Stepfamilies - Riding the Relationship Rapids

Strap Yourself in for an Exciting Trip!


Riding the rapidsForming a stepfamily is very much like embarking on a whitewater-rafting trip. Both endeavors require courage, spirit of adventure, and teamwork. At the beginning of the trip, it soon becomes apparent that it will take time to learn how to work together smoothly in order to steer the raft without bumping into boulders and clunking each other in the head with oars. As the roar of the approaching rapids grows louder, the passengers of the raft glance nervously at each other with a mixture of excitement and dread as they come to the uncomfortable realization that their newfound skills are about to be put to the test.

Unlike traditional nuclear families that form over time and therefore have an established flow of life, stepfamilies face a number of unique challenges associated with the relatively sudden nature of their formation. Among these are dealing with the effects of unrealistic expectations, handling grief and loss, and forming relationships in the new family system. By preparing themselves to deal with these challenges, stepfamilies can help ensure that they will endure the difficulties that most certainly lie ahead.

Dealing with Unrealistic Expectations

Passengers expecting a leisurely paddle down a lazy river, unaware of the white-knuckle nature of the trip, are in for a most unpleasant surprise when their raft is suddenly swept down the roiling rapids. This is why river-rafting tour guides provide passengers with sufficient training to deal with the situations they are likely to encounter on the trip.

Likewise, couples forming a stepfamily without adequate knowledge of the trials they are likely to face tend to have unrealistic expectations regarding the ease and speed with which their new family will form. Consequently, when their metaphorical raft hits the rapids of reality, stepfamilies may be caught by surprise, leaving them feeling overwhelmed, discouraged, and doubtful about the future of their family. Some helpful things to keep in mind when dealing with expectations are:

  • Forming a stepfamily takes time. It typically takes several years (or more) for a stepfamily to coalesce to the point where roles are defined, relationships developed, and a flow to life is established. Confusion and tension during this process is normal.
  • The developmental stage of the children when the stepparent enters the family largely determines the parental role the stepparent may assume. Pre-adolescent children tend to be more accepting of discipline from stepparents. Adolescents, who are in the process of individuating themselves from the family, are generally more resistant. Therefore, the older the child at the time of stepfamily formation, the more important it is for their natural parent to take the lead in asserting parental authority.
  • Each member of the couple faces unique challenges within the stepfamily. The stepparent must somehow enter into an established parent-child system and children may be resentful of being displaced as the sole recipient of their natural parent’s affection. Consequently, the stepparent may feel like an outsider within the new family. Natural parents are also in a difficult position of simultaneously trying to meet the needs of not only their child(ren), but also their new spouse. This situation commonly leads to loyalty conflicts and feelings of being torn into multiple directions at once.

Dealing with Grief and Loss

Safely navigating whitewater rapids requires a raft that is as light and nimble as possible. Excess baggage should be left on the shoreline. Unprocessed grief and loss weighs down the stepfamily raft, leaving it susceptible to foundering in rough waters. Dealing with grief and loss is an essential task for all members of a stepfamily. For children, the addition of a stepparent to the household (either through marriage or cohabitation) represents a door closing on hopes that their natural parents may reunite. At the same time, children also face the unpleasant prospect of having to share the affections of their natural parent with the stepparent.

Adults also carry losses related to the dissolution of previous marriages or relationships. These losses include diminished financial status, loss of friendships, and a possibly a battered self-esteem. Caught up in the exuberance of making a fresh start, the couple may ignore or delay the grief process in their enthusiasm about the new family. If the grieving process is thwarted, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, for the new family to let go of the past and embrace the future. Some tips for dealing with grief and loss include:

  • Seek to identify and openly acknowledge the losses that accompany the formation of the new stepfamily
  • Help children to give voice to their hurt and sorrow
  • Work to keep the lines of communication open and avoid censoring negative emotions

Building Relationships

Happy togetherA whitewater-rafting trip is not a passive endeavor. The passengers, some of whom might be strangers to each other at the beginning of the trip, must learn to work in unison to navigate the rapids and pull out the occasional member who has fallen overboard back into the boat. Similarly, blended families start out as a team with no defined rules about how to live and work together. Some ideas to promote building relationships between individual family members and creating a positive culture for the new family include:

  • Allow the stepchildren to set the pace of developing the relationship with the stepparent. Stepparents who try too hard to win the affection of stepchildren can unwittingly set up a situation where the child feels compelled to reject the stepparent in order to remain loyal to their non-resident parent, thereby causing children to distance themselves from the stepparent. Stepparents should approach building a relationship with stepchildren by exercising caring patience and gentle persistence.
  • Hold regular family meetings where family members, especially the children, are empowered to voice ideas and concerns. Keeping a white board hanging in a designated place in the home can be handy for any family members to record issues to be discussed at the next meeting.
  • Establish new traditions such as family movie and game nights to build cohesiveness and form a new family culture. In order to promote a smooth transition to the new stepfamily, new traditions are best incorporated as additions rather than replacements of existing traditions. Incorporating traditions from the stepparent’s background is a great way of easing the path of integrating the stepparent into the new family system.

In Conclusion

Like whitewater rafting, forming a stepfamily is more about the journey than reaching a particular destination. Moments of sheer terror may mark parts of the trip, but the process of meeting those challenges together can be more rewarding than any travel brochure could possibly describe.

Gerry Presar, MS, LMFT
Individual, Couple, and Family Therapist
11415 NE 128th Street, Suite 100
Kirkland, WA 98034
Phone: 425-420-8420
Fax: 425-952-0135