Understanding and working with Stepfamilies

Module Sections:

Introduction and Pre-Test

Welcome to the Stepfamilies Course


This Family Issues module is focused on stepfamilies. It seems appropriate that the first Family Issues module will address a situation that most therapists have experience with both professionally and personally. Although the literature uses various terms to refer to stepfamilies (blended families, reconstituted families, etc.) throughout this module, we will refer to the family as "stepfamily." Most of this terminology was developed to reduce the stigma and negative connotations society has attached to stepfamilies, especially the stepmother. The term stepfamily was actually developed to more clearly depict family member positions including: stepfather, stepmother, stepchild, stepsibling, etc. (Ganong & Coleman, 2004).

We recognize that some of the issues we present in the Family Issues section may have a personal impact upon us. Therefore, as you proceed through these modules you may want to use your journal to reflect on personal experiences as they relate to your professional work.  There is also a resource tab to explore topics for further study.

The structure of this module will guide your exploration of applicable, therapeutic issues of working with stepfamilies through the following:

  1. Establishing a common ground of terminology and a lens through which to view the complexities and unique characteristics of stepfamilies.
  2. Utilizing a unifying framework to organize the complex dynamics involved in the process of therapy with stepfamilies
  3. Applying your personal theoretical framework to a family vignette and working through how unique characteristics of stepfamilies are organized through the blending of two familiar theoretical models.
  4. Creating a journal of your personal responses and reflections

Module Objectives

Through this module you will be able to:

  • Differentiate the unique and complex characteristics of stepfamilies
  • Understand and apply clinical theories to your work with stepfamilies
  • Identify varying perceptions of stepfamilies, including:
    • social myths about stepfamilies
    • the differences in stepfamily formation during various family life cycle stages
    • legal ramifications and family policy implications for stepfamilies
  • Identify the varied and complex stepfamily member roles
  • Recognize common factors influencing stepfamily relational dynamics

Scope of the Issue

According to Fine (1997) "the status of stepfamilies in the US law are partly ambiguous and inconsistent across issues and states." (p. 249) Generally, most stepfamily relationships are not legally recognized. In most of the states stepparents are not legally obliged to financially support their stepchildren. In some cases, however, stepparents will support their stepchildren even though they are not obligated to do so. There have been varied approaches to handling the responsibility of a stepparent regarding expenses a stepchild creates (e.g.: damage to property performed by a stepchild).

One of the most important issues to address in formulating policies that affect the stepfamily is to examine the stepparent-stepchild relationship. According to Fine (1997) stepparents should be given the option, not the requirement, of becoming more involved in the lives of the children by assuming parental rights and responsibilities.

Fine (1997) noted that stepparents who have had a meaningful relationship with their stepchildren should have visitation rights following a divorce should it occur. Fine also found empirical evidence that suggested stepchildren regard a stepparent's role as more ambiguous than biological children regard a biological parent's role. There is, however, some limited empirical evidence that suggests that the extent of the role is negatively related to the adjustment of stepfamily members. Therefore, the more well-adjusted the stepfamily members are in the stepfamily cycle, the less ambiguity is reflected in a stepparent's role in the family.

Mahoney (1997) addresses the issue of adoption noting that the nonresidential biological parent relinquishes custody of the child or they are seen as unfit to parent. The stepparent must then be willing to make a legal commitment to the child by choice, in comparison to the assumption of rights and obligations by biological parents.

In Western culture, there have rarely been any obligations placed on the stepparent when it comes to supporting their stepchildren. Only ten states impose a support duty on all stepparents who share a home with their spouses' minor children. In eight states there have been obligations to support the child if they would otherwise be poverty-stricken.

These issues, then, support the existence of the stepfamily characteristic that the legal relationships between stepparent and stepchild are either ambiguous or nonexistent. Because of this inherent ambiguity or nonexistent legal status, roles in the stepfamily, which are already very unclear, are not assisted in any way by legal statutes and definitions.

Social Perceptions of Stepfamilies

According to Ganong and Coleman (1997) stepfamilies are stereotyped in a mostly negative way. In several studies evidence was suggested that stepmothers are looked at more negatively than mothers in a nuclear family. In the movie St. Elmo's Fire, Demi Moore's character referred to her stepmother as "stepmonster." Ganong and Coleman also found that stepmothers were perceived as "not being family-oriented, disinterested and unskilled in raising the children, as well as unsuccessful marriage partners" (p. 95).

While stepmothers have been portrayed as evil in most fairy tales and folklores, it appears that most stepfathers have not been portrayed in disfavorable ways. However, Ganong and Coleman (1997) found that stepfathers do not escape that easily. Stepfathers are also looked upon more negatively or less favorably than fathers in a nuclear family. Researchers believe that fathers escape negative connotations in fairy tales, because women are often the central focus of the "cognitions and beliefs about families due to the culturally gendered nature of family roles and responsibilities" (p. 95).

The media helps foster our beliefs that stepfamilies are what Leon and Angst (2005) refer to as an "incomplete institution" (p.3). The term incomplete institution is intended to recognize that stepfamilies lack clear social norms or guidelines for role performance. The term "incomplete" has a negative connotation. One media portrayal was the Brady Bunch family who demonstrated instant love between all family members. This is a common and yet unrealistic expectation for stepfamilies to hold. Most cultural beliefs concerning stepfamilies, though, come from the many fairy tales and folklores about a wicked stepmother. Society and stepfamilies themselves have come to integrate many of these myths into their lifestyles or beliefs.

