How to Unite a Step-family

Glenda divorced her first husband two years ago; at that time she had two preschoolers. Six months ago, she married a man who had custody of his eleven-year-old son from a prior marriage. Now they all lived together as a stepfamily.

When she remarried, she expected that things would be better “the second time around.” She assumed her husband’s son would welcome her as his new mother and, in turn, she expected her preschoolers to fall in love with their new father just as she had fallen in love with him.

However, after six months of marriage, things were not going as anticipated. Disciplining the children was becoming nearly impossible. Her stepson often refused to obey her because, in his words, “You’re not my real mom.” No matter how much she coaxed her own children, they were not warming up to their stepfather as quickly as she would have liked. Her ex-husband caused them problems when he changed his visitation schedule. The children often fantasized that their original parents would remarry. These problems with the children and her ex-spouse, and her own occasional lingering feelings of attachment to her first husband, made her wonder if she had done the right thing in remarrying and becoming a stepmother.

Glenda’s dilemmas and feelings are common. Stepparenting is different and in some ways more difficult than co-parenting in the nuclear family where parents and children are biologically related. The stepfamily has a unique structure. The children, at least in the case of divorce, have a biological parent living elsewhere with whom they have continuing contact. The relationship between one parent and the children in the stepfamily predates the current marriage, and the stepparent and the children are not legally related in most cases.

Several potential sources of stress confront stepparents in their new role. Perhaps the first stress is helping the spouse and stepchildren deal with a sense of loss as a result of the dissolution of the first marriage. The stepparent may encounter feelings of anger, hurt, and depression from his or her partner and stepchildren as they work through the grieving process.

Children may feel divided loyalties between their noncustodial, or visiting, parent and their stepparent. They may believe that to love their “new daddy” would show a lack of loyalty to their “real daddy.” Hence, most stepchildren do not instantly love their new stepparent but must have time to develop close feelings.

A frequent stress on the couple is relating to an ex-spouse—a relationship that can mean custody and visitation problems, children who are upset, and competition between the current and former spouse.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for a stepparent, as a newcomer, is carving out a comfortable role in the stepfamily. Defining this role is especially vital in terms of disciplining children.

Stepchildren tend to challenge the stepparent’s standards and right to discipline until the couple determines how they will share the role of disciplinarian. For some stepparents, the fear of being a “wicked stepparent” becomes a barrier that keeps them from being adequate disciplinarians.

Glenda and her husband came to me for counseling about these stresses. Our discussions led me to give them the following suggestions. Others might find them helpful as well.

  1. 1.

    Recognize that you are not alone. With 80 percent of divorcees remarrying within five years of the loss of their first spouse, stepfamilies are becoming more common in the Church and in society. The special needs of this group are now beginning to be recognized and addressed.

  2. 2.

    Be patient. One of the first adjustments a stepparent must make is realizing that the stepfamily has a structure that is significantly different from a nuclear family. This is particularly true in the case of divorce, when one of the child’s biological parents (the noncustodial parent) lives in a different household. Hence, the child has membership in two households with different rules, schedules, and expectations. These differences mean that it will take longer for a stepfamily to develop feelings of warmth, unity, and stability. Parents and children alike need to exercise patience.

    The expression “time heals” can be applied to the development of unity in a stepfamily. As one stepdaughter said, speaking of her stepmother, “When I saw my two youngest sisters cuddled up to this woman while she sang them little songs she made up, I knew it was right. She was to be our new mother, and we all needed her, especially those two. As we grew to know her, we all eventually grew to love her. … From then on it was more a matter of time. Slowly, with all of us pulling, we became closer, a family again.” (New Era, July 1984, p. 29.)

  3. 3.

    Reject the myths or misconceptions about stepparenting that hamper adjustment. The wicked stepmother myth often places unnecessary strain on a woman as she tries to assume the stepmother role. In reality, stepmothers and stepfathers are no better or worse than other mothers and fathers.

    The instant-love myth assumes unrealistically that love is immediate and takes little time to develop. Such expectations may prompt parents to immediately judge themselves as failures in blending two families.

    The need-to-overcompensate myth expects stepparents to try to make up to children for the emotional trauma they have experienced. Unfortunately, stepchildren sometimes view such extra attention as an attempt to replace their biological parent, and so they become resentful. Stepparents need to recognize that they cannot make up for past pain.

  4. 4.

    Put your marriage first. Developing a healthy stepparent-stepchild relationship should not take precedence over developing marital unity and happiness. A statement by Sister Ann Reese at the husbands’ and wives’ fireside satellite broadcast on 29 January 1984 especially applies to remarriage: “The primary relationship in any home is that of husband and wife. Energy invested in improving this relationship will aid in building strong, unified homes, and in producing secure, well-adjusted children.” (Ensign, Sept. 1984, p. 61.)

    Stepchildren often challenge the strength and unity of a new marriage, wanting to know how committed their parents are to each other. Divided loyalty between the new stepparent and the noncustodial parent enables the children to fantasize that their original parents might reunite. But as children begin to see unity in the new marriage, their challenges and fantasies will subside, paving the way for the development of a loving relationship with the stepparent.

