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SAA’s How Stepfamilies are Different

How Stepfamilies are Different

How Stepfamilies are Different

by Mala Burt


Stepfamilies are different from first-time families. Some of the uncomfortable feelings you may experience come from these differences. Most people find that knowing about the differences helps. That's because learning about something helps us understand that our feelings are not unique, that there is nothing wrong with us. Learning can give us a feeling that we will be better able to handle our situation, and can help us feel more in control. And that gives us a sense of relief!

1. Stepfamilies come about because of a loss.

All stepfamilies have faced numerous losses and changes. It may be a final ending...the death of a spouse or parent. It may be the ending of a marriage or relationship. Endings are hard because they mean adjusting to loss and change. Because people have trouble separating from old ties, endings mean grieving. Both adults and children grieve.

Adults grieve:

  • The loss of a partner.
  • The loss of a marriage relationship.
  • The loss of our dreams about the way we thought it would be because we are not "the first" for our new partner.
  • The losses involved in the changes that happen because of the death or divorce (moving, a new job, change in life style, etc.).

Children grieve:

  • The loss of a parent (even if the nonresidential parent visits regularly).
  • The loss or lessened availability of the remaining parent when courtship and remarriage occur.
  • The loss of stability.
  • The changes that happen because of the divorce or death (new place to live, new school, loss of friends etc.).
  • The loss of their fantasy of family the way they want it to be.

Unresolved grief can sometimes be seen in the continued warfare and hostility between some parents, or in the inability of a child to accept a stepparent. children and adults may still be grieving when remarriage takes place, or the grieving may be "reactivated" at that time.

2. The parent/child relationship has a longer history than the new couple's relationship.

This can make it difficult for the adults to feel as though they are the primary, long-term relationship. It also means that the incoming marriage partner often feels like and intruder or outsider. Sometimes the close relationships that develop between parents and children in single parent households mean that the new adult partner has difficulty "being allowed in." Even the parent who looks forward to having someone share the load may find it hard to let a new partner help with parenting duties.

All of us have emotional "memory books." When parents and their children get together and "remember," it is like turning the pages of the book they made together. The difficulty for the stepparent is that he or she is not in this memory book, but his or her partner's "ex" is. Stepparents need to be aware that creating a stepfamily memory book takes time and can only be accomplished as people share activities.

The memory book you create with your partner is also vitally important. It means that when life gets difficult, you will be able to leaf through your book and remember the good times, the funny stories, the romantic interludes, even the difficult times you have overcome. It takes time to build a history with your partner, and the memories created with your spouse don't have to compete with the memories they have with their children. But, it does help you understand why sometimes stepparents feel on the outside.

3. A biological parent (ex-spouse) is in another place.

Even if the other parent never visits or has died, he or she is a part of the children's past (just as you have people in your past whom your partner and stepchildren and children don't know). Children need to be allowed to have memories of their other parent. They need to be allowed to have pictures and to talk about the other parent. If a stepparent can't tolerate this very well, the biological parent can help out here by allowing the child time to recall past experiences. Research tells us that the children who adjust the best to divorce are those who have the easiest access to both their parents. This means they can talk to, write and/or see their nonresidential parent as often as possible.

It is important that a child be given permission (by the parent and stepparent) to love the other biological parent. It is also important for the child to be given permission by both biological parents to like the stepparent(s). Children who are asked to choose are put in a no-win emotional dilemma. Remember: to accept the present we need to accept and allow for one another's past.

4. Children are members of two households.

"Where do I belong?" and "Where do I fit in?" are questions asked by many stepchildren. Children have the ability to adjust to two sets of rules or two ways of doing things as long as they are not asked to choose which is better.

It is important for parent and stepparent to talk about rules for the household, rules for behavior of the children and the consequences for broken rules. Once the adults are clear about the rules, they need to be communicated to the children in the family by the biological parent.

