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Steps to Stepfamily Success

by Gloria Lintermans

Gloria Lintermans

Gloria Lintermans is the author of The Secrets to Stepfamily Success: Revolutionary Tools to Create a Blended Family of Support and Respect. Read more »

Typical multi-home stepfamilies are like intact biological families in many ways. But, they differ structurally, developmentally and dynamically in many ways too.

Stepfamilies who aren't aware of these differences risk using biological family norms and expectations to guide their day-to-day lives. That's like trying to play baseball with soccer equipment and basketball rules--guaranteed to create confusion, conflict and stress.

Learning to live well in a new family takes time. Everyone has a lot to learn, including how to cope in a new environment. One of the first things you'll want to do is to recognize some of the myths of stepfamilies. For example:

Myth #1: "I love you, and I must love your kids."
"I love you and will patiently work at respecting your kids. They and I may never love each other. If we do, it will feel different than biological parent-child love, and that's okay.

Myth #2: "Your or my ex-mate is not part of our family!"
"As long as your biological children from your previous marriage live, their other biological parent, and their new mate(s), if any, will emotionally, financially, legally and genetically influence all of your lives. Ignoring or discounting the needs and feelings of these other adults will stress everyone for years.

Myth #3: "We're just like a regular biological family."
Not really. Your new extended family and the linking of stepfamily co-parenting homes add up to loads of relatives with many major losses to mourn, and many conflicting values and customs to resolve. You are, however, normal--a normal multi-home stepfamily.

Myth #4: "Your or my kids will never come between us."
Stepfamily adults' inability to resolve clashes over one or more step-kids, including related money issues, is the most quoted reason for a stepfamily divorce. Underneath this usually lie your own unhealed wounds.

Myth #5: "Stepparenting is pretty much like biological parenting, without the childbirth."
While stepparents' primary goals are about the same as those of biological parents, the emotional, legal and social environments of average stepparents differ in numerous ways. This usually leads to confusion, frustration, and stress, until all the stepfamily adults agree clearly on what each other's key responsibilities are.

Myth #6: "Your and/or my biological kids(s) will always live with us."
In about thirty percent of U.S. stepfamilies, one or more minor biological kids move into the home of their other biological parent at some point. The resulting emotional and financial shock waves can be extremely challenging. The key is to build realistic expectations for your new stepfamily homes, roles and relationships. If you don't, ongoing frustrations and disappointments can end up harming your marriage. Learning together what's normal in average stepfamilies--early on--can help considerably.

Here are a few more ideas on how to keep your new family on the right track:

  1. Adopt an open learner's mind to new ways of doing things.

  2. Award yourself patience, permission to mess up and learn, and strokes for the smallest triumphs.

  3. Expect some people to misunderstand and to criticize your new values, goals, and plans--or you. Realize they probably are stuck in a biological family mode of thinking. That's their issue.

  4. Keep your emotional knees flexed, hold hands, and enjoy the adventure and challenge together. It's worth it!

Your relatives and friends might mistakenly expect your new household and kin to feel and act like a biological family. They also may not approve of either the prior divorce(s) or the remarriage. Yet, when well run by confidant stepfamily adult teams (not simply couples), this modern version of an ancient family form can provide the warmth, comfort, inspiration, support, security--and often (not always) the love--that adults and kids long for.

What's your biggest challenge as a stepparent? How are you dealing with it?


Tammy writes...

Great ideas Gloria! Every family does have emotional issues but adding a step into the family creates it's own dynamic. Look forward to seeing more on this topic!

Linda Silverman writes...

I highly recommend this book as a wonderful reference and guide in helping step families navigate through what can often be a difficult transition for the many different situations and emotions that can and will come up in the creation of a step family.

Amy writes...

How do you recommend handling a step-parent critizing an action of a step-child when their own biological child has down the same thing and that apparently does not deserve the same response?

Gloria? writes...

Hello Amy -

All children need to believe, without ambivalence, that their lives have intrinsic worth, promise, and real meaning. And when children, step and biological, are not treated equally or with respect, the entire stepfamily suffers. What does discipline in stepfamilies look like? Consider the following:

Decide up front if you are all going to try to co-parent your dependent kids as a team of informed, cooperative caregivers, or as independent, competing (or indifferent) adversaries.

Accept that typical stepfamilies are very different from average one-home biological families, and often need fundamentally different rules and standards than typical biological homes.

Go slowly on changing pre-remarriage child discipline rules and making new rules and/or consequences. Ideally, biological parents should do much of the discipline with their own minor kids until the kids learn to trust and respect their stepparent(s).

Expect loyalty (or values) conflicts over child discipline issues in and between your related homes. Evolve a way to deal with them that works often for your unique stepfamily.

Try viewing discipline values that clash as different, not good/bad or right/wrong. Doing so helps avoid destructive, stressful power struggles.