Stepchildren also have not escaped the social stigmas. The relationship between the stepchild and stepparent is often portrayed as conflictual with the stepchild appearing to be oppositional. In addition, the stepparent may appear neglectful or overly critical of the stepchild. It is important for the helping professional to examine his/her own stereotypes and personal experiences regarding stepfamilies. These may impact the clinician's effectiveness with a family/family member.

A crucial issue for a remarried couple is related to the developing roles of parenting or step parenting. The children as members of a stepfamily may be afraid to like or accept their new stepparent for fear they are being disloyal to the nonresidential parent. A prime example is depicted in the movie Stepmom, when the former wife criticizes her ex-husband's new fiancé when speaking to her children. In this movie, the little boy talks to his mom about some good qualities that the fiancé possesses and, in response to this, the mother only criticizes her more. The little boy then responds, "If you want me to hate her, I will." His statement demonstrates how children commonly express their loyalty to their biological parent(s) (Leon & Angst, 2005).

Social Perceptions Continued

According to Anne Jones (2003), using a narrative approach in therapy can help an individual understand the primary concerns for stepfamilies. The narrative approach focuses on the client's account of their experiences and their social-cultural context. This approach focuses on storytelling and Jones suggests that only through stories told by the clients can the meaning and significance of important life events or themes be conveyed. For example children often report feeling like an outcast in school or at other social events and may believe this may be due to being part of a stepfamily.

Some positive areas of stepfamilies can be conveyed through the television series the Brady Bunch and Eight is Enough. These two series have popularized the term "blended family" (Jones, 2003 p. 230). According to Jones, words such as blended, reconstituted, and remarried have been used instead of the word step to help avoid any negative connotations that the word "step" holds.

Clinicians can help shape more appropriate policies by fostering the ideas for a new family on values that are not biology specific, but instead, based upon values reflecting affection and social and moral responsibility. They need to encourage more fluid constructions of the meaning of family and measures that aid in the fairness and greater stability within the stepfamily. This requires a shift away from the nuclear family images of how families should look and act.

The Child Act of 1989 gave stepparents the right to have and exert parental responsibilities for their stepchildren. This can only occur if the stepparent has lived within the same household as the stepchild for two years. This does not negate the biological parent's commitment or responsibilities for their children. It focuses more on the needs of children while also representing a new way of looking at families.

According to Jones (2003) when a stepfamily realizes and perceives themselves as one group and not two separate groups within a family, they are more likely to experience harmony and happiness with each other. Jones further suggests that a positive relationship between the stepchild and the stepparent will more likely lead to more positive attitudes and relationships within the stepfamily and enhance their ability to function happily.

Banker and Gaertner (1998) promote the Common In-Group Identity Model as the best route for stepfamilies to go. They try to help families to think in terms of we instead of us and them. Like Jones, their efforts are focused on helping stepfamily members see each other as one unified group of people.


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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

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.

Stepfamily Lenses

There are two types of lenses that impact our thinking about stepfamilies: popular lenses and clinical lenses. It seems impossible to separate ourselves from what we have learned or experienced personally and what we understand from our professional education about stepfamilies. Therefore, both of these inform our clinical work. Our work with stepfamilies is informed by the following lenses: sociological, psychological, family systems, life cycle development, or public policy.

The sociological lens assists us in understanding stepfamilies within the context of their environment. "The sociological perspective may examine general social patterns in the behavior of particular individuals and then reflecting on these behaviors as they extend beyond individual quirks and personalities." A strong focus is on the relationship between experience and the wider society.

The psychological lens may view the family through a strong psychopathology focus. This lens attempts to understand human behavior in the context of the social world. It considers physiological and neurological processes in understanding the behavior.

Family Systems theory, first introduced by Dr. Murray Bowen, proposes that individuals must be understood as a part of their family because the family is an emotional unit. Families are systems of interconnected and interdependent individuals, none of whom can be completely understood apart from the system.

When considering life cycle development, Erik Erikson's 8 stage theory of human development has a tremendous impact. A clinician must consider the issues presented within the context of each member within the life cycle. A person's accomplishment of each developmental stage impacts the ability to experience challenges in one's life and progress to subsequent stages of development.

Social policies developed with our society impact how a family is able to manage daily life. Policies informing child custody is an example that is unique to stepfamilies. These policies result in financial and legal differences from nuclear families and impact social perceptions of stepfamilies. Additionally, a child identified as severely emotionally disturbed (SED) remains the primary focus of treatment eligible for financial reimbursement for mental health services. Clinical judgment that suggests broadening the scope of treatment to include the rest of the family is often influenced by the policy that defines the child as the identified patient.

Complexity of Defining Stepfamilies

Stepfamilies are more structurally complex than other family forms. Stepfamilies are typically multigenerational families involving a couple, at least one child from a former relationship, and at least one former partner. When considering the formation of stepfamilies, one must recognize the unique structural complexities involving member tasks and roles in comparison to nuclear families.

