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Family Matters

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Linda Mintle, Ph.D. is a licensed marriage and family therapist, author of 16 books, a national expert on family issues and the psychology of food and weight. She's an assistant professor in the department of pediatrics at Eastern Virginia Medical School, a national speaker, writer, and news contributor.

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Adjusting to a Stepparent

Terry slouched on my therapy couch and mumbled, “My mom has a new husband. She wants me to be nice to him, but I don’t feel like being nice. I’m sick and tired of not seeing my dad. I don’t like this strange guy walking around my house and telling me he’s my friend. He’s not my friend. He’s a stranger. I want my dad back.”

The challenge of living with a stepparent requires time and patience from all family members. Suddenly there is a stranger sharing the bathroom, giving directions, and checking your homework. Mom or dad is no longer exclusively yours. One parent’s daily presence is lost. Holidays become complicated. And what do you call this new person who shows up at the breakfast table with habits that annoy you? 

From the child’s point of view, his/her family has been torn apart and replaced with another. This loss and new arrangement were not by choice. Feelings of anger linger long after the parents’ divorce is final. If the child hasn’t openly worked through anger and unforgiveness towards the original parents, these feelings carry over to the blended family.

In the best of situations, stepchildren struggle to find ways to honor stepparents without dishonoring biological parents. They experience a constant division of loyalties that evidences in even the smallest of issues. It is this division of loyalties that resurfaces throughout the new marriage and serves as an unpleasant reminder of the price children pay for divorce.

So, what can parents do to help children adjust to newly formed families?

First, they must ask God for wisdom to discern the needs of their children. The remarried couple is delighted to put their former marriages behind them and is hopeful about the future. Children of divorce are not in the same place. Often their feelings of rejection intensify when strangers enter the family. Remarried adults must constantly ask, “What are the needs of the children?”

Second, blended families should not pretend to be a replacement family for children. The reality is that children lose a parent and parents gain a new partner. You must continually talk about this fact. Encourage emotional expression. Reassure the children that no matter what they feel, you can handle it and will deal with it. 

Third, be patient. While stepchildren need to be helped through the transition of blending a family, don’t force closeness. It takes time for a child to get to know a new adult and feel comfortable having him or her in the house. It is normal for a child to want the original family back so he/she doesn’t have to divide loyalties, visitation, and important dates.

Fourth, be careful to give children privacy when it comes to their physical bodies.  As stepparents, you did not change their diapers, tuck them into bed every night, and you are not biologically related. Therefore, you must be extra sensitive to appropriate physical boundaries.

Finally, keep God the center of family life. He is your constant source of strength and healing. Be a family who prays and commits to working through even the toughest emotions and disappointments.

~ Dr. Linda

Check out articles on divorce and couples on Dr. Linda’s website,  Also, watch her interview on how is divorce contagious on

Print      Email to a Friend    posted on Wednesday, June 30, 2010 11:13 AM

Comments on this post

# RE: Adjusting to a Stepparent

I can't agree more. I am the new step-parent of 2 sons. I have always given both of my step sons the freedom to like me or not like me. I married their father, but I am not their mother. I leave all the parenting issues to my husband and his ex-wife. I do NOT step into that role in the least bit. I do not approach my step sons with hugs, unless they initiate them. Because of this, I have gotten hugs from one step son and I feel that I am liked by both of them. Since I am not pushing the issue of closeness (I have 2 sons of my own anyway), I am slowly getting the respect of a step-parent.
I also have never pushed the idea of the step brothers getting to know each other really well. 2 of them are grown anyway and don't live at home. So, to try and MAKE that happen is not feasible. They will either learn to like each other or they won't. A good start, however, was when we had all 4 of our combined sons in the wedding. It is vitally important to not push this issue.
Left by Jen on Jul 01, 2010 1:58 PM

# RE: Adjusting to a Stepparent

I'm a step-parent that has been raising my husband's daughter since she was FOUR, she's now 15. Her mom is NOT in the picture at all, she doesn't even live in the same country as us. The daughter is a hand full. She is constantly stirring up trouble, stealing my important things (important papers, eye glasses, medicine, etc.). She says that she is gay and refuses to wear anything pertaining to a girl. My husband did not like the way I was disclipling her (I am the disciplinary in the home) so he moved her out to his sister's two weeks ago. My hubsand and I have one child together and I have two from a previous marriage. The other three kids see how he treats her (like she is a piece of fragile glass) so there is so much tension in my home. We can NOT afford to take care of two households but I am sure that his sister is going to want money soon to take care of her. Since she has moved out she is wearing BOY clothes 100%! The whole ordeal is nerve-racking to me! I'm so lost!!
Left by Demetria on Jul 02, 2010 5:36 PM

# RE: Adjusting to a Stepparent

This is a fantastic article addressing an important issue.

Definitely, the non-marrying parent needs to discuss with the child how they feel about the marriage and give the children permission to accept and like the new stepparent and permission to be happy for the remarrying parent.

Please, parents, do not make your children bear your burdens and resentments. This can be unintentional, but when you don't specifically free the child of anxiety over the union--they will often be offended for you! This will turn to bitterness and that is something that will affect every area of your child's life!

Left by lexi on Jul 02, 2010 9:11 PM