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Step-Family Advice: Professional Advice for Step-Families

After a divorce, parents and children worry that there will never be a “happily ever after”. Parents who do find new partners often discover that their children and step-children do not enthusiastically respond to their second chance at love. In fact, everyone involved— the parent, step-parent, and child—usually view remarriage from unique, and not always compatible, positions.

Some formerly single parents are thrilled about another adult helping to raise children; others feel that they should not ask their new spouses to take on any parenting duties. Some new step-parents are eager to pitch in and feel hurt if denied the opportunity; others resist the invitation to take on a parental role. Children feel mixed about step-parents, at best. Most want their parents to have a “happily ever after;” yet step-parents often run into trouble when they act as a parental figure.

Teens Resist Authority

Why do step-children tend to resist the authority of their step-parents? The reasons can depend upon the child’s age. Normally, developing teenagers strive for autonomy above all, even by refusing to do something that they intended to do simply because a parent asks them to do it. Both step-parents and parents may find that teenagers meet their requests with increasing resistance.

Additionally, many teenagers harbor subtler reasons for bristling when their step-parents act as parents. Divorce can divide children’s loyalties. A teen may feel guilty over enjoying a holiday with one parent while leaving the other parent out, even if the holiday schedule is entirely out of the teenager’s hands. Children who accept the authority of a step-parent may fear that they are letting another adult “take Dad’s/Mom’s place” when that parent isn’t present to do the job. Feeling fond of the step-parent can exacerbate this problem. This is especially for younger children who worry that there may not be enough love to go around.

Further, many children of divorce continue to wish for their parents to remarry, even holding on to that hope years after the most bitter break-ups. For these children, accepting the authority of a step-parent can feel like giving up on the wish for a  happy ending.

Blended Family Advice

So, what can adults do to ease the blending of a family?

In general, psychologists recommend that step-parents act in the role of a “warm and trustworthy aunt or uncle.”

In other words, a stepparent should act to the degree that another non-parental adult would. Beyond that, step-parents should defer to their children’s parents. They seek to build a relationship with their step-children by being a kind and supportive presence. Many step-parents find that over time they can comfortably move beyond the “aunt or uncle” role to a more parental role, but only after first developing strong, loving relationships with their step-children. In addition, step-parents can provide excellent, and often much needed, support to their spouses’ parenting efforts. Helping a spouse debrief about tough parenting choices at the end of the day goes a long way toward supporting a formerly single parent.

Divorced parents should work to minimize their teenager’s conflicts of loyalty. Whenever possible, parents can let their teens know that they like and respect their ex-partner and that they like and respect their ex-partner’s spouse. Parents should give their teens explicit permission to admire and enjoy all of the adults who care for them.

Looking for more articles on step-families?

Finally, adults need to know that remarrying is just the beginning of becoming a blended family. Given the diverse and intense feelings that children and parents bring to remarriage, adults should give themselves and their children ample time to settle into their new relationships. When needed, parents should seek the help of a supportive counselor to serve as a neutral party. In the world of divorce, happy endings often come at the end of a long and bumpy road.

This article was one in a series about step-families,  Click here to read one dad’s story. Click here to read one mom’s story. Click here to read one teen’s story. Click here for suggested responses to, “You’re not my parent.”

Lisa Damour, Ph.D.

Lisa Damour, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice and director of the Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls in Shaker Heights, Ohio.