Blending Families: Five Strategies for the New Stepparent

A woman runs behind a young girl who is kicking a soccer ball.While most of us who marry intend it to be for a lifetime, about half of all first marriages in the United States end in divorce. Divorce ends not only a couple’s relationship, but it also marks the end of the dream of living together as a family. Despite the pain that most divorces bring, the desire to be happily married doesn’t seem to end, since most of those who divorce will eventually remarry.

Marrying at any age or stage of life is a challenge and requires a good deal of personal work and adjustment, but choosing to marry for the second (or more) time brings with it some additional complications. The most prominent complexity involves entering into an already existing family system, as stepparent to the new spouse’s children.

As a therapist, I have noticed that a strategy for entering into relationship with a new spouse’s children seems to always take a back seat to the excitement, distractions, and stresses of a new love, moving into a single household, and planning a wedding. Many adults who blend families believe, with good intention, that settling in as a new family will be easy as pie. After all, most of them are already parents, and have come this far as a new couple. How hard can it really be?

Well, it can be really, really hard.

I don’t believe one can be too deliberate or mindful when joining an already existing family, especially one that has been stressed by divorce or the death of a parent. In my practice, I frequently consult with adults who are planning to remarry, but whose children, especially teenagers, have grown increasingly angry, sad, disrespectful, demanding, or even hostile to their parent’s new partner, the longer they are in the family circle. What was once a ride of excitement and anticipation erupts into bitter conflicts about moving homes, changing schools, losing friends, shifting visitation schedules, adding step-siblings, and confusion over family roles and responsibilities. It can become so divisive that couples may consider calling the whole thing off.

What’s an excited but hopeful new stepparent to do? I’d like to offer some basic strategies that can help your new family system adjust, adapt, and thrive through the necessary shifts that come with merging family systems.

  1. Slow down! Perhaps the most important thing any new couple can do, as they plan to blend families, is to take it as slow as possible. Every family, no matter how fractured or stressed, holds loyalties and patterns of relating and functioning which need time to adapt to new people. I frequently tell people that, though marriages may begin and end, families are forever. Don’t assume everyone will happily embrace your presence without some time to adjust.
  2. Take an outsider’s position. While all of us know what it’s like to be part of our own families of origin, and the family of choice we created as adults, you have never been part of a family exactly like one new partner’s has. Be curious, respectful, and observant. Learn about how this family works. Become a student of the new family you want to join.
  3. Don’t try to become Mom or Dad to your partner’s children. Always remember and respect the role your new partner’s former spouse has with the children. It doesn’t matter whether they are awful parents, in prison, or deceased: children are loyal to their biological parents, and will fight you tooth and nail should you ever forget it. You may one day be called Mom or Dad, but don’t ever begin this way. Strive, instead, to be a positive, new adult friend in the children’s lives and a respectful, tactful partner in the eye’s of the children’s mom or dad.
  4. Allow the biological parents to discipline the children. Family rules, expectations, negotiations, and limits can create serious, lasting difficulties for children and their new stepparents. Don’t try to discipline the children alone. Allow their parents to enforce the family expectations. Dialogue about the children, privately, with your new spouse, and in matters of discipline, defer to your partner. If you keep your distance, eventually you’ll be able to set your own limits. Just not at first.
  5. Build relationships with the children one on one. Don’t assume that joining the family at Chuck E. Cheese’s every month is going to create a close bond with your new spouse’s 5-year-old son, or that attending a few of your new 16-year-old stepdaughter’s basketball games is going to make her think of you as a loyal fan. Taking the time to talk regularly with each child, privately, reading to them, listening to their stories, going out somewhere easy and fun together is going to help bridge that long divide between stranger and stepparent. Take it easy, let them set the pace, and you will become a new friend instead of an unwelcome outsider.

While these ideas can go a long way in helping you make positive, lasting adjustments to a blended family, don’t suffer alone if things aren’t going well. Family therapists are mental health professionals who can help when family relationships get strained or problematic. Going regularly to therapy, as a couple or a family, can give you the skills and courage to recreate a happier family experience. After all, that’s what getting married and sharing our lives as families is all about.

© Copyright 2011 by Lynne Silva-Breen, MDiv, MA, LMFT, therapist in Burnsville, Minnesota. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • TreyS


    February 8th, 2011 at 5:13 PM

    Never making a child feel like a step child is crucial to a successful step parent- child relationship.

