Building Stepfamily Relationships
By Extension Associate Professor, Shannon Cromwell
Stepfamilies are complex and diverse and becoming a thriving stepfamily is a process that takes time and patience. A strong foundation of trust and communication buffers the challenges that arise from stepfamily life, and a loving and well-adjusted stepfamily is possible when couples commit to taking the time and action necessary to get there. By focusing on practical tips and guidelines, couples can ease into the transition of building stepfamily relationships.
Set Realistic Expectations
Couples can become discouraged when they fail to anticipate the number of difficulties unique to stepfamily life (Cartwright, 2010). By facing key issues like finances, stepchildren dynamics, and navigating relationships with ex-spouses, they can create an atmosphere for a new family to develop and flourish. Additionally, stepparents should be flexible and patient when building relationships with their stepchildren. Understanding that the stepparent-stepchild bond takes time to establish can help reduce disappointment (Ganong & Coleman, 2017; Suanet et al., 2013).
Communication is Key
Effective communication helps stepfamilies function and build healthy relationships. By using a variety of communication techniques, stepfamilies can produce strong, close relationships. Furthermore, spending time together as a family and openly discussing family issues helps strengthen family bonds (Bonnell & Papernow, 2019; Papernow, 2013). Communication techniques that can help connect stepfamilies include:
Hold regular family meetings
Family meetings reassure children that they play an important role in family decisions and give all members an opportunity to voice their concerns about family issues.
Discuss rules and discipline
It is important for family members to understand and work together when it comes to household rules. Discipline may be more effective if the biological parent enforces discipline methods until the stepparent-stepchild bond is stronger (Bonnell & Papernow, 2019; Ganong & Coleman, 2017; King et al., 2015).
Reassure children that they can love both of their parents
Remind children that they can have loving feelings toward both their nonresidential parent and their stepparent. Loyalty bonds are normal for children and openly talking about the conflict children are feeling can alleviate their stress and increase their well-being (Bonnell & Papernow, 2019; Ganong & Coleman, 2017; Papernow, 2013).
Establish new traditions and spend quality time together
Old family traditions provide stability for children, however, establishing new traditions helps to strengthen the family unit through the creation of new memories. Additionally, children need to spend time alone with both their biological parent and their stepparent. Spending quality alone time with their biological parent reinforces their parent’s love and support for them. Time spent alone between the stepparent and stepchild allows for the cultivation of their relationship and the strengthening of family bonds (Ganong & Coleman, 2017; Gibson, 2013).
Strengthen Couple Bonds
It is important for couples to spend time together in order to build their relationship. Strategies include daily check-in conversations, engaging in shared hobbies and interests, and planning regular date nights. By being honest, practicing effective communication skills, discussing goals, resolving problems, and making plans, couples can build and strengthen their relationship (Ganong & Coleman, 2017; Papernow, 2013).
Establishing strong stepfamily relationships takes time, patience, and understanding. Stepfamilies who commit to overcoming obstacles together build a strong foundation for future issues. By committing to the journey, engaging in positive strategies, and finding ways to enjoy and learn from moments of happiness and frustration, stepfamilies have the opportunity to grow together and build lasting memories.
- Bonnell, K. S., & Papernow, P. L. (2019). The stepfamily handbook: From dating, to getting serious, to forming a “blended family.” CMC Publishers.
- Cartwright, C. (2010). Preparing to repartner and live in a stepfamily: An exploratory investigation. Journal of Family Studies, 16(3), 237-250.
- Ganong, L., & Coleman, M. (2017). Stepfamily relationships: Development, dynamics, and interventions (2nd ed.). Springer.
- Gibson, D. M. (2013). Ambiguous roles in a stepfamily: Using maps of narrative practices to develop a new family story with adolescents and parents. Contemporary Family Theories, 35, 793-805.
- King, V., Boyd, L. M., & Thorsen, M. L. (2015). Adolescents’ perceptions of family belonging in stepfamilies. Journal of Marriage and Family, 77, 761-774.
- Papernow, P. L. (2013). Surviving and thriving in stepfamily relationships: What works and what doesn’t. Routledge.
- Suanet, B., Van Der Pas, S., & Van Tilburg, T. G. (2013). Who is in the stepfamily? Change in stepparents’ family boundaries between 1992 and 2009. Journal of Marriage and Family, 75, 1070-1083.