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Managing Relationship Challenges in Stepfamilies

by Dr. Randi Fredricks, Ph.D., Director of San Jose Therapy and Counseling

Newly married couples with children generally enter into the new marriage and stepfamily with the intention of having one big happy family. Unfortunately, that is not usually not how things start out. There are often relationship challenges and difficulties unique to stepfamilies.

It is common for a child to feel conflicted about being loyal to their biological parent. The child might think that if they show love toward the stepparent, they are acting disloyal to their biological parent.

A child can find it challenging to adjust to living in two households with different rules, values, and lifestyles. Additionally, new relationships between stepsiblings may be difficult, particularly when they have to share resources.

Parents may want a stepchild to love, trust and respect them right away, when in reality, feelings of fondness can take years to develop. It is usually counterproductive to force a child into expressing affection before they actually feel it. For example, requiring that a child call a stepparent "mom" or "dad" before they are ready can actually lead to resentment.

In most stepfamilies, a stepparent will attempt to discipline a stepchild, which typically results in the child resisting and retaliating. It takes time to develop that kind of relationship. It can help if the stepparent works on developing a communicative relationship with a stepchild so that when the time comes that the child trusts them, he or she will be able to accept boundaries and discipline.

Parents are caught in the middle between their new spouse and their children. When a parent sticks up for her children, the partner may feel betrayed. But when she allows her partner to set new rules, the children may feel betrayed.

Most stepfamilies go through a series of stages as they learn to live together. Often, those stages look like the following:

  • Rationalization. Adults sometimes rationalize that they are rescuing a child from the perils of a single parent family environment. If a child picks up on this, it can actually contribute to their hope that their parents will get back together.
  • Stepparent alienation. When the fantasy of having one big happy family begins to fade, the stepparent is often left with the feeling being the outsider. Any resentment from the biological only contributes to this scenario.
  • Awareness leads to acceptance. Members of the stepfamily eventually learn to accept what is happening and express difficult thoughts and feelings. It is helpful for parents and stepparents to discuss what they see the children experiencing.
  • Airing differences. Adults tend to express their needs, feelings and thoughts better than children. Because of this, adults in the stepfamilies need to be sensitive and patient, but they also need to encourage children to express their feelings.
  • Working on operating as a family: After differences are aired, adults and children can work together to build solid relationships and cooperation. Family members can acknowledge the differences between this family and their original families.
  • Intimacy and communication. It is important that spouses can communicate honestly and intimately with each other and that everyone can talk openly about their feelings.
Relationships in stepfamilies take time to build and family therapy can help to facilitate the process. A family therapists with training and experience in how stepfamilies work can help the various members navigate stepfamily living. Additionally, marriage counseling can help new stepparents and their spouses with blending into the new family. Many times, ex-spouses see a therapist to manage the conflicts that arise when a new spouse enters the picture.

When a child's behavior deteriorates, they sometimes need individual therapy to help them adjust to changes. As mentioned earlier, a child can feel caught in loyalty conflicts and may need a neutral third party to help them resolve these feelings.


Dr. Randi Fredricks, Ph.D., is an author, researcher, and Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist (#47803) in San Jose, California. She works with teenagers and adults with anxiety, depression, addiction, and eating disorders. To learn more about Dr. Fredricks' work, visit www.drrandifredricks.com.


Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.
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