There are many issues that are involved with defining a family. Defining a concept that has value to many disciplines may limit the usefulness of the concept (Settles, 1999). Adding to the complexity of defining the family in general are the challenges specific to defining stepfamilies (Levin, 1999). Stepfamilies are unique in that not all members live within the same household and those who do live in the same household do not share the "same biological and legal connections to each other" (Levin, 1999, p. 93). In addition, stepfamilies usually involve at least three family trees and cultures. They also involve a history of loss and are structurally different.

Due to the complexity of defining the stepfamily, it may be beneficial to adopt techniques in order to help the process of definition. The family and therapist both bring their own ideas and perceptions to the session involving their own ideas of family and who is included in the family (Jurich & Johnson, 1999). Levin (1999) uses an individualistic approach when attempting to define the family. This approach engages each family member through participation in a three part exercise:

  1. The family list
  2. The family map
  3. The verbal interview

For the family list he asks the client to create a list of the people they consider to be in their family. For the family map the client is asked to use pieces of paper to represent each family member; triangles representing males and circles representing females. The client is asked to lay the pieces out on a larger piece of paper according to how close or distant each person is from the client. For the verbal interview the client is asked if they would like to explain the placement of each piece, and who each piece represents. This three-part process allows the client a way of talking about the person and the relationship that they have in an emotionally easier form.

Family Miniature Genogram

The Family Miniature Genogram (from play therapy) is another way of helping families to define their family and discuss the relationships. In this exercise, a Genogram is constructed on a large piece of newsprint paper. Each family member then selects a miniature from those provided to represent how they think/feel about each member identified on the Genogram. The members are then asked to discuss their selections. They are also able to select miniatures to describe their relationship with each member identified on the Genogram. This exercise assists members, including small children in contributing to the discussion about their family and relationships. In addition, each member of a stepfamily will very likely have different definitions of who is or is not a member of their family. These types of definition process tools can help to normalize this occurrence and provide important information about the relationships among members and the conflicts that may or may not exist. The emphasis is on providing each member the freedom to use her or his own definition of family while recognizing the possible variability with the other individuals involved.

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.

Differing Family Histories

Stepfamily members have different family histories. Ahrons & Perlmutter (1982) discussed the struggles of stepfamilies as they are trying to determine new patterns of interaction. During this time the stepfamily is struggling to develop a common sense of family and identity as a unit. It often feels artificial for stepfamilies because they do not have a shared culture or shared rules for interacting. The stepparent is a key figure in the family yet does not share in the memories or history of the other members. This can be one way to exclude this new person from the family. Children often wish for their parents to reunite and the "remember when" stories are a way to stay connected to the original family.

People generally feel more attached to those they are more familiar. Many stepfamilies come together with members being strangers to one another. They often do not allow enough time to become familiar with one another. The bonds shared with those one knows are stronger than those they have not lived with previously. When stepfamilies face conflict or crisis events they will often divide along biological lines. Allowing time for the stepfamily to develop individual and family relationships is an important process when helping the new family remain a family unit when faced with challenges. This allows the opportunity to create positive new experiences which can become a shared history.

Formation Through Loss

Stepfamilies are formed due to previous losses experienced by both the adults and children. The adults have lost a previous romantic partner through death or divorce and children may have lost contact with one parent through death or divorce. They may also be separated from siblings, peers, and extended family. The families have a sense of lost opportunities, dreams, relationships, family identity and role expectations. There may also be a change in financial stability resulting in difficult decisions to overcome this. It is important for the clinician to assess the family's progress through mourning/resolving these losses before moving on to help the members create a sense of family connectedness.

New Spousal Bond and Incongruent Life Cycles

Parent-child bonds are older than adult partner (spousal) bonds. The couple relationship often feels more fragile than the parent- child relationship. In general, marriages are stronger when the couple devotes time to nurturing their relationship. When marriage occurs before children this is more likely to occur. However with stepfamilies the children's relationship with the parent is already established. Typically in families adults devote much time to meeting the needs of the children and neglect their own relationship. This occurs in stepfamilies with greater consequences to the spousal bond. When stepfamily couples fail to take time to nurture their separate relationship, this bond becomes more tenuous. When conflict occurs, it becomes more likely that divisions along biological lines will occur. Visher & Visher (1996) discuss how the powerful emotion of guilt felt by couples who remarry often contributes to inadequate bonding. They go on to state that "remarried parents frequently have feelings that developing a primary relationship with their new partner is a betrayal of the relationship they have had with their children ever since their births." Successful stepfamilies are created when there is a devotion to securing the couple bond. In addition this nurturing of the relationship is a positive model for children. When they are able to experience this from their parents, their sense of family security is enhanced.

When considering life cycle development, one must take into account the interaction of individual, family and marital life cycles. By virtue of their formation, stepfamilies are often incongruent. For biological families there is a natural progression from marriage, nurturance of the couple relationship, to birth and development of children, career development and advancement, transition of children out of the home, and dealing with natural aging process of nuclear and extended family members. For stepfamilies, the couple may be at different individual stages. The marital stage involves children and the children may be more interested in independence than family connectedness. In addition, family losses are present in varying degrees. Stepfamilies are typically facing more transitions creating stress on the individual, marital and family development. It is important for the clinician to attend to the many paths members are negotiating.