  • Red Ant

    Red Ant

    February 8th, 2011 at 7:25 PM

    Being a good stepparent,if you ask me,is to love and care for the children but knowing where to draw the line when it comes to talking about certain things. Some thongs are best left for their bio-parents to talk to them about.

  • e-


    February 9th, 2011 at 6:04 AM

    budging too much nose into the ‘family’ would be a bad idea too…there may have been rules that have been set and Ben followed by a very long time…do not try to changed these all of a sudden as a step-parent.

  • Kate


    February 9th, 2011 at 1:36 PM

    And might I just chime in here that another thing that I think too many step parents try to do is force the relationship. Don’t do it. Be there for the kids and the relationship will grow on its on and at the speed that feels comfortable for the children. If you try to force things then it is never going to work.

  • eMiLy


    February 9th, 2011 at 7:41 PM

    I believe it all comes down to a person’s nature. If the person’s good natured then he or she can fit into any role with relative ease. I have seen a couple of my friends’ step parents and they are just as good if not better than any real parent could be!

  • emmy


    February 10th, 2011 at 2:00 PM

    What works for one family is not a sure thing to work for another. But no matter what it all takes trial and effort and a whole lot of love to get through it.

  • Lynne Silva-Breen, Author

    Lynne Silva-Breen, Author

    February 12th, 2011 at 9:27 AM

    Thanks for everyone’s comments …

    certainly the journey is unique to every family (point #2)! and an open mind, and a lot of love IS necessary.

  • Susanne


    February 15th, 2011 at 9:13 PM

    I see “parent” as a title that needs to be earned. Anyone can be a parent in the legal sense but you can’t be a good one off the bat. Kids will almost always be skeptical of stepparents, probably even distrust or dislike them at first. Best way forward is to take it at their pace and not push it on them.

  • Yvonne


    February 15th, 2011 at 9:19 PM

    Thanks Lynne for a very good article. My friend’s a stepmom and her biggest struggle is getting the girls, one hers and one her partner’s, to get along. They are very close in age (12 and 13) but polar opposites in nature and interests. What’s the best thing to do there? Neither of them want to appear to be favoring their own child.

  • Ellie


    February 16th, 2011 at 8:17 PM

    The fourth point is the most important I feel about letting the bio-parent do the disciplining. If you try to tell them off, they’ll just flat-out say “I don’t have to listen to a thing you say”. That does nothing for the relationship. You and your spouse do have to present a united front though.

  • Bruce


    February 17th, 2011 at 12:11 PM

    As far as teenagers in the family are concerned, when you’re the stepparent, you’re at the bottom of the ladder. A guest. They will treat you with respect only because they are told to. They don’t have to in their eyes. “I don’t like people that crash my parties so why would I like strangers crashing my family?” I heard one say once. Teens are the toughest nut to crack.

  • Francine


    February 17th, 2011 at 1:27 PM

    I would think twice about marrying a woman that already has kids. It’s a thousand times harder to make it work. I don’t know if it is really worth it nor if I’d be willing to take on another man’s child. Maybe it would be better not marrying that person at all for your sake and theirs.

  • MCM


    July 24th, 2017 at 6:00 PM

    I regret marrying my spouse because of the stress of being a new parent and a new step parent. I have wanted to walk out so many times because I am not respected by anyone. My husband groups me with the kids when he gets angry and the step kids (1 in particular) is almost violently disrespectful. I have a 17 month old and I am ready to walk because every time he comes to visit (he’s 10) , he is increasingly disrespectful to me and both sisters. I did not grow up like this and I want a simpler life. We’ve been together 4 years and I feel like the 4th in line. I’m 40 and tired of it.

  • Elizabeth


    February 17th, 2011 at 4:42 PM

    You can’t help who you fall in love with, and the kids can’t help being there. They didn’t ask to be brought into the world. I think everybody should at least give them a chance rather than write off any potential partners immediately just because they have children. Children are hard work, true, but they are a joy too. Kids can greatly enrich your life.

  • Lynne Silva-Breen, Author

    Lynne Silva-Breen, Author

    February 20th, 2011 at 3:28 PM

    I would marry the person I love, no matter the family that comes along!

    While it’s hard, it’s not impossible, especially with the right strategies to begin with. Remember: children eventually leave the family.

    Many step-families can really find helpful tools by engaging a family therapist as their family “coach.” I see blended families in my practice regularly, and virtually every one of them, even the most conflicted, can learn how to do things better and more comfortably. Everyone wants a happy family!

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