Understanding and working with Stepfamilies

Module Sections:

Establishing Common Ground

Forming a Unified Framework

What is a Stepfamily?

Ganong and Coleman (2004) define stepfamily as "a stepfamily is one in which at least one of the adults has a child (or children) from a previous relationship" (p. 2). Furthermore, they point out that "there is no single, uniform, psychological definition of stepfamily membership" (p.7). Ganong and Coleman reveal the fact that "stepfamilies define themselves – they construct their identities and relationships" (p. 230). The creation of the stepfamily emerges from previous failure (divorce) or loss (death of a former spouse). There is a structural shift from dyadic (adult/child) to triadic (adult/adult/child) family relationships. The emotional impact of the stepfamily formation and the structural shift contribute to the stepfamily construction.

The lack of more complex definitions is most likely due to the fact that stepfamily is hard to define and reflects a fluid entity. As you may notice, the definitions do not describe the stepfamily as whole and the relational processes occurring between the members. So what is a stepfamily?

For purposes of this module, we will use a broad definition of stepfamily that provides various opportunities to consider the many stepfamily experiences and stressors that may be present in any of the multiple relationships within the new family.

Understanding the complexity of stepfamilies is essential to effectively working with stepfamilies. Throughout this module, we will explore the 11 fundamental differences between stepfamilies and traditional nuclear families. The following list (Ganong and Coleman, 2004, p. 193) provides an important outline for understanding stepfamily dynamics and the impact on home-based family therapy process.

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

Audio Companion: Understanding Stepfamilies