Expect dependent step-kids to test and retest your home’s child discipline rules. This is (usually) far more about their learning to trust that they are safe in confusing and alien new stepfamily surroundings than it is about defiance, rebellion, or “badness.”

Help step-kids see and accept that a stepparent is not trying to replace or “become” their biological parent, but is (1.) doing parenting things like guiding, teaching, and protecting, and (2.) legitimately co-managing his or her own home.

When a stepparent is the only one available to perform child discipline—especially in a new step-home—it helps if the biological parent(s) verbally “authorize” the stepparent in front of the step-kid(s) to act in their place.

Stepparents should try not to confuse a biological parent’s natural tolerance for his or her own child’s behavior with being “too easy.”

Stepfamily adults should experiment over time with who sets the child-behavior rules, and who enforces them and how. Avoid rigid, black-and-white child discipline rules.

A stepparent who resents a stepchild talking disrespectfully to a biological parent should try something like, “I don’t like the way you’re talking to my wife (husband)” rather than “…to your mom (dad).”

If step-kids visit their other stepfamily adult(s) regularly, it helps if all stepfamily adults inform each other of key child discipline values, rules, and consequences in their respective homes, and try for a collective united front where possible.

It can be helpful if child discipline, usually considered from the stepparent's point of view, is explored via stepchild’s perspective. Consider the following "memo" from and about your stepchild:

Set clear limits for me. I know very well I shouldn’t have all that I ask for. I’m only testing you, which is part of my job. I need a parent, not just a pal. Be firm with me. I prefer it though I won’t say so. It lets me know where I stand.

Lead me rather than force me. If you force me, I learn that power is what really counts. I’ll respond much better to being guided.

Be consistent. If you’re not, it confuses me and makes me try harder to get away with everything I can.

Make promises that you can keep, and keep the promises you make. That grows my trust in you and my willingness to cooperate.

Know that I’m just being provocative when I say and do things to upset you. If you fall for my provocations, I’ll try for more such excitement and victories.

Stay calm when I say “I hate you.” I don’t really mean it. I just want you to feel upset and sorry for what I feel you’ve done to me.

Help me feel big rather than small. When I feel little, I need to act like a “big shot” or a whiney cripple.

Let me do the things I can do for myself. Your doing them for me makes me feel like a baby, and I may keep putting you in my service.

Correct me in private. I can hear you better if you talk quietly with me alone, rather than with other people present. Talk about my behavior when our conflict has calmed down. In the heat of battle somehow my listening gets bad and my cooperation is even worse. It’s okay for you to take the actions needed, but let’s not talk about it until we all calm down.

Talk with me rather than preach at me. You’d be surprised how well I know what’s right and wrong. I need to have my feelings and ideas respected, just like you do—so please listen to them.

Tell me of your anger at my actions without name-calling. If you call me “stupid” or “jerk” or “clumsy” too often I’ll start to believe that. Help me learn how to handle anger without harming.

Help me feel that my mistakes are not sins.I need to learn from my errors, without feeling that I’m no good.

Talk firmly without nagging. If you nag over and over, I’ll protect myself by growing deaf.
Let my wrong behavior go without demanding big explanations. Often, I really don’t know why I did it.

Accept as much as you can of what I’m able to tell you. I’m easily scared into lying if my honesty is taxed too much.

When you teach me things, please keep it simple. If you use big words or get into long confusing explanations, my mind goes somewhere else.

Enjoy me! I have a lot to offer you!

sheila writes...

Each time I read a book or an article written by Gloria Lintermans, I learn and grow. She gently leads down a path to better understanding, not only about step parenting, but about life. Her beautifully crafted works are invaluable.

Sheila Harris

Deidra writes...

My fiance and I are raising our 1 biological child together and his four other children (not my own) together. There bio mother is in and out of their lives and it brings alot of pressure on me. Both my fiance and the children have expectations of me that supercede the expectations they have of the ex/bio mother i.e. loving them or feeling the same for them as i do my bio child or doing things for/with them that i do with my bio child. How can I cope with these circumstances without feeling like the only option is to leave.

Gloria? writes...

Hello Deidra -

It would be terrific if you and your husband were to first, together, read and discuss my comment to Amy.

Know that it is not uncommon for tension, compromise, and confusion to rule when the role of parent is shared between a stepparent and the non-custodial natural parent, especially one who is “in and out of their lives”. Some people still feel that stepparents aren’t “real” parents, but our culture has no norms to suggest how they are different. And the less our roles are defined, the more unhappy we are as both parents and stepparents.

Another role ambiguity is that society seems to expect acquired parents and children to instantly love each other in much the same way as biological parents and their children do. In reality, however, this is often just not so. A stepparent might feel a tremendous amount of guilt about his or her lack of positive feelings (or even the presence of negative feelings) toward the spouse’s children. Discipline might be a constant source of family conflict: You might, for example, think your ex-spouse isn’t being strict enough, when in fact, most stepfathers and stepmothers think the real parent is not being strict enough.