Family Expectations

These expectations are often the source of the myths existing about stepfamilies. Developmentally, these myths exist in all aspects of married and family life. The following chart details these myths as they relate to marriage, divorce and remarriage.

Marriage Myths

Divorce Myths

Remarriage Myths

Things will work out if we love each other

Because we don’t love each other anymore, nothing will work out

Things must work out

Always consider the other person first

Always consider oneself first

Always consider everybody first

Keep criticism to oneself and focus on the positive

Criticize everything; focus on the negative

Keep criticism to oneself and focus on the positive

If things aren’t going well, focus on the future

If things aren’t going well, focus on the past

If things aren’t going well, focus on what went wrong in the past and make sure it doesn’t happen again

See oneself as part of a couple first, as an individual second

See yourself as an individual first, as part of a couple second

See yourself as part of a couple first, as an individual second/See yourself as an individual first , as part of a couple second

What is mine is yours

What is mine is mine

What is yours is yours

Marriage makes people significantly happier

Divorce makes people significantly unhappy

Remarriage makes people happier

What is best for the children will be best for us

What is best for us must be devastating for the children

What is best for us is best for the children/Having a “real” family again is best for everyone

Ganong & Coleman, p. 71

Many of these remarriage myths impact a couple as they are preparing for remarriage. When couples strongly adhere to "Things must work out" they become focused on working things out at all costs. The fear of another failure becomes immense and interferes with communication and a willingness to discuss problems. This may also be a time when couples enter the therapy process attempting to address the issues that needed to have been addressed prior to the remarriage. There is another phenomenon called "romantic blindness" (Holand & Eisenhart, 1990) that reflects the western culture belief that people who are married are happier than single people. In remarriage, subscribing to this contributes to being blind to potential problems and remaining caught up in the romance of the relationship. Finally the myth regarding children will be happier in this remarriage does not consider the tremendous adjustments children have to make when moving from nuclear family to single-parent family to remarried family. As Ganong & Coleman (2006) state: "the relevant point here is that unrealistic expectations often lead to a lack of remarriage preparation" (p.70).

Now consider the some of the myths outlined by Visher & Visher (1988) as related to stepfamilies and how these contribute to unrealistic expectations:

  1. Stepfamilies are the same as biological families: these are families born of loss whose structure is different from biological families.
  2. Stepfamily adjustment will be attained quickly: unresolved issues regarding previous losses will impact this adjustment. In addition the developmental stage of both parents and children create more difficulty in this area.
  3. Love and caring will develop instantaneously: because you love your partner or parent does not equate to loving their family members! Forcing caring feelings will only create more stress and conflict in the system.
  4. Working hard prevents the development of a "wicked stepmother": trying too hard to keep everyone happy is a common characteristic of the stepmother. Stepmothers often try to avoid the mythical image through trying too hard when what the family needs is freedom and time to connect.

Complexity of Roles in Stepfamilies

One topic that is not listed specifically in the table of Stepfamily Characteristics, but is an important issue is that of roles. The concept of role is referring to parts that are played in the family by different members. These can be either assumed characters by each individual, or a part that is being played mainly due to performing some function.

All families and every individual either assume or are designated to carry out a variety of roles in their lives. In most cases, very definite functions and responsibilities are associated with those roles. For example, parents are expected to care for their children, especially mothers. Children are expected to accept rules and discipline from their parents. Societal and cultural rules also impose gender roles on each member. In Western society, it is the woman that is expected to be the family caretaker and is the main hub for relationship maintenance (Ganong and Coleman, 2004). In stepfamilies, as opposed to first marriage families, these roles become more complex due to the increased opportunities for members to occupy a variety of roles. That is to say, there are more roles to be filled, responsibilities to take on, and a great deal more uncertainty about all of these additional roles.

For example, a single mother with one child who marries a man who also has children from a previous relationship is now a mother, a stepmother, and a spouse. These two new roles not only add complexity to the single mother's life, but they can often create a great deal of role conflict and role ambiguity. Many times, a woman in such a situation would be caught between the spouse and the mother role. Both the new partner and the child will vie for attention creating conflict between members of the family. In addition, the stepchildren will also need attention in order to develop the relationship with their stepmother. This competition for time and attention creates role conflict for the individual. How does she choose? Is she a wife first? Is she a mother first? What about stepmother? She already has a relationship with her child and spouse, so perhaps the most energy needs to be applied to the stepchildren. It is easy to understand how this can quickly create chaos for any individual in this situation. However, it is the hardest for the stepmother role because of the added societal expectations of being the family caretaker. Ganong and Coleman( 2004) summarize this concept as "mothers may feel caught between their children and their spouses and overwhelmed by mother/spouse role conflict" (p. 116).

Visher and Visher (1996) suggest that one way to deal with this conflict is to ensure that each individual in the stepfamily receives one-on-one time with each other. This is recommended not only to enhance the couple relationship, but also the parent-child relationship and the stepparent-stepchild relationship. Actual planned time for dyadic interaction can be extremely helpful in developing and maintaining relationships in the stepfamily. In particular, the stepparent-stepchild relationship can also include role ambiguity. It is very unclear in our society how that relationship is to be handled. Even though stepfamilies have existed for most of history, no norms for this relationship exist. The expectation of instant love exits, but role definition is highly variable.

