The Challenges of Step Families

Every one-on-one relationship comes with its own challenges, but those are multiplied when two families are brought together under one roof. In the step-family, you don't just have a relationship with one individual to consider, but different relationships with two, three or even more individuals from different generations.

  1. Trying to live up to the nuclear family ideal.
    - Tendency to believe that stepfamily is a reincarnated nuclear family.
    - Difficulty embracing identify of stepfamily due to negative stereotyping and myths of “wicked” stepparents and neglected stepchildren.
    - Pseudo mutuality, or the couple’s persona, that everything is OK. Built on a backdrop of failure, couples cover up conflict for fear of causing more problems. The goal becomes to not “rock the boat”.

  2. Isolation
    - The stepfamily is born out of loss. Stepfamilies fear negative associations with loss and stereotypes. There is also a lack of openness in society to address these problems.

  3. Baggage from past relationships
    - Not only do couples enter this marriage with the unresolved issues from their families of origin, but they have the added burden of issues from the first marriage, the process of divorce, and the period of single parenting.
    - Unresolved emotional issues for children and parents around the grief of divorce, loss of the nuclear family “ideal”, and/or guilt over the dissolution affect the marriage.
    - Children carry fantasies about parents reuniting. The new marriage may feel like a second divorce for the child. There may also be residual guilt over their perceptions of causing the divorce and their failure to get their parents back together.

  4. Confusion and Disorientation
    - Stepfamilies are often strangers who find themselves suddenly living together. There is no past history, little experience to build trust or a feeling of common identity.
    - The diversity of connections within the stepfamily and the numerous primary connections outside the family make for complexity and confusion.
    • There are few societal models or guidelines for stepfamilies. Most prominent examples are the “Brady Bunch” or “Cinderella”.
    • Who’s a “real” member of the family? Children are often shifting in and out of the household. They also often experience divided loyalties. They fear betraying their biological parent if they love their stepparent. Parents often fear loving their stepchildren out of guilt that they cannot be closer to their biological children.
    • Where’s my place? Physical space is often rearranged to accommodate the needs of the remarriage. There is never enough time, money, or bathrooms. Time and availability of the parent is modified. Chores and responsibilities are shifted.
    • Finances. Children in the same family may have very different financial resources.
    • Changing roles, relationships, and responsibilities.
      • The child is often displaced as the parent’s surrogate spouse, confidant or decision maker by the new spouse. Especially difficult is the relationship between stepdaughters and stepmothers as to who can best take care of Dad.
      • The ordinal position of children is often changed. The youngest child may be usurped from that coveted position.
      • Effective stepparenting may take a variety of forms and most often not as a disciplinarian
      • Women’s traditional roles are changed. Women cannot maintain the role of peacemaker or the keeper of interpersonal relationships within the stepfamily. She also has full parenting responsibility over her own children, including discipline and finances.
      • Due to the need for biological parents to parent their own children, men’s traditional roles broaden to include nurturing aspects of childcare.
      • The parent-child relationship predates the marriage relationship so the bonding is often stronger. This differs from the nuclear family where the strongest and longest bond is between the marriage couple. “Children in nuclear families gain security when the marital relationship is strong and satisfying. Children in a stepfamily may feel threatened by a biological parent’s alliance with someone who is not emotionally bonded to them. This insecurity and children’s responses to it may undermine the happiness of the family.” (Crosbie-Burnett, 1984, p. 459)

  5. Unrealistic Hopes and Expectations
    - Second marriages are often entered into with the expectation of making up for all the wrongs of the first marriage.
    - Expectations are great for “instant intimacy”. Closeness and trust is expected too soon.
    - Parents feel they should be able to love their stepchildren the same as their own children.
    - There is an expectation that adequate preparation for remarriage through reading, classes and workshops will prevent feelings of jealousy, anger, rejection, and guilt.

  6. Conflicting Needs of Family Members
    - Often, the new couple needs to “honeymoon” while, at the same time, the children need extra attention.
    - Couples who marry at different life cycle stages find conflicting priorities add to the stress of the household.
    - The increased sexual atmosphere of the couple may be disturbing to adolescents in the household who are struggling with their own emerging sexuality.

  7. Lack of recognition, accommodation, and support from schools, churches and the community.
    - Ignorance and suspicion of stepfamilies has resulted in a lack of “holding environment” for these families.
    - Less availability of resources to learn about effective stepfamily functioning.

  8. No legal basis for connection.
    - No matter how deep the affectional bond between the stepparent and the stepchild, there is no legal way to validate the connection.


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