Understanding and working with Stepfamilies

Module Sections:

Children as Members of Two Households

Children often are members of two households, moving in and out of multiple homes and often feeling incomplete in each environment. As they move, the neighborhoods may be different; therefore new friends need to be made. Often there is not time to make friends because the length of stay may be short. Then when the stay is longer they often feel isolated and alone because they do not know anyone outside of their family. If a nonresidential parent is inconsistent with parenting time then a child's sense of frustration and emotional distress increases. Children are also caught between at least two sets of rules and expectations and have to negotiate these.

Following a divorce or the death of a parent, a child's parent may be physically elsewhere in actuality or in memory. When a child retains a memory of life with a parent who is no longer physically present on a day-to-day basis, that parent remains significant to them. These memories are also fueled by siblings and extended family memories or experiences with the other parent (Ganong & Coleman, 2006). When a child has lost a parent to death or a parent has minimal contact, the absent parent may take on an idealized image. During times of conflict a child may cling to the notion that their life would be better if their parent was alive or involved.

Children in stepfamilies struggle with loyalty to both parents often creating distress for the child and conflict within each home they reside. This sense of loyalty is also complicated by parents' jealousy of children's allegiances to biological parents or stepparents. When children do make friends with the new stepparent, the insecurity of the other parent may lead to attempts to undercut that new relationship. The child feels caught. Parents can be very powerful in their attempts to "win back" their child's allegiance, undermining the development of the new family relationships. It is not uncommon in situations such as this that adolescent children may attempt to control the household with threats of moving to go live with the other parent.

Oftentimes these conflicts can be managed through improved communication of information. Parents often believe their children understand information in the same way they intended to communicate it. In actuality, children will often need to hear the information several times to fully comprehend its significance. This is particularly relevant to how parents introduce their children to new significant others. When a child is feeling anxious about the security of the relationship with a parent this anxiety will increase if the child feels the need to now compete with others for the parent's affection. In addition, a stepparent must be willing to develop a relationship with the child before engaging in the role of disciplinarian. Biological parents often make the mistake of enlisting the aid of the stepparent in discipline issues too quickly creating conflict in the household.

Audio Companion: Understanding Stepfamilies