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.

Stepfamily Formation and Development

One issue that is useful to consider when interacting with stepfamilies is to assess the life cycle stage of the family at the time of stepfamily formation. In order to address this issue, it will be useful to contemplate both traditional family life cycle definitions and stepfamily life cycle development.

The most widely used traditional family development was developed in 1957 by Duvall (Laszloffy, 2002). Duvall, as cited by Laszloffy, defined family life cycle through eight developmental stages. These stages are as follows:

  • Married couple – no children
  • Childbearing families – Oldest child is 30 months old
  • Families with preschool children – Oldest child is 2 ½ to 6 years old
  • Families with school children – Oldest child is 6 to 13 years old
  • Families with teenagers – Oldest child is 13 to 20 years old
  • Families that are launching – Includes time period from first to last child leaving
  • Middle years – "Empty nest" to retirement
  • Aging Family – Retirement to death of both spouses

As Laszloffy points out, this model clearly has an assumption of a"traditional, nuclear, intact family form and does not consider families whose lifecycles are characterized by alternative developmental sequences (couples who live together but never marry, childless couples, and divorced, single-parent, or remarried families)" (p. 206). In contrast, Papernow (1993) developed the Stepfamily Cycle, which includes seven stages of family development, characterized into three sections: early, middle and later stages.

Stepfamily Life Cycle Stages


Fantasy – Members often have unrealistic expectations of immediate family congruence. One myth involves the notion of instant love. Parents often enter into the marriage with the expectation that the new spouse and children will immediately feel for one another like he/she feels toward both groups.

Immersion – Reality of the stepfamily structure is felt, especially for the stepparent; stepparents at this stage usually occupy an outsider position to the biological parent, child, and perhaps the ex-spouse relationships. It is not uncommon for biological parents to integrate the stepparent into the family through a disciplinary role. This will typically lead to more conflict and dissatisfaction with relationships that may have previously been positive.

Awareness – Fantasies of an instant family are given up, including the expectation of the stepparent to acquire an insider position quickly. It is essential that the family participate in the process of establishing relationships prior to the stepparent occupying parental roles.


Mobilization – Stepparents begin speaking up about needs for inclusion and change. The biological parent oftentimes feels caught in the middle between the new spouse and children with the expectation from both groups to "fix" the problem. The frustration and anxiety felt by the biological parent when caught in the middle may lead that parent to step away from the problem. However, it is a crucial time for the parent to focus on occupying the primary parental role.

Action - Renegotiation occurs and new rules are established. As relationships are established and trust is developed especially with the stepparent and children, new ways of operating can be negotiated. These contribute to the development of a sense of family.


Contact – After the foregoing major structural changes, a clearly defined stepparent role emerges. Stepparents can contribute to parental responsibilities and be accepted by all members of the household. This does not mean that outside sources (former spouse, extended family) will not "interfere" with this. The relationships established will assist the family in managing outside negative influences.

Resolution – Norms have been established and the family has solid and reliable stepfamily relationships. There is a sense of ownership and commitment to the new family by all members. Effort is made to preserve the harmony that has been established.

These stages are helpful is assessing where a stepfamily is in the stepfamily formation process. However, we would suggest that to be the most useful, a combination of both of these models for consideration is needed. In other words, where a family is, based on the age of the children and the parents as a family unit, will have an impact and influence how a family progresses through or even utilizes the stages of the stepfamily cycle as described by Papernow. Consideration should be given to the life cycle of the children in how the family negotiates the development of the stepfamily system.

Carter and McGoldrick (1999) stated: "As the first marriage signifies the joining of two families, so a second marriage involves the interweaving of three, four, or more families whose previous life cycle courses have been disrupted by death or divorce. So complex is the process of forming a remarried family that we have come to think of this process as adding another whole phase to the family life cycle." (p. 417)

Stepfamilies as Family Systems

Much of the literature on stepfamilies identifies systems theory as an informative lens for understanding and organizing work with complex stepfamily experiences. A systems lens acknowledges the mutual influences family members have on one another. The family members' ongoing interaction patterns represent more than the sum of the individual members that participate in those patterns. Additionally, systems theory describes the homeostatic quality of those family interaction patterns over time--family members tend to engage in behaviors that preserve established patterns.

Within the broad framework of systems theory, there is a more specific focus on the structure of the ongoing relationships within a stepfamily. The development, adaptations, and preservation of the family structure is demonstrated when the family members participate in the rules, roles, and hierarchies within the family system. The task of the stepfamily is comprised of establishing a new structure from the two previous family structural patterns. Assessments and interventions entail measuring the degree to which the family members are successful at their attempt to adapt previous patterns to create a new hybrid structure.

Even though power and hierarchy are very important aspects in all relationships, the focus of problems within a relationship is often on the causes rather than on the meaning of the issues and circumstances for the individual members. For this reason, we would like to introduce you to the Family FIRO (Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation) Model. This model provides a systemic tool to organize and prioritize therapeutic work that addresses family issues and facilitates the further development of the members' relationships with one another.

