CHILDREN IN STEPFAMILIES
Background -- Many children experience the divorce and remarriage of
their parents. Single parent and remarriage families comprise nearly
forty-five percent of all families with children. It is estimated
that almost half the children under age eighteen will spend some time
in a single parent home and that one in five children will live in a
Although parents may view the second marriage as a positive step,
their children may not. Living within a stepfamily creates new
expectations and demands; therefore, unanticipated problems usually
arise. A stepfamily is defined as a family in which at least one
adult has a child or children prior to the new marriage. The children
may live with the couple or visit periodically. Some children find
home to be with both mom and dad, as in the cases of joint custody.
Stepchildren have to establish new bonds while maintaining old ones.
Many feel they have lost members of their original family because one
parent lives away, brothers or sisters are separated, and/or
grandparents no longer visit.
Because the "real" family is viewed as the first marriage family,
communities have not fully accepted the stepfamily. Some religions
only sanction first marriages and most do not fully accept
alternatives. Legally, absent parents and stepparents have no
protected parental rights. Socially, stepchildren and stepparents
often feel out of place in family events and school functions. The
stepfamily has been called a family with no history and no roots.
Development -- Families that make it a success generally do not expect
a storybook family life. The home contracts and expands as children
move in and out to meet schedules and household needs. Space is used
for many purposes. A bedroom for the weekend becomes a den during the
weekdays and playroom for the summer. In the stepfamily children may
relate to the same adult in different ways. Mary might be viewed as
mother for one child and as a friend by another.
Stepfamilies also find that the patterns of living are not as simple
as before. It takes four to five years to become stable. From the
beginning, there are many individuals trying to adjust to one another.
Instead of marriage starting a new phase of life for the couple, it
may interrupt an ongoing phase of development for the adults, as well
as the children. The remarriage of parents may come when teenage
daughter is struggling with her own problems or when the new wife is
mothering young children but also having to manage teenagers who are
only a few years younger in age. These complications compound marital
problems and strain personal relationships within the family.
Many families feel that vacations and traditional family gatherings
help build family unity. But when children cross household lines,
family traditions are broken. For the stepfamily, the holiday dinner,
the vacation at the beach, and the weekend break easily become points
for argument. Building a new unit further signals the loss of
previous family experiences.
Perhaps feeling guilty about past mistakes, such as wanting a divorce
or putting children through difficult times, many steps perceive their
image to be tainted. They suspect that others view them negatively.
It is not uncommon for the custodial mother to insist that the
children use the stepfather's surname to save embarrassment. This
tells the children that they have something to hide.
Remarriage requires the members to blend personal habits,
disappointments, and expectancies. They may find others in the family
unsupportive or even resentful because of religious beliefs, loyalty
to the ex-spouse, or other personal reasons. For the stepfamily,
lifestyles, values, and attitudes must be meshed quickly in order for
the new family to form. Blending is complex due to the number of
people involved, their needs, and their family histories. Guidelines
for Parents -- A critical time for discussing stepfamily issues is
prior to the event itself. Several early problems in the second
marriage relates to unresolved issues in the first marriage family.
Being aware of typical trouble signs helps us recognize the stress
when it appears.
* Grieve and let go: Close the chapter on the first marriage. Allow
the spouse to continue to be a parent but don't be in the middle of
* Court the new family: Marriage is a lifestyle arrangement and in a
stepfamily several people are involved. Children need to be included
in activities related to getting to know each other.
* Clarify expectations: Discussing interests, likes, and expectancies
help each member feel more secure with the unit and how to fit in.
* Find space to live: Each member needs personal space which is
respected. Privacy, sharing, and who rules must be worked out from the
Guidelines for Stepparents:
* Express feelings and thoughts honestly: Feelings of fear, anger,
and sadness are not uncommon during times of family change and
uncertainty. Although it may be difficult for children to recognize
and acknowledge feelings about the family, support people can
communicate the willingness to listen and reassure.
* Ask parents about expectations: Anxieties and frustration can be
significantly reduced by preparing for events. As expectancies change
they need to be communicated to children. Having experienced several
significant life changes, children in remarried units may have a
special need for reassurance.
* Realize that marriage and divorce are adult decisions: Many
children blame themselves for their parent's divorce. Helping
children understand the adult nature of such decisions can diminish
* Love takes time: Children need to be permitted the time to develop
the respect and love for new family members. Given opportunities to
spend time together and know one another, emotional relationships will
Source: National Association of School Psychlogists - NASP Handouts.