If you have formed a new stepfamily, you are not alone! Stepfamilies are increasingly common in the United States, and form when one or both partners in a new committed relationship bring a child or children from a previous relationship.1 Nearly one-third of children are estimated to live in a stepfamily household at some point before reaching adulthood.2,3
Unfortunately, a great deal of uncertainty still surrounds the transition to stepfamily life. This is explained, in part, by the complex family histories, values, needs, and expectations that stepfamily members bring with them to new stepfamily relationships. Stepfamily challenges have important implications for family stability and individual well-being, and there is much parents can do to promote positive outcomes for themselves, their partners, and their children. Below I provide five tips for parents who have formed (or who intend to form) stepfamily relationships. This list is not exhaustive, but these five tips are a good start.
1) Be Flexible
Approach the transition to stepfamily life with a healthy amount of flexibility, and be mindful of unrealistic expectations. Feel empowered to build relationships that will work best for you and your family, but realize that stepfamily members might want different things. Cultivate empathy, good communication, and a supportive environment as you navigate difficult conversations, make compromises, and explore what each stepfamily member needs. Do not assume that your stepfamily should look or feel like a first-time family. Stepfamilies are simply different, with a unique set of demands and opportunities. And, what works well for one stepfamily might not work well for another.
2) Let Your Kids Know You Are Still There
It is common for parents in stepfamilies to focus much of their time and energy on the new couple relationship. Certainly, the new couple relationship is a vital component of any stepfamily. However, the importance of maintaining strong parent-child relationships in stepfamilies cannot be overstated.4 The transition to stepfamily life is a time when parent-child relationships can weaken.5 Remember, your children likely did not choose the various changes that are occurring around them. As a result, stepfamily formation can be a stressful time for children.6 It is important for children to know that you are still available and responsive to their needs. Maintaining close parent-child relationships in stepfamilies can reduce children’s stress and promote children’s psychological and behavioral well-being.7,8,9,10 In addition, when children feel they can depend on their parent in times of need, they are more likely to develop a close relationship with a new stepparent.11
3) Exercise Patience
Stepfamily relationships take time to develop. Even under the best circumstances, mutually satisfying and stable stepfamily relationships can take four or more years to cultivate.5 The process of developing relationships will look different for every stepfamily, so be sure not to rush things. Remember that running into challenges or setbacks does not indicate failure—it simply reflects the reality that stepfamilies, just like all families, face hurdles. The trick is to not place undue pressure on yourself or others. Sometimes just knowing what typical stepfamilies experience can foster patience and ease tensions.
4) Build and Maintain a Cooperative Parenting Team
In most cases, parents in stepfamilies share parenting responsibilities with nonresident parents. As a result, children in stepfamilies become embedded within a rich network of parental figures, often including resident parents, stepparents, and nonresident parents. Children fare best when all of their parental figures avoid overt conflict and engage with each other in a cordial and cooperative way.12,8
Adults in stepfamilies often face uncertainty about the role new stepparents should play. This uncertainty can be heightened when nonresident parents maintain active and frequent involvement in the lives of children. Research points to a wide variety of stepparent-child relationships, ranging from kin-like and close, to cordial but distant.5 The key is identifying what role works best for your family. Much of this will depend on the age, temperament, and needs of children.
In any case, when parents and stepparents argue infrequently and agree on parenting strategies, children fare better psychologically and demonstrate a greater willingness to pursue a relationship with a new stepparent.7,8,11 Moreover, research generally indicates that stepparents should not take on a disciplinary role with their stepchildren, especially soon after the stepfamily has formed or when children are well into their adolescence.5
5) Continue Educating Yourself and Seek Help When Needed
Beware of stepfamily myths and false stereotypes. Seek out reputable and credible resources that can sensitize you to common dynamics associated with stepfamily life. One excellent resource is Dr. Patricia Papernow’s book, entitled Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn’t. Dr. Papernow does a masterful job synthesizing and presenting information in a clear and accessible way. For those interested in a more academic resource, consider reviewing Stepfamily Relationships: Development, Dynamics, and Interventions by Dr. Lawrence Ganong and Dr. Marilyn Coleman. Drs. Ganong and Coleman skillfully overview much of what we know about stepfamilies based on past and current research.
In addition to ongoing self-education, sometimes families benefit from professional assistance. When needed, seek out help in the form of family life education or therapy. Professionally trained educators or practitioners will help you assess key challenges and map out a course to achieving the goals you and other stepfamily members have. When seeking out helping professionals, be sure they are properly trained to work with stepfamilies. Many clinicians attempt to help stepfamilies by applying knowledge related to first-time families. This approach can be unhelpful and counterproductive when working with stepfamilies.13
Todd M. Jensen, PhD is a Research Associate in the Jordan Institute for Families and Research Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research focuses on family resilience and youth well-being, particularly in the context of family instability and among military-connected individuals and families.
1Ganong, L., & Coleman, M. (2017). Stepfamily relationships: Development, dynamics, and interventions (2nd ed.). New York: Springer.
2Bumpass, L. L., Raley, R. K., & Sweet, J. A. (1995). The changing character of stepfamilies: Implications of cohabitation and nonmarital childbearing. Demography, 32, 425-436.
3Pew Research Center. (2011). Pew social & demographic trends survey. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.
4Jensen, T. (2017). Constellations of dyadic relationship quality in stepfamilies: A factor mixture model. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication.
5Papernow, P. (2013). Surviving and thriving in stepfamily relationships: What works and what doesn’t. New York: Routledge.
6Shafer, K., Jensen, T. M., & Holmes, E. K. (2017). Divorce stress, stepfamily stress, and depression among emerging adult stepchildren. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 26, 851-862.
7Dunn, J. (2002). The adjustment of children in stepfamilies: Lessons from community studies. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 7, 154-161.
8Jensen, T. M., & Harris, K. M. (2017). Stepfamily relationship quality and stepchildren’s depression in adolescence and adulthood. Emerging Adulthood, 5, 191-203.
9Jensen, T., Shafer, K., & Holmes, E. K. (2017). Transitioning to stepfamily life: The influence of closeness with biological parents and stepparents on children’s stress. Child & Family Social Work, 22, 275-286.
10King, V. (2007). When children have two mothers: Relationships with nonresident mothers, stepmothers, and fathers. Journal of Marriage and Family, 69, 1178-1193.
11Jensen, T., & Shafer, K. (2013). Stepfamily functioning and closeness: Children’s views on second marriages and stepfather relationships. Social Work, 58, 127-136.
12Dunn, J., O’Connor, T. G., & Cheng, H. (2005). Children’s responses to conflict between their different parents: Mothers, stepfathers, nonresident fathers, and nonresident stepmothers. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 34, 223-234.
13Papernow, P. (2017). Clinical guidelines for working with stepfamilies: What family, Couple, individual, and child therapists need to know. Family Process. Advance online publication.