Family FIRO

The FIRO (Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation) Model was first introduced to describe group development (Schultz, 1958). It has since been applied to family therapy, family systems medicine, and family measurement. The Family FIRO Model was adapted to focus on the fundamental concepts related to family interactions. The model assumes that three domains of interpersonal needs must be present within healthy family functioning: inclusion, control, and intimacy (Doherty & Colangelo, 1984; Doherty, Colangelo, Green, & Hoffman, 1985; Doherty, Colangelo, & Hovander, 1991).

For clarification, some of the main terms and concepts of the model are explained below:

"Inclusion" suggests "who is in or who is out" of any particular group (Schutz, 1958). For our purposes here, we are talking about who is in or out of the stepfamily. Issues include not only membership, but the way members function through individual roles, their emotional connectedness with one another, and various ways they share meaning that defines the perceived sense of identity as an emerging family (Doherty, et al., 1991).

"Control" addresses "who is up and who is down" within the system. Control refers to influence and power the members exert upon one another especially during times of stress and conflict for the stepfamily. Control does not refer to hierarchy within the stepfamily, since the structure is addressed within the inclusion domain. An example of a control issue occurs when one member challenges the hierarchy with another. This attempt and resulting interaction is intended to assert influence, or control the other, to adjust the hierarchical structure within the family system.

"Intimacy" has to do with how close or how far away individuals are emotionally within the family system. Intimacy refers to the ways members share hopes, dreams, feelings, and vulnerabilities with other members of the family. Intimacy is not intended to be synonymous with a sexual relationship, although for partners, sexuality is often included in the interaction. Furthermore, intimacy implies that members demonstrate a degree of tolerance for expressing intense emotions and sharing trust.

Family FIRO Concepts

Each domain has several subcategories that are reflected in the following table:


Subcategories and Descriptive Terms




Shared Meaning


related to bonding

and organization


Role Organization













World View







relating to influence

and power during conflict














Give and Take

Working Through




Interactions relating to open self-disclosure and close personal exchanges


Mutual sharing of feelings

Relating to one another as unique personalities

Emotionally close sexual interactions

Sharing vulnerabilities

Interpersonal Needs: Family FIRO Model

Another vital assumption of the Family FIRO model suggests that the three interpersonal needs are to be prioritized. Specifically, inclusion issues must be resolved before control issues can be addressed. Likewise, control issues must be resolved before intimacy issues can be fully secured. The model suggests that intimacy is not mandatory for healthy stepfamily functioning, but is needed for individual development. For example, as long as the need for intimacy is being met for an individual by one other person, whether that person is a member of the stepfamily or not, it is thought that healthy stepfamily functioning is possible even if intimate sharing is not a part of every dyad within the stepfamily. A more specific example is illustrated when children have this individual intimacy need met by either a bioparent or a friend. They may or may not share intimacy with anyone else in the stepfamily, but some suggest that the nature of the bioparent connection with the child serves a crucial role in stepfamily transitioning (Arnaut, Fromme, Stoll, & Felker, 2000).

The three domains of inclusion, control, and intimacy are each present at any given time in any family. However, when a specific stressor occurs within the family a successful effort to address that issue must access the domains in the order described. For example, a common event in stepfamilies occurs when the stepparent immediately tries to declare the role of disciplinarian. Discipline is a control issue. Inclusion is experienced when the stepparent is defined by the stepchildren as an actual member of the family. If the inclusion needs have not been established between the members, discipline attempts will fail. Ongoing nurturance (inclusion domain) between the stepparent and stepchildren must be experienced before control will be tolerated.

In an effort to address the onoging development of the stepfamily, examination of another model can assist in identifying and prioritizing problems as they occur throughout the family life cycle and across multiple generations.

Systemic Family Development Model

One model that can be used to help address this complexity, takes into account the multifaceted dimensions of combining individual, family, and stepfamily life cycles. This model is the Systemic Family Development (SFD) Model (Laszloffy, 2002). The SFD model was developed to address two of the weaknesses of the traditional family life cycle model: 1) the assumption of universality of all family forms and 2) the bias toward a single generational level.

The SFD model is particularly useful for working with stepfamilies because it offers a process-oriented view of families and their development. A process-oriented view acknowledges that all families have a common process of development, but within that process there is a tremendous amount of variation. Laszloffy (2002) describes the SFD Model and this process thusly:

Within the SFD Model, the common developmental process that all families experience consists of the emergence of a stressor (a phenomenon that exerts force on a family system thereby pressuring it to change and adapt). The process of changing and adapting is known as making a transition. When a family makes a transition, shifts in family roles and relationships inevitably occur (p. 207-208) .

Applying this description to an example, it is reasonable to assume that the formation of a stepfamily is a stressor for the family system involved. This is a common developmental process. However, how this stressor affects the family and the ensuing transition is widely variable due to considerations of a possible endless variation of family life cycles, individual life cycles, the multi-generational nature of stepfamilies, and a multitude of other components involving dyadic relationships. In other words, not just the life cycles variations, but also the dynamic of the relationship between each individual in the stepfamily will affect the transition process after the formation of a stepfamily.

SFD Model

Laszloffy (2002) uses the metaphor of a round, multi-layered cake to illustrate the SFD Model. In his metaphor, the ingredients of a cake represent the individuals in a family. When brought together as a complete family, the resulting "product is greater than the sum of its parts" (p. 208). Also utilizing this metaphor, it is easy to imagine that someone baking the cake has high expectations that it will turn out perfect, when in fact it may be lopsided once baked. This can extend to visualize the formation of a stepfamily and the characteristic that expectations are high and often unrealistic that once combined into family, the resulting product will be without flaws. In addition, the layers of the metaphoric cake represent the multiple generations of the family And the round shape of the cake depicts the family's life cycle occurring through the passage of time.

