Stepfamilies: How to help your child adjust
Medically reviewed on Jul 16, 2018
Relationships in stepfamilies can be complicated. When a new stepfamily forms, each family member faces a unique set of challenges. Still, it's possible to build a successful blended family.
Consider the challenges a blended family might pose for your child — and what you can do ease stress and promote bonds as you build a new life together.
Acknowledge and mourn losses
Your child might be dealing with anguish over a divorce or the death of a parent — or perhaps your child stills harbors hope that you and your ex-spouse will reunite. Your child might also worry that the new marriage and family situation won't last.
Listen to your child's fears and concerns, and allow your child to heal at his or her own pace. Don't expect your child's feelings to resolve quickly or at any specific moment — such as at your wedding or on moving day.
Nurture existing family relationships
To prevent your child from feeling overwhelmed by change, spend time nurturing family relationships that existed before the creation of your stepfamily. For example, plan special activities or outings that involve only you and your child.
Remember, too, that a child entering a newly blended family might feel torn between the parent with whom he or she primarily lives and the other parent. A child also might feel that liking his or her new stepmom makes him disloyal to his mother. Respect your child's feelings, and be careful not to make negative comments about the other parent — regardless of your feelings for him or her.
Foster new family relationships
It can be difficult for a child to navigate relationships with a new stepparent or stepsiblings. Your child doesn't have a shared family history with these new family members, and they may have different beliefs and ways of doing things.
To help your child form these bonds, you might identify shared interests among members of your blended family. Encourage your child to spend time getting to know his or her new family members. Be careful to let the new relationships develop at their own pace, however.
It can take a couple of years — or even longer — for a new stepfamily to adjust to living together.
Don't pressure your child or other family members to make new relationships work right away. Instead, encourage all family members to treat each other with decency and respect.
Know when to seek additional help
Most stepfamilies are able to build relationships and work out their problems over time. Others need extra help. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, your child might benefit from talking to a mental health provider if he or she feels:
- Alone in dealing with his or her losses
- Torn between two parents or households
- Isolated by feelings of anger and guilt
- Unsure about what's right
- Very uncomfortable with any member of his or her original family or stepfamily
In addition, family therapy might be helpful if:
- Your child shows anger or resentment toward a particular family member
- One child seems to be favored over another
- Discipline is left only to the child's parent, rather than involving both the parent and stepparent
- Your child frequently cries or begins to withdraw
- Family members derive no pleasure from typical enjoyable activities, such as being with friends
- One of the parents is struggling with stress and can't help with the child's increased needs
Remember, making a successful stepfamily takes time. Encourage your family to get to know each other and develop new traditions together. Over time your blended family can build lasting bonds.