Stepfamily/Blended Family Issues
A stepfamily or blended family is formed when partners in a relationship bring together their children from previous relationships or adopt children, to create one family unit. As a new relationship grows stronger, couples may consider bringing their respective family members together to form this new family unit. In the U.S., over 40% of adults reported having at least one step-relative (stepparent, stepchild, step or half-sibling).
Building a blended family or stepfamily can be an exciting, but also stressful process, requiring adjustment for all family members. For example, the new family may involve the integration of children who do not feel comfortable with or like other family members; they may also carry traumas from parental separation or loss of a parent.
With preparation, effort, and time, blended families can realize harmonious family dynamics, just as any other family. Learn below for common stepfamily issues that individuals, couples and families may face, and how therapy can help ease the transition.
Types of stepfamily/blended family issues
Stepfamilies present their own unique challenges and adjustment to new circumstances can take time. Common stepfamily issues include:
- Financial: Bringing members of different families together can be financially complex. There’s no right or wrong way of managing this difficulty - some people agree to pool their money while others choose to keep it separate.
- Wellbeing of the children: Often, children have gone through the emotional pain of the divorce or separation of their parents, or loss of a parent before being faced with the challenge of adjusting to a new stepfamily. Understandably, this can lead to difficult emotions or behaviors in children. They may be even more vulnerable if there is conflict between their biological parents (1).
- Stepparenting: The new stepparent has the daunting task of developing a strong bond with the children. Agreement must also be reached on how to collaboratively and consistently parent stepchildren. Parenting can be even more overwhelming for inexperienced stepparents, who must learn how to raise children from scratch.
- Stepsibling relationships: Children may feel a sense of competition or rivalry for attention and affection from their parents in the new family context. They may have disagreements or argue.
- The other biological parent: Another matter to consider is how partners from the previous relationships (who may be the biological parents of children in the stepfamily) have contact with their children. This can be tough to negotiate, balancing the wellbeing of children while remaining sensitive to the feelings of the new partner.
As with any major life transition or stressor, it may take some time for all involved parties to adjust to the new arrangements. However, some family members may especially struggle with the adjustment and experience mental health challenges such as stress, anxiety, or low mood. It’s important to seek help for these kinds of difficulties.
Stepfamilies are a relatively common type of family unit in America, as the following data shows:
- Around 7% of children under the age of 18 in America are adopted or stepchildren (2)
- Younger adolescents (aged 10-14) may have greater difficulty adjusting to family changes than older adolescents or younger children (3)
- 40% of new marriages in America in 2013 included at least one partner who had been married previously (4)
- In 2010, 42% of American adults reported having at least one step-relative (stepparent, stepchild, step or half-sibling). 70% of these adults reported that they were very satisfied with their family life (5)
Treatment options for stepfamily/blended family issues
If your family needs help adjusting to the new arrangements and relationships, consider utilizing a combination of the following resources:
- Therapy: A family therapist can help you all understand your challenges, learn communication and coping skills, manage behavior issues, and grow healthy relationships. Individual therapy can also help -- one person can learn healthy ways of adjusting and introduce those methods or mindsets to the rest of the family. See more tips below on types of therapy and selecting a therapist.
- Support groups: Many adoptive or stepparents benefit from joining a support group. Sharing experiences and learning from people in similar situations can be encouraging and helps people to feel that they are not alone. The National Stepfamily Resource Center website is a good place to locate a support group near you.
- Online resources: It’s easy to feel isolated and burdened by the challenge of trying to create a harmonious new family, but a simple online search reveals a myriad of similar experiences. Try reading the stories of others online or join an online parenting community; it can help to feel that others share your experience.
- Stress management:Learning stress management strategies can help you interact more effectively with your new family. You might try relaxation exercises, breathing techniques, or meditation, or participate in activities you enjoy.
- Be prepared and patient: Plan ahead for how to manage the transition into the new family. This might include carving out daily time for you and your child to spend alone together, and taking time to develop bonds before stepping into the role of disciplinarian to stepchildren. Have realistic expectations; new bonds and harmonious family dynamics take time and effort to develop.
