Understanding and working with Stepfamilies

Module Sections:

Stepfamily Characteristics

From the beginning of stepfamily formation, a stepfamily is multi-generational and includes the couple, at least one child, and at least one former partner. There are many more relationships involved than in a first marriage beginning family, thereby making the structure more complex. In addition, children are often members of two households. It has become more common that divorced parents obtain joint custody, or at the very least maintain scheduled times for the child(ren) to stay with the nonresidential parent. One result is that children become part-time members of two different households.

From a child's perspective, the fact that their nonresidential parent is not in the household, in all likelihood does not diminish that parent's significance for the child. Even if that parent exists only in the child's memory, or from stories told to the child about the parent, the possibility of a real or imagined relationship impacts the stepfamily and their daily functioning.

The list suggests that stepfamily members have different family histories. In a first family marriage, each individual comes from their own family of origin and create a mutual set of rules, standards, etc. In a stepfamily, the biological parent and child(ren) have this shared culture that differs from the stepparent and stepchild(ren). The merging of two histories can feel unnatural as members try to readjust and create a new future based on possibly very different family histories. Consider the complexity of integrating the many traditions stepfamily members enter the new family relationship with and how they go about honoring those traditions. This occurs at the same time the family is attempting to create new traditions that recognize the new family relationships. Contributing to the difference in family history is the fact that the parent-child(ren) have had a relationship for a longer period of time than the adult couple. This may pose difficulties for each of the emerging dyadic relationships resulting in a competition for the parent between the stepparent and child(ren).

A stepfamily not only reflects dissimilar family histories, but also different family and individual life cycles. The couple may be trying to plan outings with all of the members in an attempt to build the new family relationships. An example of a potential conflict may arise when the stepfamily exerts efforts to increase togetherness with an adolescent who may be trying to achieve independence and developmentally resist those efforts. Those efforts may reveal a direct conflict between the family life cycle needs and one of the individual member's life cycle needs. The adolescent is viewed as contrary or oppositional and the conflict is easily escalated.

The beginning of a stepfamily generally follows a number of losses and changes. Many times the stepfamily formation is seen by the adults as a gain, whereas, it can be seen by the child(ren) as yet another loss. In addition, children and adults both enter the stepfamily with expectations from previous families. These expectations may or may not fit together in a complimentary fashion and may be completely unrealistic. Common unrealistic expectations include the assumption that stepparents will immediately love their stepchildren and that stepchildren will immediately accept a stepparent and his/her disciplinary role. Both of these expectations can be very problematic.

Stepfamilies are not supported by society in general and because of this legal relationships between stepparents and stepchildren are unrecognized by other systems. Currently, adoption is the only way to create a legal relationship with a stepchild. This can be detrimental to relationship development due to the lack of certainty a stepparent may feel in the event that something might happen to the parent.

This has been a brief synopsis of these different characteristics unique to stepfamilies. They are by no means an exhaustive list, but our hope is that they do contribute to, and/or agree with, your understanding and work with stepfamilies. In the next section of the module, we will examine each of these characteristics in more detail as you are likely to encounter each of them to some degree in any stepfamily you work with in a helping relationship.

Audio Companion: Understanding Stepfamilies