SFD Model

Examining a "slice of the cake" enables the clinician to explore the generations involved in the family and the placement of their current stage within the stepfamily cycle and the related transition process.

Richardson Family Vignette

Bob is a widower with two children. He and Carol had been married for 12 years when she died suddenly. He has been struggling as a single parent since her death 2 years ago. He lives in a rural community and owns a small farm. Bob has two children, Brad, age 10, and Sarah, age 8. The family also owns livestock and the children have daily chores to assist in the smooth operation of the farm. Bob began attending a single parent support group in a nearby city and met Judy. Judy is recently divorced (in the past year), and has one daughter Brooke age 15. Brooke has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder with low to moderate severity and they have been coping with behavior problems for some time. Bob and Judy date for a brief period of time, approximately six months and decide to marry. Judy is renting an apartment in the city, so the decision is made that Judy and her daughter will move to the farm. Bob's farm is 35 miles from the city Brooke has grown up in so she will be attending a new school as well as be residing further away from her father. Judy's former spouse is still very much involved with his daughter and opposes the new marriage. Judy is use to a substantial alimony payment but is not concerned because she is so in love with Bob. Bob's children enjoy time with Judy although Brad has expressed some concern about everyone living together. He was very close to his mother and Sarah is not sure she wants to share her space full time.

Bob and Judy have asked for help in this transition time. They are concerned about how another change is going to exacerbate Brooke's symptoms associated with her diagnosis of ASD.

Forming a Unified Framework

Stepfamily Conceptual Model

Stepfamily Conceptual Model

Each of the models provides a framework for addressing stepfamilies: the SFD Model enables the clinician to address the current relational dynamics of a family at a particular stage of development while considering the mutigenerational components of those dynamics. The predominant focus of the SFD Model is on the family stressors and crises occurring at each transition. In order to provide a framework for considering the family strengths, resources, and meaning associated with the member's experiences, we suggest combining SFD with the Family FIRO model.

As previously suggested, the Family FIRO Model provides an additional resource to a clinician's therapeutic work. The model suggests setting therapeutic priorities that begin by focusing on building or rebuilding emotional connections between family members.

Consider three examples of stepfamily styles of development: (Parallel to the interaction of sound waves, the members of the family interact with one another as they attempt to establish a "harmonious" relationship)

Conflictual interactions occurring when members abandon efforts to connect after repeated attempts to communicate resulting in experiences of chaos and disharmony (similar to the cacophony heard when all of the instruments of an orchestra are warming up at the same time).

Stepfamilies Stages of Development-Conflictual Interactions

Disengagement reflected when members attempt to establish control and balance in the newly-formed relationships (cancelling waves that dampen or negate each others' attempts)

Stepfamilies Stages of Development-Disengagement-Reflected

Healthy connections occurring when members demonstrate respect for one another, acknowledge one another's experiences, and discover shared meaning (melodic and harmonious waves)

Stepfamilies Stages of Development-Healthy Connections

Members' emotional connections and identifications with one another serve as valuable resources for collaborating and deepening their intimacy with each other.

While the SFD Model suggests that all families experience stressors and crises throughout their development, the model also highlights the varied ways the individual development interacts with the varying intergenerational experiences of the family as a whole. The Family FIRO Model reminds the clinician and family that a priority must be placed on the family members' efforts to solidify and develop the relationships between them. These relationships serve as vital resources for each of the members and powerful reminders to care for one another. These resources foster collaborative efforts to address subsequent stressors and crises together

Using Strategies and Techniques


Stepfamilies need time and attention in creating opportunities for inclusion, handling transitions and celebrating their diverse histories. When considering the integration of these strategies and techniques into the therapy process, it is important to take into account the complexities of stepfamily development. A therapist should consider the developmental phase of the stepfamily, the age of the children, the marital history of the adults, a broad lens regarding the losses the family has experienced, and the history the family attempts to organize. These will guide the therapist in choosing interventions and adapting those interventions for the family.

The use of rituals is an important strategy in assisting stepfamilies through the integration process. These rituals aid the family in remembering and honoring the past while celebrating the present and creating a sense of future for the new family.

Prioritizing Inclusion

Strategies: Inclusion involves taking advantage of opportunities for family members to understand stepfamily living and create opportunities to develop a sense of family. Stepfamily integration often takes several years for the members to feel fully integrated. Much of this is due to subscribing to the various stepfamily myths and the development of unrealistic expectations members have regarding how this family will repair the hurts from previous family experiences. In addition members have to find a balance between the loyalty to the history and desire to become involved in new relationships.

  • Psychoeducation:
    • Debunking the myths about stepfamilies
      • Helping members to recognize how their attitudes and behaviors are keeping those myths alive.
  • Ritual development
    • Learn from the child about significant activities and ways of relating that help them to feel more secure and valued


Linking Through Lists: This activity helps members to share their likes and dislikes in a less intimidating way. (Strengthening Stepfamilies, American Guidance Service, Inc., 1986)

  • Family creates questions or topics that can help them get to know one another. Each member writes the answers to the questions and then reads them aloud.
  • Kinds of books I like to read, songs like to sing or listen to, TV shows I like to watch, dreams for the family, people I like to be with, sports I like to play, places I like to go, etc.

