While every family has its own unique set of circumstances, step-families have additional complications that first-time families do not. Step-families are families where one or both members of the adult couple already have children, usually from a previous relationship. First-time families are typically ones in which the adult couple has the experience of becoming parents and establishing a family for the first time.
Some step-families form and function as a unit quickly and smoothly. Other step-families are dealing with complex situations and have more challenges to traverse. While being mindful that there are numerous variations of a “step-family,” there are some common key differences between step-families and first-time families. These different dynamics can place additional stress on the members of the step-family as well as the family as a whole.
The step-couple relationship forms WITH children
In most first-time families, the couple has the opportunity to develop their couple relationship before the children arrive. They get a chance to focus on, bond, and form emotional security with each other. This secure connection helps to maintain the strength of the couple relationship and withstand stressors that come along.
In step-families, the step-couple relationship includes the care of children from the beginning. The couple relationship is frequently formed with the well-being of the children closely in mind. There is less of the focused bond, as the attention is shared with the children. In fact, the needs of the children may often supersede the couple relationship. The security in the couple relationship may take longer to solidify, and meanwhile, the couple relationship is more vulnerable to the stressors that the family encounters.
Loss is likely to be present
Step-families are often formed after a significant loss, such as separation, divorce, or death. It is possible that unprocessed or unresolved grief may be present for the children and the adults. Even when the formation of the step-family is desired by family members, certain events can trigger feelings of loss and grief (e.g. remembering that the last vacation to the lake was with the first-time family, and the absence or presence of certain family members feels notable). When loss and grief are unrecognized or unprocessed, it can interfere with the child or adult’s ability to embrace new experiences and relationships.
Furthermore, feelings of loss may be exacerbated by the changes that can come with the formation of a step-family. For example, children may experience another loss when they see that their parent’s attention is shared with a step-parent and step-siblings. They may feel a loss of birth order position once step-siblings arrive, or a loss of physical space when they are expected to share the home with step-siblings. There may be a feeling of loss of “the way we do things” when adjustments are made to accommodate new family members.
There is a difference in the relationship history with the children
A step-parent often joins the family where there is an existing bond and history between the parent and children. Certain routines, rituals, and ways of doing things have already been established. Unlike first-time families where the couple may develop these routines and rituals together over time, the step-parent may be expected to fit into to existing family customs. Or, especially when there are step-children for both members of the step-couple, the “way we do things” are altered in order to include all members of the newly formed family. Every member of the family is challenged to make changes and this transition may be easy or more difficult for different family members.
The parent-child relationship history is critical in the area of discipline. Parents in first-time families often have a history of nurturing the children, of knowing their children’s temperaments and moods, and the security of a solid parent-child relationship that can weather the unpleasant feelings that might arise during disciplining moments. In many cases, step-parents do not have this history with their step-children, so when step-parents try to discipline their step-children, the event can feel more significant and negative, and the stepparent–stepchild relationship can feel tenuous and more easily severed.
Multiple caregivers are often involved
In numerous step-families, there is a former significant other, the children’s other parent, in the picture. When children are still in need of caregiving, there may be multiple adults involved in the management of the children’s care. Greater coordination is needed with visitation or custody schedules, celebrating special events, and with allocating financial resources.
Step-family formation can elicit feelings of stress and insecurity in everyone involved. Parents in the step-couple may feel stretched as they strive to meet the needs of their new couple relationship as well as their children; the children’s other parent may feel protective of the children and over their own position as a primary parent; step-parents are trying to clarify their role in the family and have the desire to feel accepted; and children may experience feelings of conflicted loyalty and belonging. These feelings may surface in the form of reactivity when dealing with caregiving issues.
The recognition of the differences between step-families and first-time families can be helpful in adjusting expectations, and developing strategies to mitigate some of the stress associated with step-family formation. When the step-couple can work together as a team to address the challenges of joining their families, they are securing the success of their marriage and well-being of the family. However, it can be challenging. Sometimes, step-families who are dealing with intense or complicated feelings and situations may find value in accessing outside support to help them navigate through these moments.
Papernow, P.L. (2013). Surviving and thriving in stepfamily relationships: What works and what doesn’t. New York: Routledge.
Sayre, J.B., McCollum, E.E., & Spring, E.L. (2010). An outsider in my own home: Attachment injury in stepcouple relationships. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 36(4), 403-415. DOI: 10.1111/j.1752-0606.2010.00218.x
Zeleznikow, L., & Zeleznikow, J. (2015). Supporting blended families to remain intact: A case study. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 56, 317-335. DOI: 10.1080/10502556.2015.1025845