Jane K Toler PhD, Licensed Professional Counselor

Stepfamily Relationships

Tips for Couples in Stepfamilies

When two people decide to commit to a relationship and one or both have children from a previous relationship, they anticipate a bright future. A little extra effort, patience, and understanding will go a long way to make that bright future a reality. Here are a few reminders about establishing and maintaining a healthy stepfamily.

  • Keep the children out of adult disputes. Create a conflict-free zone around the children, taking care not to involve them in adult disagreements.
  • Be mindful of what you disclose to children about divorce, remarriage, the other parent, and other adult matters. Consider whether the disclosure is necessary. If you determine that it is, disclose only that which is necessary in an age appropriate way for the children.
  • If you do not have anything nice to say, do not say it. In other words, do not say negative things to the children about their other parent or stepparent.
  • Establish daily routines and rituals for the couple to have time alone together.
  • Spend time with the children together and individually. Having time with your stepchildren without the other parent present is a way to form bonds. Think of things your stepchildren enjoy and make time around those pleasures. Additionally, allow for each parent to spend alone time with his or her children. This gives important and necessary quality time for the children and parent. It also gives the stepparent a chance to recharge.
  • If you are a stepparent, try not to take the children’s negative remarks or behaviors personally. Most likely they are not really about you. They are about the loyalty bonds the children feel. Many times they are afraid that if they show affection to or for you, they are being disloyal to their parent.
  • You may wonder why your partner is so sensitive about your children. As their parent you may believe age, personality, or hormones cause their negative behavior, misbehavior, impolite behavior, or attitude. Try to put yourself in your partner’s position. Consider what it would be like to have someone else’s children interact with you in the way yours interact with your partner.
  • Love may not always be part of the equation between stepparents and stepchildren, but it is necessary for respect to be expected and practiced.
  • Couples who meet before having children have time to bond and anticipate the arrival of children. Couples who come together with children from previous relationships evolve differently. Prepare as best you can but allow for time to adjust to your new family life.
  • If there is a great deal of animosity between the parents or with stepparents, keep things like scheduling and communication factual and as simple as possible to avoid heightened sensitivities.
  • When preparing for the family transition, involve the children in the preparation. Talk with each other about the new family. Encourage them to ask questions. Offer them some control – perhaps they can choose their bedroom color, or have a chest that contains only their toys and treasures that no one else will disturb.
  • If you are expecting a baby, involve the other children in its arrival. Perhaps they can help get the room ready or pick out clothes and other items that their new sibling will need. The goal is for the children to feel actively included.
  • Stepsibling relationships can be warm and nurturing while others can be stressful. Navigating these relationships can be a delicate dance that requires a balance between helping them connect or disconnect, letting them work out their difficulties or protecting them, and attending to their feelings of insider versus outsider status. Establishing rules for safe and respectful behavior, slowly easing into the transition, recognizing that each child moves at a different pace when making adjustments, and requiring civility are ways to help with stepsibling issues.
  • There are times when a stepparent feels like an outsider in the stepfamily. It is important to keep other interests and sources of support as a way to maintain healthy relationships within your stepfamily.

Being part of a stepfamily can be one of life’s most rewarding experiences. Families forming at various life stages can have very secure relationships. Challenges and intensity are normal. Take things slowly. Be gentle, and exercise tolerance. Give yourselves time to grow into the new family structure. Facing challenges together and learning how to resolve them is a recipe for strong, loving, lasting relationships. It can be the bright future you hope for if you have realistic expectations, managing the inevitable ups and downs with respect and humor.