All About Me: This activity will help family members get to know each other on a deeper level through sharing personal attitudes and feelings. (Strengthening Stepfamilies, American Guidance Service, Inc., 1986)

  • The therapist provides a list of unfinished statements family members each answer while the others are listening
  • These could include: "If I were older (younger) I would…", "When I make a mistake, I feel… ", "I like friends who… ", "Something I like (dislike) about my stepfamily is… ", etc.

Facilitating Transitions

Strategies: Creating openings for families who have not dealt with the transition process prior to the remarriage to handle through the therapy process. These strategies should involve helping the children to resolve issues prior to the remarriage as well as adjust to the changes occurring with the remarriage.


  • Moments to Remember: This activity is designed to create a sense of openness where family members can discuss the past with the purpose of reducing loyalty conflicts
    • The therapist reassures everyone that it is ok for them to talk about any memory or experience they want to describe. This includes memories that may not have included someone in the immediate stepfamily.
    • The therapist reads aloud (or has the family read) a list of unfinished sentences that each member will finish.
      • "One of the happiest times in my other family (in my first family, with my ex-spouse) was…", "One of the saddest times was…", "One of the nicest things anyone ever said to me was…", "One of the funniest things that ever happened to me was…", "The last time I cried was…", etc.
      • This can also be played like a card game with a set of index cards and members draw a card and respond. (Strengthening Stepfamilies, American Guidance Service, Inc., 1986)

Celebrating Diverse Histories

Strategies: It is vital to assist stepfamilies in celebrating and honoring the histories each bring to the relationship.


  • Before We Got Together: This activity is focused on learning about each family member's personal history. (Strengthening Stepfamilies, American Guidance Service, Inc., 1986)
    • Each member brings personal memorabilia (old photos, scrap book, schoolwork, report cards, artwork, awards/certificates, or anything that tells about self)
    • Each member goes through these items explaining the memorabilia, why it is being saved, and what memories it stirs for them.
      • Each member chooses the most significant item to display on a bulletin board together.
  • NOTE: The Strengthening Stepfamily program contains 30-40 activities for stepfamilies at varying phases of stepfamily development. These activities can be completed with the therapist or by the family during structured family time, long drives or any time a family has time together.

Applying the Framework & Post-Test

Applying the Framework & Post-Test

Richardson Family Vignette

Bob is a widower with two children. He and Carol have been married for 12 years when she died suddenly. He has been struggling as a single parent since her death 2 years ago (grief over previous relationship interacting with the development of new roles and expectations within the new partnership). He lives in a rural community and owns a small farm. Bob has two children, Brad, age 10, and Sarah, age 8 (interactions occurring among members' multiple individual developmental levels). The family also owns livestock and the children have daily chores to assist in the smooth operation of the farm. Bob began attending a single parent support group in a nearby city and met Judy. Judy is recently divorced (in the past year), and has one daughter Brooke age 15. Brooke has been diagnosed with Aspergers and they have been coping with behavior problems for some time (interaction between family development, a member's mental health condition and adolescent developmental stage). Bob and Judy date for a brief period of time, approximately six months and decide to marry. Judy is renting an apartment in the city, so the decision is made that Judy and her daughter will move to the farm. Bob's farm is 35 miles from the city where Brooke grew up, so she will be attending a new school as well as be residing further away from her father. Judy's former spouse is still very much involved with his daughter and opposes the new marriage (establishment of a new partner relationship interacting with the continuing role of co-parenting with someone from a previous relationship). Judy is used to a substantial alimony payment but is not concerned because she is so in love with Bob. Bob's children enjoy time with Judy although Brad has expressed some concern about everyone living together. He was very close to his mother and Sarah is not sure she wants to share her space full time.

Applying the Framework

This new family will be adjusting to new relationships while still grieving over the loss of previous relationship with their wife and mother. The SFD model can inform the assessment of the individual and family as a whole. Recognizing the continued emotional ties with the deceased member, treatment will focus on helping the stepfamily find ways to connect the new members without experiencing disloyalty or guilt about forming a new relationship without their former wife or mother, and husband or father.

The continued involvement of Brooke's bio father will introduce the challenge of valuing his role while Bob and Judy assume the role of co-parents to Brooke. Bob and Judy will be forming a new parental unit and facing the challenge of adjusting to the input from Brooke's bio father.

Brooke's unique challenge will be to experience connection to the new stepfamily members while navigating her developmental tasks of exploring and defining herself as an independent individual. The parents will need to discover ways to remind her of her place within the family while allowing her the emotional space to explore peer relationships. This is also complicated by the issues of Aspergers Disorder.

The Family FIRO model provides a framework that prioritizes the family's effort to connect, develop shared meaning and associated experiences before placing the stepparent into a role of control or disciplinarian. Reasonable expectations of mutual respect and care for one another can be reinforced while the role of disciplinarian remains with the bio parents for the foreseeable future.

Post Test

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Audio Companion: Understanding Stepfamilies