A stepfamily is a fundamentally different structure upon which to build intimate relationships than a first-time family. The familiar phrase “blended families” does not prepare stepcouples for the challenges this structure creates. Advice abounds on the web. However, much of it is well meaning but misleading. The good news is that decades of research and clinical practice tell us a lot about what works and what doesn’t to meet these challenges.
While the new stepcouple is a gain for the adults, it often creates a whole set of new losses for children. Newly in-love moms and dads turn away from their kids and toward their new partners. Daddy or Mommy is staring lovingly at a new partner, holding hands, talking for hours on the phone, or texting at dinner. Children are left feeling alone, with no other adult to turn to. Young adult and adult children can feel these losses as strongly as younger ones do!
Carve out one-to-one time throughout the family
Do be affectionate with each other, but out of children’s eyesight. Do carve out time regular alone together as a couple, but be sure to balance this with substantial, reliable one-to-one parent-child alone time. Stepparents, while your partner spends time with his or her kids, take some time for yourself. Go see a friend, join a volleyball or basketball team, or veg out with your favorite tv show.
A step at a time saves nine
Adults in a new stepcouple are usually thrilled to have found each other. They are, understandably, eager to move forward with their new lives. For many children, however, adjustment to a stepfamily is actually harder, and takes longer, than dealing with a divorce. Remember that children come to stepfamily through a whole series of unwelcome changes and losses. The research tells us that as the pace of change goes up, children’s wellbeing goes down. Take things a step at a time. Introduce children and stepparents slowly. If children are struggling, try increasing one-to-one parent-child time and attention and decrease “family time.”
Protect children from conflict
New stepparents can create loyalty binds for children: “If I care about my stepmother (stepdad), I have betrayed my mom (dad).” If one child is especially close to their parent in the other household, that child will need more time and space to adjust, more time alone with his or her parent, and more distance from their stepparent and new stepsiblings.
Loyalty binds seem to be normal and human. Even children in very collaborative divorces have them. However, when the adults are in conflict, loyalty binds become unbearably painful for kids. The research shows that even moderate tension between parents affects children’s attention, social skills, and immune functioning. It turns out that conflict affects kids’ sleep, which in turn creates those cascading effects
If you are the parent do whatever you can to protect your kids from conflict with your ex. If your ex is not cooperative, do your part to keep communication calm and constructive. Do not communicate through your kids. Use short texts, brief to-the-point emails, or short voice mails. If you are the stepparent, resist the impulse to say bad things to your stepkids about your partner’s ex, even if they are true!
Gender, age, and time make a difference
As I did the research for my new book (Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn’t), I learned that children under eight have an easier time than older children. Boys have an easier time than girls. Adolescent and pre-adolescent girls have the hardest time adjusting to a stepfamily. Most comforting, family scholars are finding that nine years down the road, children in stepfamilies look very much like children in first-time families.
This is often as true, by the way, for adult children as it is for younger children. All of this means that parents often have to shuttle back and forth, spending time with their child, and then spending time with their partner.