How To Have a Happy Stepfamily

By Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

Recently a family came into my counseling practice with a problem.  Mom and stepdad got along great until the stepchildren arrived.  The two kids were on a 5 days on, 5 days off schedule of shared parenting.  Stepdad found the additional noise, mess and rambunctiousness unacceptable to his serenity.  Stepdad threatened mom, “you and your brats are out of my house if you can’t get them to behave.”   Now the mom’s got a heap of worry.  She moved into the house he owned prior to their marriage.  If her kids misbehave she could find herself looking for a new place to live.  No wonder stepfamilies explode in anger.  Now I don’t know about you, but if I had to behave perfectly in the privacy of my own home all the time I’m not sure I could do it, even for a reality T.V. show.

Whether your family is step, blended, purreed or whipped, it’s bound to enjoy an above average amount of worry compared to traditional family types.  Stepfamily members worry or feel anxious when they:

  • Fear the relationship won’t last.
  • Dislike the stepchildren.
  • Feel not accepted by inlaws and friends.
  • Face continued litigation with ex-spouses.
  • See their child’s dislike of the stepparent.

Stepfamily happiness depends on managing this anxiety in healthy ways.  Many families today have no real commitment to one another.  People cohabitate in trial marriages with hope it will all work out and they can get married.  Others get married but know they can get out of it like they did with the previous marriage.  Think about the idea of climbing Mount Everest.  If you approach this mountain with the idea “lets see how far I can get” you might slog up a bit of hill, but quickly turn back when it gets too tough.  In contrast, if you approach Mount Everest with the commitment that you must climb to the peak, you will put tremendous energy into planning, training, expert advice, equipment and more.  Commitment changes everything.  Close all the exit doors, make a commitment to all members of the family.  I repeat ALL members of the family, including inlaws and ex-spouses.  Yes ex-spouses, the biological parents of the cherubs you live with are now part of YOUR family.  If this knowledge makes you scrunch up your face and say “ick!” join the club of stepfamilies that don’t work.  Your ex-spouses new husband’s child’s flu virus will eventually make its way into your little castle.  All of you connect in a interlocking web of family relationships.  The sooner you accept this the more quickly you can work on developing family harmony.

Once you’ve made a real commitment to the family the rest of these suggestions will prove easier to perform.

  • Create stable routines and traditions:  Include the whole  family.  If your wife’s kids always play baseball on the fourth of July, include that in your family tradition.  If you always had a barbeque, light up the grill after the game.
  • Give positive attention and appreciation:  Get to know your stepkids by observing and listening.  Show appreciation for small kindnesses.
  • Accept family differences:  Treat everyone respectfully.  If you’re neat and they’re sloppy, point out the good qualities, don’t just criticize.
  • Express caring even if you don’t like the child:  Feelings follow behavior.  Caring for children you don’t like can change how you feel about them.  Plus you will feel better about yourself if you helped your spouse be the best possible parent to his or her children.

If you contemplate marrying someone with children ask yourself the following:

  • Can I commit emotionally, financially and behaviorally to these children for the rest of my life?
  • Can I consider the ex a member of my family?
  • Am I willing to compromise some of how I want to live for the sake of family harmony?

If you can’t answer yes to all three I suggest you run away from this relationship as fast as you can.  Do something easier.  Climb Mount Everest.