Therapy for stepfamily and blended family issues
Many types of therapy could be considered for yourself and your family for challenges with blended family issues. The type you select will depend on what your main concern is. For example, you may be worried about relationships, managing behavior problems, or helping resolve individual mental health challenges.
Therapy types to consider include:
- Family therapy: All family members are involved in exploring how each person is feeling and coping, and working together to find resolutions. Family therapy can help build attachment relationships and improve communication between family members. Family systems therapy helps family members understand patterns of interaction and behavior within the family, as well as develop new ways of engaging that are more helpful for the wellbeing of all.
- Parent-Child Interaction Therapy: This helps parents of children with behavioral issues. More suited to younger children, both the child and parent/caregiver participate in therapy. The therapist observes interactions between the two and coaches the parent to help develop the relationship and respond effectively to challenging behavior (6,7).
- Couples counseling: Couples counseling can help parents better communicate, learn relationship skills, and build a cohesive family structure together. It can be particularly helpful for navigating and reaching agreements about stepparenting and interactions with previous spouses.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT helps change unhelpful thoughts and behaviors, and create more balanced perspectives. CBT can help adults and children with mental health symptoms associated with family issues, such as anxiety or depression. A newer, trauma-focused mode of CBT called Alternatives for Families - A Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (AF-CBT) helps improve relationships in families with arguments, conflict, and behavior problems (8).
What to look for in a therapist
The best-fitting type of therapist depends on individual factors, symptoms, location, and finances. You’ll want to consider whether you are seeking therapy for yourself, child/children, both, or with the whole family. Then consider the following factors:
Specialization: Look for a therapist who has experience and specialized training in stepfamily dynamics or family therapy. Many therapists offer couples or family therapy, especially but not limited to, those who are licensed as Marriage and Family Therapists. Therapists often include this information in their biography on their website or online profile.
If you are concerned about the wellbeing or behavior of a young child, look for a therapist specialized in working with children, such as a child psychologist. This means that the therapist will have an expert understanding of developmental and attachment issues, and how family changes can affect a child.
Qualifications: With so many different provider types available, it can be difficult to decide which type of mental health professional to see. The most important thing is to look for a currently licensed therapist.
Personal fit: The trusting relationship between you and your therapist, known as the “therapeutic alliance” can have a huge impact on the efficacy of therapy. If you are seeking family or couples therapy, it’s important to select a therapist with whom all members attending therapy feel comfortable and trust.
The best way to judge how you might feel about a therapist is to ask for a preliminary phone call. This also allows you to ask about their experience and what therapy with them will be like. Try to speak to a few different therapists before deciding.
Sources and references
- (1) Tori DeAngelis, 2005, “Stepfamily success depends on ingredients”, American Psychological Association website. Accessed online December 2019 at https://www.apa.org/monitor/dec05/stepfamily
- (2) R.M. Kreider & D.A. Lofquist, “Adopted Children and Stepchildren: 2010”, United States Census Bureau. PDF accessed online December 2019 at https://www.census.gov/library/publications/2014/demo/p20-572.html
- (3) James Bray, “Making Stepfamilies Work”, American Psychological Association website. Accessed online December 2019 at https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stepfamily
- (4) Gretchen Livingstone et al., 2014, “Four-in-Ten Couples are Saying “I Do,” Again”, Pew Research Center. Accessed online December 2019 at https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/11/14/four-in-ten-couples-are-saying-i-do-again/
- (5) Pew Research Center, 2011, “A Portrait of Stepfamilies”. Accessed online December 2019 at https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2011/01/13/a-portrait-of-stepfamilies/
- (6) Child Welfare Information Gateway website, “Choosing Therapy for Adopted Children and Youth”. Accessed online December 2019 at https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/adoption/adopt-parenting/services/therapy/
- (7) Parent-Child Interaction Therapy International, “What is Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT)?”. Accessed online December 2019 at http://www.pcit.org/what-is-pcit.html
- (8) The National Child Traumatic Stress Network website and factsheet, “Alternatives for Families - A Cognitive Behavior Therapy Approach”. Accessed online December 2019 at https://www.nctsn.org/interventions/alternatives-families-cognitive-behavioral-therapy