  5. 5.

    Be an active listener. Stepchildren are often full of emotions that need to be expressed, and parents need to create an atmosphere that will encourage them to express themselves honestly and openly. Elder Marvin J. Ashton has explained: “To be effective, family communications must be an exchange of feelings and information. … Differences should not be ignored, but should be weighed and evaluated calmly. One’s point of opinion usually is not as important as a healthy, continuing relationship. Don’t display shock, alarm, or disgust with others’ comments. … Don’t react violently. Work within the framework of a person’s free agency. Convey a bright and optimistic approach.” (Ensign, May 1976, p. 52.)

    More than just being quiet, listening requires individual attention and taking time to really hear what someone is saying. To actively listen, one must establish eye contact, listen for feelings, and paraphrase for the child what he has said without criticism. Such an approach soothes the soul of a child and draws him closer to his parents, just as our prayers, expressed to a listening Father in Heaven, strengthen our relationship with Him.

    Helping a stepchild express his feelings can be difficult. Open-ended questions that begin with words like why, how, when, or what draw out more information and feelings than yes or no questions.

  6. 6.

    Hold family home evening. Family home evenings and family councils held regularly will invite the Spirit into the home and bring family members closer. Stepchildren may not immediately accept or like the family council. But “continue in patience until ye are perfected.” (D&C 67:13.) As the children see parental commitment to holding family councils, involving them in family decisions and plans, and recognizing their achievements, they will begin to feel a sense of belonging and unity.

  7. 7.

    Decide on the method of discipline. Discipline is an important key to stepfamily unity. It bonds the children to the parents because discipline shows the children that the parents are concerned about their welfare and behavior.

    But unless parents agree early in their marriage on the method of discipline and the rules of behavior in the family, the children will be confused. To understand another’s beliefs about discipline requires active listening and respect for differences. With understanding, though, differences in discipline standards can be reconciled and the couple can develop one unified standard.

    A frequent difficulty involves the custodial parent undermining the stepparent’s efforts to discipline the children. The custodial parent may want the stepparent to discipline his children, but when the stepparent makes an effort, the custodial parent rushes to the defense of the children.

    The custodial parent and the stepparent should discuss and, through compromise, reach agreement about specific behaviors that are acceptable or unacceptable to each; methods of discipline based on gospel principles; who is responsible for discipline and under what conditions; and how to incorporate gospel principles into parent-child relations (for example, holding father interviews, using patience rather than forceful domination, spending time alone with each child, encouraging rather than criticizing).

  8. 8.

    Respect the noncustodial parent. A stepparent cannot replace a biological parent in a child’s mind—and he should not even try. Children will eventually realize that they can have loving, close relationships with many adults, including a stepparent. By respecting a stepchild’s relationship with his noncustodial parent, the stepparent shows genuine love. This respect takes the stepparent out of competition for the child’s affection and frees the child to develop a close and often affectionate relationship with the stepparent.

  9. 9.

    Deal with ex-spouse issues when they arise. Perhaps the greatest challenge for those who remarry is getting over the emotional attachments to former partners. It is normal to feel some degree of attachment, but this feeling can have a negative effect upon the new marital relationship if the couple does not deal with these feelings honestly or if the new partner feels threatened or jealous of the ex-spouse.

    Ex-spouse problems should not be ignored. They should be dealt with openly. Through communication, patience, and understanding, most couples handle such problems. As James puts it, “Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.” (James 1:19.)

  10. 10.

    Learn to forgive. Forgiving an ex-spouse or one’s self for a divorce can be challenging. But a lack of forgiveness can pollute a person’s relationships with his new spouse and children. Forgiveness involves an understanding and acceptance of each partner’s part in the failure of the first marriage. To gain this acceptance requires fasting and praying that the Lord will help one better understand why the first marriage did not work and how to avoid similar mistakes in remarriage. Forgiveness allows a person to spend his emotional energy on the new relationship—on developing a fulfilling remarriage.

    Forgiveness also applies to the stepparent-stepchild relationship. By empathizing with the emotional adjustments a stepchild must make, a parent can forgive comments such as, “I don’t like this hamburger! Why can’t you fix it like my real mom does?”

  11. 11.

    Remember prayer. In times of stress and adjustment, a person can gain insight into problems and their solutions by inviting Heavenly Father into the home. Family prayers expressing gratitude for stepchildren or stepparents can warm everyone’s heart and soul. Submit solutions to the Lord for approval when appropriate. Learn to lean on him as a family. Since family relationships are essentially spiritual, invite the Spirit into your home.

With a knowledge of the challenges that lie ahead, stepparents can take the first steps to improving the relationships in their new family. The rewards are worth striving for and worth sharing.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Cindy Spencer

Jeffry H. Larson, director of the marriage and family therapy program at Montana State University, serves as a counselor in the bishopric of the University Ward, Bozeman Montana Stake.