The Challenges in Step or Blended Families
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Family life is full of challenges. On top of all the normal
challenges, there are extra challenges for step families. That is one of the
reasons that the divorce rate for remarried couples is higher than for
first-time marriages. Step families and blended families can be happy and
effective, but the extra challenges require extra effort and extra wisdom to
make the family strong.
Be realistic. Some stepparents may enter the new family
expecting to quickly build close bonds with stepchildren. Some experts estimate
that it takes as long as seven years for some children to adjust to step
parents. Those children may feel deep loyalties to natural parents even if those
parents had serious problems. Rather than try to replace that parent, it is
generally better for a stepparent to build a relationship more like that of a
kindly aunt or uncle. It is often wise to allow the natural parent to take the
lead in dealing with his or her children.
Be patient. There may be many things that need to be changed.
Resist the temptation to jump in to fix things all at once. Children need time
to adjust to new rules. Many changes with stepchildren need to be initiated by
the natural parent. Changes may have to come in small steps. Look toward
long-term solutions rather than immediate change.
As much as possible, provide children stability in rituals and
relationships. So many things change for children as their parents divorce,
date, and remarry. It is good for them to know that they can count on some
loving people and certain rituals such as a family fun time or regular dinner
Work closely with your partner. All the added stresses in step
families put strains on the marriage. Make time for relationship-building with
your partner. Because of the more complex histories in a step or blended family,
expect challenges around issues of money, tidiness, responsibilities, sex,
in-laws, traditions and holidays. There are many adjustments to be made. Be sure
to build on and emphasize the strengths you have with your partner.
Use steady doses of empathy and understanding. One of the most
healing things that anyone can do in a family is to show empathy. Even when we
disagree with people, it is very healing when they are heard and understood.
(See the unit in this series: "Empathy and Understanding Strengthen
Children.") Carefully avoid saying unkind things about ex-spouses. If an
ex-spouse has said something about you that is unkind or unfair to one of the
children, respond with calm understanding: "I am sorry that he feels that
way. We are trying very hard to provide you a good place to live and
The ability to negotiate calmly and sensibly makes a big
difference. If you are considering entering a blended family situation, study
carefully how you and your potential partner solve problems together. If you
have already remarried or formed a blended family, cultivate your ability to
think creatively, work patiently, and support lovingly.
Get appropriate help. There are times when each of us needs help
finding better ways of solving family problems. You may find it useful to read
one of the books recommended below. Some people find it useful talking to people
who are wise and caring. You may find it helpful to read other units on this
website. The objective is to get new ideas and fresh hope to strengthen your
1. What strengths do you bring to the marriage and the family?
What strengths does your partner bring to the marriage and the family? Make a
list and keep them in mind. When things go badly, consider how the two of you
can use your strengths to make things better.
2. What are some of the challenges in the blended family? Which
of them can be temporarily set aside as you seek to build a firm foundation of
trust and caring? Which of them can be handled in different ways so that there
is less friction? Which of them require your joint effort? Make plans to work
together to turn challenges into growth.
3. As you deal with stepchildren, the natural parent should help
decide the kind and amount of your involvement with his/her children. What
guidelines has your partner set for your involvement? Do you occasionally talk
about how your relationships are going with children so that the relationships
can continue to grow and improve?
4. There are a variety of perceived losses to deal with when a
single parent remarries. For many children, the remarriage of a parent marks the
end of the dream that their biological parents will work things out and reunite.
This loss of the ideal happy family is combined with other losses for both the
children and the new couple. There may be a loss of personal or couple time, a
loss of contact with non custodial parents, a loss of confidence that
relationships will endure, a loss of resources that may be needed to support
children living with an ex-spouse, or a loss of clear role expectations. Which
losses apply to your family? Which are most pressing? How can you use your
family strengths and resources to deal with any sense of loss?
Barnes, R. G. (1984). Single parenting. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale
Blau, M. (1993). Families apart: Ten keys to successful
co-parenting. New York, NY: The Berkley Publishing Group.
Bray, J. H., & Kelly, J. (1998). Stepfamilies: Love,
marriage, and parenting in the first decade. New York, NY: Bantam Doubleday Dell
Bustanoby, A. (1992). Single parenting. Grand Rapids, MI:
Zondervan Publishing House.
Card, E., & Watts Kelly, C. (1996). The single parent's
money guide. New York, NY: Macmillan.
Einstein, E., & Albert, L. (1986). Strengthening your
stepfamily. Circle Pines, MN: American Guidance Service.
Engber, A., & Klungness, L. (1995). The complete single
mother: Reassuring answers to your most challenging concerns. Holbrook, MA:
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Goldstein, S. (1982). Divorced parenting: How to make it work.
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Hetherington, E. M. (1999). Coping with divorce, single
parenting, and remarriage. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Lofas, J., & Sova, D. B. (1995). Stepparenting. New York,
NY: MJF Books.
Nelsen, J., Erwin, C., & Glenn, H. S. (1997). Positive
discipline for blended families. Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing.
Papernow, P. L. (1998). Becoming a stepfamily. 1998: GICPress.
Richmond, G. (1990). Successful single parenting: Going it
alone. Eugene, OR: Harvest House.
Stahl, P. M. (2000). Parenting after divorce: A guide to
resolving conflicts and meeting your children's needs. Atascadero, CA: Impact
Talia, M. S. (1997). How to avoid the divorce from hell and
dance together at your daughter's wedding. Danville, CA: Nexus Publishing
Thomas, S. (1997). Parents are forever. Longmont, CO:
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Visher, E. B., & Visher, J. S. (1991). How to win as a
stepfamily. New York, NY: Dembner Books.
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Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
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