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Adjusting to Challenges of Later-Life Stepfamilies: Tips for Parents and Adult Children
By Shannon Cromwell, Extension Associate Professor
Parents who remarry later in life, fifties and older, are the fastest growing demographic due to the ease of Internet dating sites. Often called ‘Silver Surfers,’ this group of individuals are starting new stepfamily journeys with adult children (Bonnell & Papernow, 2019). Even though children are grown and out of the house and co-parenting agreements and residential schedules are a thing of the past, many families with adult stepchildren go through the same difficulties as those with younger stepchildren. For example, adult stepchildren often experience conflicted loyalties and feel pressured to have a relationship with their stepparent just like younger children. Plus, adult stepchildren face a few unique issues such as decisions around elder care, estate planning, and inheritances (Ganong & Coleman, 2017; Papernow, 2013). Adjusting to later-life stepfamilies can be challenging, but there are some steps that both parents and adult children can take to ease the transition.
Tips for Parents and Stepparents
- Acknowledge your adult children’s feelings.
Adult children may experience feelings such as grief over their absent or deceased parent, loneliness, and divided loyalties when their parent remarries. By taking time to understand and acknowledge these feelings, you can help your adult children adjust to the new stepfamily (Bonnell & Papernow, 2019; Ganong & Coleman, 2017; Papernow, 2013).
- Maintain open, honest communication.
It’s important for you, as a parent or stepparent, to express your feelings in a gentle, honest way that will be heard by your adult children. Open communication is sometimes difficult but can help alleviate erroneous judgements and opinions.
- Create opportunities to have alone time with your children.
At every stage of life, children need emotional support from their parents. Creating opportunities for quality time with your children helps to solidify the parent-child bond, opens the lines of honest communication, and promotes wellbeing among adult children (Petren et al., 2019).
- Work as a team with your new spouse.
Being a stepparent can be incredibly stressful, especially if your partner does not encourage their adult children to treat the new stepparent with courtesy. Setting boundaries early on provides a foundation for relationships to form and grow.
Tips for Adult Stepchildren
- Acknowledge parent’s feelings and desires.
Adult children should acknowledge that their parent’s desire to marry someone he or she loves is completely natural and legitimate. Treating your parent’s new spouse with dignity and respect does not diminish the relationship you have with your biological parent and provides opportunities new relationships to develop.
- Make an effort to get to know your new stepparent.
Adult children can create connections with their new stepparent by sharing their own interests and engaging in their stepparent’s interests. By asking questions, you can create opportunities for acceptance (Petren et al., 2019).
- Distinguish between what you can and cannot control.
As an adult child, you may not be able to control who your parent has chosen as a spouse, but you can control your behavior. First reactions to the new marriage may be based on fear, but honest, open communication allow for you to talk with your parent and stepparent about important issues such as later in life financial and health-related concerns (Feistman et al., 2016).
- Find reasons to celebrate your parent’s marriage.
Even if you are struggling to accept the situation, your parent must feel incredibly fortunate to have found love later in life. Adult children can help celebrate the joy and excitement their parent is feeling, which allows your parent and stepparent to feel appreciated, respected, and loved.
Later-life stepfamilies containing adult children often experience the same obstacles as stepfamilies with younger children. Despite the age of children involved, new stepfamilies require adjustments as family members struggle to find their place with new family dynamics. However, parents, stepparents, and adult stepchildren can incorporate strategies and tips to build and maintain nourishing stepfamily relationships (Bonnell & Papernow, 2019; Papernow, 2013).
- Bonnell, K. S., & Papernow, P. L. (2019). The stepfamily handbook: From dating, to getting serious, to forming a “blended family.” CMC Publishers.
- Feistman, R., Jamison, T., Coleman, M., & Ganong, L. (2016). Renegotiating non-residential father-child relationships during emerging adulthood. Family Relations, 65, 673-687.
- Ganong, L., & Coleman, M. (2017). Stepfamily relationships: Development, dynamics, and interventions (2nd ed.). Springer.
- Papernow, P. L. (2013). Surviving and thriving in stepfamily relationships: What works and what doesn’t. Routledge.
- Petren, R. E., Lardier, D. T., Bible, J., Bermea, A., & van Eeden-Moorefield, B. (2019). Parental relationship stability and parent-adult child relationship in stepfamilies: A test of alternative models. Journal of Family Psychology, 33(2), 143-153.