A stepfamily is formed by the marriage or long-term cohabitation of two individuals, when one or both have at least one child from a previous relationship living part-time or full-time in the household. The individual who is not the biological parent of the child or children is referred to as the stepparent. Stepfamilies are also called blended families.
Stepfamilies merge unrelated parents and children into a family unit that, with time and emotional work, can function as effectively as a traditional nuclear family. For children previously living in a single-parent family, a stepfamily can provide a more structured family environment with positive influences from two parental figures. For parents, a stepfamily can provide social support for new couples and new, emotionally rewarding relationships with biological and stepchildren.
A stepfamily is a family unit in which one or both adult partners have children from a previous relationship. Stepfamilies can be formed after a divorce or death of a parent in a nuclear family or when a single parent chooses a long-term partner. Although in the past, marriage was usually required to define a stepfamily, marriage is not always a prerequisite for parents and children living together in the same household. Many adult partners choose to live together (cohabitation) on a long-term basis rather than marry. Children can be full-time or part-time members of a stepfamily, depending on the custody arrangement between the biological parents. Children may also be part of two stepfamilies if both parents remarry. The following terms are used to define members of a stepfamily:
- stepparent: a non-biological parent
- stepchild: a non-biological child brought into the family by marriage or cohabitation with the biological parent
- stepsiblings (stepbrother, stepsister): siblings who are not related biologically, whose parents are married to each other or cohabiting long-term
- custodial parent: the biological parent awarded primary custody by a court during divorce proceedings
- non-custodial parent: the biological parent awarded part-time custody or visitation rights by a court during divorce proceedings
- half-siblings: children who share biologically one parent
- stepgrandparents: non-biological grandparents
- mutual child: a biological child of the remarried or cohabiting couple
There are key differences between the dynamics in a stepfamily and the dynamics of a first-time nuclear family:
- Stepfamilies ultimately result from a loss, death of a parent/spouse, divorce, end of a long-term relationship, changes in lifestyle (e.g., moving, loss of job), and, therefore, involve grief on the part of both parents and children. This grief may remain unresolved and affect stepfamily relationships.
- Children in stepfamilies are members of two households and, as a result, may experience confusion, discipline issues, loss of stability, and conflicting feelings of loyalty.
- The role of the stepparent and status in the family is often unclear with regard to authority, level of involvement with the stepchild, and discipline. In addition, no legal relationship exists between stepparents and stepchildren.
- Stepparents must assume parental roles before there is an emotional bond with the stepchild and are often required to make instant adjustments to a parental role. In contrast, biological parents bond with their child as the child grows.
- Stepfamilies must cope with outside influences and ongoing change due to issues with the other biological parent and family members.
According to statistics from the United States Census Bureau and the Stepfamily Foundation, one in three Americans is involved in a stepfamily situation, and 1,300 new stepfamilies form each day. In addition, 50 percent of children under age 13 as of 2004 lived with one biological parent and the parent's partner. As of 2004, it is estimated that there are more stepfamilies than traditional nuclear families in the United States. The number of stepfamilies is underestimated because the U.S. Census Bureau did not as of 2004 recognize that a child can be a member of two stepfamilies; only the household where the child lives the majority of the time is counted. Because in most divorces, primary custody is awarded to the biological mother, most stepfamilies involve stepfathers who become the full-time stepparent. In rare cases, a biological father is awarded primary custody, and a stepmother can become a full-time stepparent.
Stepfamilies are increasingly referred to as blended families, by the media and others. Stepfamily researchers, family therapists, and the Stepfamily Association of America (SAA) view this term as inaccurate because it infers that members of a stepfamily blend into an entirely new family unit, losing their individuality and attachment to other outside family members. The term stepfamily is preferred because the derivation of the prefix "step-" originates from the Old English word "steop-" which means "bereave." The term stepchild used to refer to orphans who lost their parents, and stepfather/stepmother used to refer to individuals who became parents to an orphan. Because other family types (biological, single-parent, foster, adoptive) are defined by the parent-child relationship, the SAA believes that the term stepfamily more accurately reflects that relationship and is consistent with other family definitions. Viewing the stepfamily as a blended family can lead to unrealistic expectations, confused and conflicted children, difficult adjustment, and in many cases, failure of the marriage and family.
