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The Challenges Facing Step Families

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Step families are very common today. While many step families function very well and provide healthy environments for relationships and families to thrive, there are some common issues that step families commonly deal with.

There are three major issues that step families must deal with to ensure a successful integration of the "old" and the "new." The first is money. Because money symbolizes power and success, it can be used to control an ex-spouse. An added stress caused by divorce is the need to support two homes. When additional demands are added to a fixed income, there is less for everyone. The step family generally has less operating money because of the need to support two families. The stresses of not having enough money and money going to first families can create problems in the new step family. Remarriage often means that the step families must realign their expectations to include fewer resources.


Ex-spouses are a second issue that most step families must confront. There are many weapons ex-spouses can use to wreak havoc with their previous marriages. An ex-wife or husband who won't let go is still emotionally involved with the ex-spouse and often uses the children, guilt, and money to hurt the ex-spouse. Often they are obsessed with feelings of having been mistreated during the marriage and can't bear the fact that an ex-spouse would leave the marriage and move on. Hassles over how the ex-spouse is dealing with the children, visitation rights, or financial support keeps them involved in the old relationship and become a route to increased anger. The idea may be to make the ex-spouse's marriage as uncomfortable as possible with constant interference and it is important for you to set boundaries so that will not happen.

How can you do this? With firmness and the avoidance of guilt. It is important to stay in the here and now—be as good a parent as you can be—and stay focused on what is needed to make your new step family work.


Stepchildren can and often do break up marriages. Children of divorce have a unique power that can aggravate adults and make life miserable. Their power comes from playing their biological parents against each other. If, again, you allow guilt and the fear of losing a child's acceptance of you to rule you, you lose the battle. Instead, you need to act firmly, warmly, and patiently, and over time the child's respect usually follows.

Treating the Problems

If you are the biological parent in a step family, you must continue to parent your biological children. If you are the stepparent, you must move slowly, not expect instant love from your stepchildren, and build a relationship based upon respect before attempting any discipline. Remember that children ultimately benefit from a family environment that is safe, caring, structured, and stable. Providing a happy, healthy home will go far in building trust and understanding.

Did You Know

The gift that the step family gives the children is the gift of living in a family that works.

If you are the stepparent, don't become an expert on how the biological parent should discipline. Don't come in seeking immediate or drastic changes. Enjoy your stepchildren and continue to parent your biological children as you have in the past. Utilize family meetings to bring everyone together. Foster the opinions of the children while maintaining the executive decision-making power that parents keep. Make sure that you and the biological parent take turns spending time with each child and the family as a whole.

Remember that this marriage is because you and your partner wanted it. You got married because you wanted to create a loving relationship and that means sharing what each partner brings to the marriage. Stay focused on what is good for the children while you make time for each other and your new relationship.

Reach for Help

Step families are complex relationships that evolve and grow slowly. You don't need to navigate this alone. Let experts who specialize in step families and relationships help guide you so that you can grow with your marriage and children and find the boundless joy a family can provide.

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