagreement, parents should resolve the matter in private