Understanding and working with Stepfamilies

Module Sections:

Stepfamily Characteristics Table

The best way to determine the relationship, according to Visher and Visher (1996), is to consider the needs of the child in addition to the needs of the stepparent. They advance that there are four interacting elements in the formation of a role for a stepparent. These four considerations are:

  1. wishes and needs of the children
  2. wishes of the nonresidential parent
  3. expectations and needs of the residential parent
  4. needs of the stepparent

 *(Hetherington, 1989).

No wonder role ambiguity exists! Each of these considerations can have a vastly different context for each individual family, and are also dynamic and change over time. The needs and wishes of the nonresidential parent, in particular, is often overlooked but has the possibility of contributing significant influence on the stepparent-stepchild role.

Stepfamily Characteristics

  1. More structurally complex than other family forms
  2. Children often are members of two households
  3. Children's parent is elsewhere in actuality or in memory
  4. Members have different family histories
  5. Parent-child bonds are older than adult partner (spousal) bonds
  6. Individual, marital, and family life cycles are more likely to be incongruent
  7. Begin after many losses and changes
  8. Children and adults come with expectations from previous families
  9. Often have unrealistic expectations
  10. Not supported by society
  11. Legal relationships between stepparent and stepchild are ambiguous or nonexistent

In returning to our table of Stepfamily Characteristics, even though roles are not explicitly identified, it fits into two of the listed characteristics concerning expectations. Both unrealistic expectations (usually the expectation of instant love) and expectations from previous families (for anything from how the family celebrates holidays to where the silverware drawer is located) contribute to role conflict and role ambiguity for all members of the stepfamily.

Audio Companion: Understanding Stepfamilies