Steps Toward Success for Stepparents
Annually, four out of ten weddings in America is a remarriage for at least one of the partners. An estimated 35 million couples are in a remarriage. Many of these marriages will embrace the responsibility of step parenting. That is, the husband or wife will be a non-biological parent to the other partner’s child. 25% of teens live in a stepfamily and 100 million adults have stepfamily relationships because they or someone in their family has remarried.
a stepfamily can be compared to white-water rafting. There are periods of calm on the journey but also some very
bumpy spots that can become life-threatening to the new family. Typical rocky
rapids include: Stepchildren
becoming more oppositional and even rejecting
the stepparent after the wedding; children
grieving the loss of their original family and being caught in loyalty conflicts
between parent and stepparents; discomfort
adjusting to new ways of doing everything in the new family; complicated
holiday schedules with relatives; unclear roles, rules and responsibilities in the new family;
conflict with ex-spouses especially over parenting and visitation
schedules; little time to for the
couple to nurture their marriage relationship and few cultural supports for
stepfamilies. An experienced guide, good safety equipment and
a plan for paddling together as a team are all essential if stepfamilies
want to successfully navigate around the rocks and keep everyone in the
find an experienced guide. You
are not alone. Talk with
experienced stepparents and learn from their successes and failures.
Attend a parenting course or step-parenting group.
Read books (such as
The Smart Stepfamily by
Ron Deal) and check website articles about stepfamilies
(see box above). If the waters are
really rough, find a trained therapist who works with stepfamilies.
Most importantly make God central by seeking the guidance of the Holy
Spirit through regular prayer, Sacraments and study as you commit yourself to
spiritual growth and renewal.
invest in the proper safety equipment.
Overly romantic couples are in most danger of
capsizing. They often expect “instant
family” believing “I
love my new partner, so of course he/she will love my children” or “
the children will be so happy to have a new family.”
Even if children show some hesitation or disagreement these couples are
sure that within a short time “love will
conquer all.” Successful
couples have no fewer problems but cope better because they have prepared for
them, have more realistic expectations and are more patient in allowing everyone
in the new family time and space to grow.
family members have a need to belong; a
need to be loved, appreciated and securely attached to a few special people and
a need for personal autonomy and control of one’s life.
All three are usually threatened by the three “Ls” of forming a
stepfamily -- loss, loyalty and
lack of control. Some
recommended safety equipment includes:
A “map” of realistic expectations. Expect
that the first two years will have significant adjustment stresses.
Remarriage is usually easiest when the children are young and most
difficult with ages 10-14 when children are developing more independence from
family and may not necessarily want the active parenting an eager stepparent may
want to provide. Thoroughly discuss parenting expectations and issues before
A new home (“boat”) for the new family. Couples
report this makes for an easier establishment of “our home” than when trying
to live in one of the partner’s prior residences with all its memories.
A priority on building the couple relationship. The
family foundation is the couple’s covenant relationship. The couple can become so busy with parenting that the
marriage is not nurtured. Do not
take children on the honeymoon and continue to schedule "couple" times to enjoy each
other with no discussion of problems or parenting once the honeymoon is over.
Families and individuals need predictability.
Rituals - repetitive and patterned behavior - help.
Successful stepfamilies have regular meals and prayer together,
develop rituals that help ease the transition when children shift between
one parent’s house to the other’s, and
work to develop new and flexible ways to celebrate birthdays and holidays so
children aren’t caught in the middle between battling bio-parents.
Faith and forgiveness.
Seek God’s grace and guidance when considering marriage and in the
responsibilities of parenting. Couples
that share faith, prayer and worship together deepen their loving bond and
commitment. Grieving the loss of a previous marriage that ended
through death or divorce requires forgiving: letting go of past hurts and
disappointments, exonerating a previous spouse from blame and taking
responsibility for one’s own failures. Only
then will a new marriage have a chance to succeed.
The hurts, misunderstandings, loyalty conflicts, angers and resentments
that accompany stepfamily life need the healing medicine of prayer and
forgiveness. Regularly receive the
Sacrament of Reconciliation or seek the spiritual counsel of a priest to heal
and strengthen your spirit.
develop a plan that includes clear roles, rules, responsibility and respect for
each stepfamily member.
When these are not clearly spelled out and
understood, stepfamilies struggle with confusion, ambiguity and mounting
The couple needs to develop a limited set of house
rules taking into consideration the ages, needs and
viewpoints of the children. These
rules are discussed, responsibilities are clarified and then the rules are
clearly posted (“We agree to respect
each family member.” “Every
family member agrees to clean up after him or herself.”)
Periodically, they are evaluated and changed as the family grows.
is initially handled by the biological parent.
The stepparent backs up the biological parents and develops a
relationship with stepchildren that is
more akin to a camp counselor rather than a parent or disciplinarian.
Enforcing agreed upon family rules makes this easier.
Family meetings are held regularly to celebrate achievements, to tackle one problem
at a time and to have fun together. In
addition, scheduling one-on-one times between stepparents & children
and parents and children will help relationships grow. Key to this is for parents/stepparents to take an
interest in those things their (step)children enjoy.
Allow stepchildren to take the lead in what name they will call
stepparents. They should not be
forced to call them “mom” or “dad.”
Parents and stepparents must do their best to
cooperate in parenting.
Things can get complicated, especially after a divorce when both parents
are ex-spouses but they are never ex-parents.
When people don’t get along, the child feels sandwiched in the middle,
hearing criticism of the other parent as attacks on him, because he is half that
parent. Stepchildren may also feel
conflicted loyalties not wanting to betray a parent by liking a stepparent.
They may actively reject the stepparent.
Adults in successful stepfamilies assure children that they are loved
and do not compete for the child’s loyalty.
They assure children that they are not the cause of a divorce.
They resist the cultural norm to badmouth or not communicate with their
Live the Gospel.
Putting into practice Jesus’ commands to love, forgive, pray for
persecutors and serve each other will give stepfamilies the power to build a
loving Christian family. Individually
praying for each other daily and developing ways to pray together as a family
are powerful ways to soften hearts, develop humble caring attitudes and acquire
the necessary wisdom all families need.
will face challenges as they grow. Love, patience and time (2-4 years at a
minimum) will be required to stabilize the new family.
Couples who see their stepfamilies as different – not deficient –
when compared to nuclear families; who
develop realistic, flexible expectations and who patiently follow a plan to grow
as a family have a strong chance to succeed. They will discover themselves to be a holy family because of
God’s grace working in their midst.
Boomer is Director for the Dept. for Marriage
& Family Ministry and is interested in hearing the experiences and wisdom of
stepfamilies and those ministering to them.)