Divorce, remarriage, and the formation of a stepfamily are traumatic events for children. Transition can be eased by including children in discussions and preparations for the stepfamily's future. For example, for couples getting remarried, children can be included in the actual wedding ceremony (not just as ringbearers and flower girls) and given tokens, like a piece of jewelry or special gift (like the wedding rings that their parents exchange), that symbolize the joining of the new family.
Individual therapy for children whose parents are going through a divorce and remarriage can be helpful. Group family therapy with all members of the stepfamily can help identify issues that may undermine successful family functioning. Because grandparents can influence stepfamily dynamics, educating stepgrandparents about stepfamily issues can also help. Roles of the non-custodial parent and stepparent must be clearly defined to avoid unnecessary conflicts. Reading information on stepfamilies and joining a stepfamily support group can help ensure future success. With cooperation and understanding among stepfamily members, a stepfamily can function successfully and even heal emotional scars of past divorce.
A National Institutes of Health (NIH) study of stepfamilies found that a stepfamily has a unique natural life cycle, takes several years to develop into a family unit, and is at greatest risk for failure during its first two years. According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, the average marriage in the United States only lasts seven years, and one of every two marriages ends in divorce. Stepfamilies are at greater risk for failure and broken marriage due to the increased stresses of stepfamily life. These stresses include the unclear role and authority of the stepparent,
A study by British and Canadian researchers found that children in stepfamilies and single-parent families had more behavioral and emotional problems compared with children in intact biological families and that stresses within the family were more influential than family type in contributing to children's psychological problems. Adolescents are especially vulnerable to psychological and emotional problems resulting from a combination of puberty and family stresses. Medical professionals, such as pediatricians, psychologists, and therapists, can provide resources and referrals for adolescents requiring treatment and/or therapy for depression, oppositional defiance disorder, and unresolved feelings of anger, resentment, and loss.
While stepmothers face some of the same issues that stepfathers face, both part-time and full-time stepmothers have a more difficult role in the stepfamily and are often expected to be more involved with their stepchild due to socialization pressures (being a mother), societal expectations, and expectations from their husband. Joining a stepmother support group can be helpful in working out frustrations and problems in the stepmother role.
Children in stepfamilies are subject to multiple parental influences and may become confused and conflicted about how they fit into each family and which parent is responsible for discipline. All parents—biological and stepparents—should strive to work out such issues for the benefit of their children. Minimizing conflicts between all parents can help children adjust to stepfamily life.
For various reasons, society does not always view stepparents as having the same responsibilities as biological parents. Employers, other family members, friends, and neighbors may have difficulty understanding and relating to stepfamily issues. One workplace psychologist estimates that businesses in the United States lose more than $10 billion annually due to problems related to stepfamily issues, working parents, and other marital stresses. Although many employers do offer employee assistance programs with substance abuse counseling, child care, and family/marriage counseling, divorced parents, working stepparents, and working live-in partners rarely seek counseling.
Parents and stepparents should be concerned during the first two years after the stepfamily is formed, since this has been identified as a crucial time period for stepfamily success. To help strengthen the stepfamily, parents can establish new and enjoyable family traditions, recognize that children need to stay in touch with non-custodial parents, and focus on being open with family communication. Organizations such as the Stepfamily Association of America offer resources and ideas for building stepfamily bonds, such as celebrating National Stepfamily Day every September and engaging in pleasurable family activities, like movie and pizza night.
Cohabitation—Sexual partners living together outside of marriage.
Nuclear family—The basic family unit, consisting of a father, a mother, and their biological children.
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Lipman-Bluementhal, Jean, et al. Step Wars: Overcoming the Perils and Making Peace in Adult Stepfamilies. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2004.
Lofas, Jeanette. Stepparenting. New York: Citadel Press Books, 2004.
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O'Connor, T. G., et al. "Family Settings and Children's Adjustment: Differential Adjustment within and across Families." British Journal of Psychiatry 179 (2001): 110–15.
Stepfamily Association of America. Web site: <www.saafamilies.org>.
Stepfamily Foundation. Web site: <www.stepfamily.org>.
"Stepfamily Facts." Stepfamily Association of America. Available online at <www.saafamilies.org/faqs/index.htm> (accessed October 30, 2004).
"Stepfamily Law and Policy." Stepfamily Association of America. Available online at <www.saafamilies.org/advocacy/issues.htm> (accessed October 30, 2004).
Jennifer E. Sisk, M.A.