NC State Extension Publications

Stepfamilies Are Unique

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Stepfamilies consist of many different forms. They include unmarried and married individuals, or parents with children. They may involve children from prior unions and children from new
unions. Stepfamilies also include cohabiting couples who wish to legally marry.

Examples of stepfamily forms are: a resident father and stepmother, a resident mother with stepfather, there may be children of both partners from prior unions resulting in a family unit that consists of a stepfather and stepmother with stepchildren. Meanwhile if the new union of parents creates a child the stepfamily form will consists of half-brothers and half-sisters. Because of these complexities, it is important to look at the different unions and dyads within stepfamilies, as well as creating shared meanings. This is essential to help children and stepfamilies succeed in life.


  • Just under 50% of marriages will end in divorce within 15 years
  • Of those who get divorced, 75% will remarry (65% bring children from a previous union)
  • 60% of those who get remarried, redivorce
  • Estimates suggest that by the time children are 18, anywhere from 13 to 12 will have been part of a stepfamily

Creating Shared Meaning

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Stepfamily relationships are difficult. Creating history and shared meanings takes time; we are talking years here, not days, weeks, or months. Children and adults are usually struggling with the new patterns and ways of doing things. There may even be very different beliefs between stepfamily members. All of these issues and more need to be addressed in order to build strong bonds between stepfamily members.

Here are bullet points that can help stepfamilies:

  • Acknowledging and mourning their losses
  • Developing new skills in making decisions as a family
  • Fostering and strengthening new relationship between: parents, stepparent and stepchild, and stepsiblings
  • Supporting one another
  • Maintaining and nurturing original parent-child relationships

It is important to realize that children’s understanding depends on their age. Generally speaking children between the ages 9 through 15 have the hardest time adapting to a new family situation. It may take up to 24 months for children to be friendly with their new stepparent.

This is normal. Stepfamilies must work to understand their own situation, be flexible, and adopt their own style and shared meanings. Here are some bullet points to help establish shared meanings and acceptance:

  • Give your family and yourself permission to try things differently. There are no rules or perfect ways to be a stepfamily, take the time to find out what “fits” your family.
  • Let go of old expectations before building new relationships, instant love is a myth
  • Stepfamilies should expect conflict and compromise everyday
  • Discuss roles and rules and make them clear so that children understand
  • Only present ONE new rule at a time, provide much time in between establishing another new rule, and be consistent (Example: shoes stay at the back door; next month- dishes go in the dishwasher)
  • Try to understand children’s feelings, especially when they are not expected
  • Expect the family members to grieve the loss of the biological family; make it comfortable to talk about it, but don’t force it
  • Spend time doing things with each child and in different combinations of family members; do not force togetherness
  • Understand and learn about child development
  • Work cooperatively with the absent parent in advance, especially around holidays and special occasions


Stepfamilies must work hard to define roles and establish relationships that are beneficial and positive toward family growth and family functioning. This can be a real challenge. Stepparents should be wary of parenting a stepchild until a well-established relationship is built. Jumping in too early usually results in stepchildren resisting and acting out. Stepparents can help direct parenting if the approach is as a monitor. Suppose a parent wants the child to clean their room, the stepparent can confront the issue by saying in a friendly and fun tone, “Your father wants us to clean up the living room so we can watch a movie later after he gets home from work.” This is a smooth way to set limits without creating much conflict. Stepparents should also expect struggles with authority and limit-setting by stepchildren. It is common for stepchildren to rebel and resist authority during adolescence. The adjustment of stepfamilies can take quite a long time for adolescents. A child’s age and development affects how they deal with stepfamily adjustment; taking the time to learn about these differences will help combat the frustration that comes from unrealistic expectations of the stepfamily.

Stepfamily Myths

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MYTH: Everyone will love and accept each other instantly
FACT: Just because the new couple is in love does not mean the children will be in love with the new stepparent or the stepparent instantly love the children. The best thing to do is to remove that expectation of “instant love” and expect a few challenges. Attachment takes time to build as does liking something (new situation) or someone.

MYTH: Adjustment to stepfamily life takes months
FACT: Researchers say it takes 2 – 7 years for a stepfamily to establish close relationships and that is only if it is a positive functioning stepfamily. If the family is dealing with complex problems the research does not support stable stepfamily life.

MYTH: Stepmothers are wicked and Stepfathers are abusive
FACT: Ignoring mass media displays of stepparent characters will help reduce invalid negative stereotypes.

MYTH: Create one set of rules for the household
FACT: Adults should understand too many new rules in a new environment will harm a child’s transition into the stepfamily. Keep the rules to one or two new ones, such as: keep the shoes at the front door, and no food in the living room.

MYTH: Both parent and stepparent should discipline the child(ren)
FACT: Only the parents of the child should distribute the discipline, the step parent should act more as a monitor or friend.

MYTH: Make the new relationship the priority
FACT: Adult relationships take attention away from the children therefore children often feel it as a loss. Researchers indicate a strong emphasis on parent-child and step-parent child relationships is the key to overall positive stepfamily functioning.

MYTH: The focus should be on “family time”
FACT: While “family time” is important, more important is establishing shared meanings and commonalities between the step-parent and child, and confirming the parent-child bond. The child should have one-on-one time with individual adults in order to build the relationship and trust that was lost during a divorce.

MYTH: Children of divorce are damaged forever
FACT: Research now indicates after an initial 2-3 years of adjustment children are able to overcome divorce if dealt with positively.

Stepparenting is positive when stepparents, partners, and stepchildren find shared meanings and commonalities.


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Publication date: Jan. 1, 2013

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