Authorities recommend that at the beginning, discipline come from the biological parent. This means that parent and stepparent decide on the rules together but that the biological parent announces the rules and enforces the consequences. Later, after relationships have developed, the stepparent can become more involved. Adults also need to understand that there is a difference between "parenting" and discipline." Parenting has to do with things such as nurturing ("I love you."), transmitting values ("It's important to do the best you can."), giving positive strokes ("You really did a good job."), maintaining appropriate boundaries in the family ("Your mother and I are talking now about a grown up decision."), and setting appropriate limits on children's behavior ("You can play after the dishes are done."). Discipline has to do with enforcing consequences when values, boundaries and limits are not observed.

Flexibility on the part of the adults in one household can help to establish a "parenting partnership" with the other household. If this can happen, adults and children benefit. Often this parenting partnership cannot be established until feelings about the divorce and remarriage have settled down, but it is a goal worth working for.

5. Stepparents may be asked to assume a parental role before emotional ties with the stepchild have been established.

Often a stepparent is thrust into the role of "instant parent." With no previous parenting experience, this person is asked to play a knowledgeable parent role in the household. Biological parents grow into their parenting roles as their children grow. Stepparents are often expected to adjust instantly as though parenting is an inborn skill. It is not!!!

For biological parents, the bonding process that happens means we are more tolerant of our children's personalities and behaviors than someone who doesn't know them so well. This is normal. The reverse is also true. Children are bonded to (and thus often more tolerant of) their biological parents.

Parents can assist the stepparent by helping them to "get to know" their child. They can show them the picture albums, run the home movies, tell the family stories and help fill in the gaps. Some children will enjoy being a part of this process. The painful part for the stepparent may be the presence in the history of the child's other biological parent. Be aware that your acceptance of this parent will help this child be less resistant to you. You can be reassuring to the child that while you have an adult role in this household, you will not try to replace his or her other parent. Many stepparents find a satisfactory role in simply being a "helper" to the biological parent. This can work well, especially where stepchildren are elementary school age or older.

6. There is no legal relationship between stepparents and stepchildren.

This lack of a legal relationship (we are not birth, adoptive, or foster parents) is another reason our role as stepparent is unclear. There is a loss of status which may give us a feeling of wanting to be less involved. Yet there may be a sense of having legal responsibility - responsibility without authority.

No legal relationship with our stepchild means that, unless we have written authority, we can't authorize emergency medical care, have access to school records or sign important documents. You may want to have written authority if you care for minor stepchildren. This can be secured by being granted a limited power of attorney (for example, to authorize emergency medical care) by the biological parent.

This form, which should be notarized by a notary public to be effective, can read as follows:

I, ____________________________________________

(Name of biological/custodial parent.)

_____________________________________ of

(Indicate whether father/mother of child(ren).)



(Name(s) of child(ren).)

whose birthday(s) is/are:_______________________________,

(Fill in Birthday(s).)

hereby allow ____________________________________________

(Name of stepparent/caretaker of child(ren).)

to secure medical attention/treatment/tests on behalf of my child(ren).


(Signature of biological/custodial parent.) *


*This limited power of attorney was prepared by Richard Victor, Esq., a member of STEPFAMILY ASSOCIATION OF AMERICA, INC. FORM MAY BE REPRODUCED.


Legal issues which create stress for stepfamilies can involve inheritance, last names, and potential visitation issues if this new family should end because of death or divorce. Fortunately, the laws are beginning to change, but it's taking them a long time to catch up.

These six ways in which stepfamilies are different mean that you have some tasks to accomplish when you form a stepfamily. These will take some time. As you work on these tasks together, you will be moving towards the variety of rewarding experiences and relationships that being part of a stepfamily can bring.

These materials were provided to Flying Solo® by Stepfamily Association of American, Inc. To find out more about SSA Membership, articles, and products, you can contact SSA in the following ways:

By e-mail --
By telephone – (402) 477-STEP (7837)
By facsimile – (402) 477-8317

By mail –
Stepfamily Association of America
215 Centennial Mall South,
Suite 212
Lincoln, Nebraska 68508

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