As a stepparent, you might feel like an unbiased observer with a grudge because you’re an outsider and the very thing that’s making you “unbiased” is something you resent, biology. Stepchildren, as well, often don’t react to their parent’s new spouse as though he or she were the “real” parent. The irony of expecting instant “real” parent-child love is further complicated by the fact that stepparents are not generally expected to be “equal” in discipline or otherwise controlling their stepchildren.

Another reason for a difficult stepparent-child relationship might be that your child does not want this marriage to work, and so, acts out with hostility. Commonly children harbor fantasies that their biological parents will reunite. If children had reservations about or strongly disapproved of your divorce, they may sabotage your new relationships in the hope that you will get back together. Children who want their natural parents to remarry may feel that sabotaging the new relationship will get them back together. Stepchildren can prove hostile adversaries, and this is especially true for adolescents.

Although all stepchildren and stepparents are to some degree uncomfortable with some aspect of their new family role, certain difficulties are more likely to affect stepmothers, and others are more common to stepfathers. Conflicting expectations of a stepmother’s role make it especially hard. As a stepparent, your best shot at happiness is to ignore the myths and negative images and to work to stay optimistic.

As a stepmother, yes, your work is cut out for you. In fact, the role of stepmother is thought by some clinicians to be more difficult than that of stepfather. One important reason is that stepmother families, more than stepfather families, may be born of difficult custody battles and/or have a history of particularly troubled family relations.

Society also seems, on the one hand, to expect romantic, almost mythical loving relationships between stepmothers and children while, at the same time, portraying stepmothers as cruel, vain, selfish, competitive, and even abusive (Snow White, Cinderella, and Hansel and Gretel are just a few bedtime stories we are all familiar with). Stepmothers are also often accused of giving preferential treatment to their own children. As a result, a stepmother must be much better than just okay before she is considered acceptable. No matter how skillful and patient you are, all your actions are suspect. Is it any wonder that stepmothers tend to be more stressed, anxious, and depressed than other mothers and also more stressed than stepfathers?

Some researchers have found that stepmothers behave more negatively toward stepchildren than do stepfathers, and children in stepmother families seem to do less well in terms of their behavior. In fact, the relationship between stepmother and stepdaughter is often the most difficult. Yet, other studies indicate that stepmothers can have a positive impact on stepchildren. Because stepmothers are much more likely to play an active part in the lives of children than stepfathers, perhaps there is simply more to go wrong.

Still, some step-mothering situations can make this role especially complicated -- such as a part-time or weekend stepmother if you are married to a non-custodial father who sees his children regularly. You may try with all your heart to establish a loving relationship with your husband’s children, only to be openly rejected, or you may feel left out of part of his life because of his relationship with his children. In addition, a part-time stepmother can feel left out by her husband’s relationship with his ex-wife; for example, non-custodial fathers need to spend time communicating with their ex-wives about their children’s school problems, orthodontia, illnesses, and even household maintenance and repairs.

Please understand that leaving is not your only option. if you were to divorce, your "1 biological child together" is likely, at some point in the future, to become a stepchild if you remarry.

Together with your husband, seek outside support and guidance from a knowledgeable stepfamily clergy or counselor who can help the two of you work through the problems with a united front ... taking it one day at a time.

My best wishes for your success!

Lyn writes...

Question: My husband of five years has two daughters, five and seven years old. His ex-wife is remarried and has a one-year-old by her new spouse. According to the parenting plan, the girls are scheduled to be with us on the birth date of their half sister, and she has asked if they can come to her house for a celebration; naturally we said yes. However, since this event falls in the middle of the day and they will return to our house afterward, she has invited us as well. His ex and I are polite and pleasant to one another. I understand the need to cooperate regarding child-related events and see her frequently at school functions, but have no desire to spend social time with her, her other three kids and new husband. Should I be expected to attend this type of celebration?

Gloria? writes...

Hi Lyn -

In a word, yes!

Who are “we”? Only when committed couples and ex-mates really accept their true multi-home stepfamily identity, can they turn stressful step-myths into well-grounded, realistic family expectations. Divorced spouses and their mates rarely enjoy counting their ex as a full, respected stepfamily co-parenting family member, but that is what they are. Without this, related stepfamily homes will remain fragmented and conflicted.

It is important for all committed couples and ex-mates to really accept their true multi-home stepfamily identity. All stepfamily adults should consistently strive for a multi-home united front in key decisions about minor step-kids. The less this exists, the more stressed all members feel (especially the kids), and the greater the stepfamily’s dysfunction.

You have obviously created a loving home and stepfamily with your husband. And the fact that you are questioning boundaries in your relationship with his ex, tells me that you are, indeed, a thoughtful step and biological mother, one who honors your stepchildren's needs by having created a "polite and pleasant" relationship with his ex.

Let that, and the emotional needs of your stepchildren, be your guide.

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