Stepfamilies: How to help your child adjust

Stepfamilies can be successful if family members work to build healthy relationships. Find out how to help your child adjust to being part of a blended family.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Relationships in stepfamilies can be complicated. When a new stepfamily forms, each family member faces a unique set of adjustments. Still, it's possible to build a successful blended family.

Consider the challenges a blended family might pose for your child — and what you can do to ease stress and promote bonds as you build a new life together.

Acknowledge and mourn losses

Your child might be dealing with anguish over a divorce or the death of a parent — or perhaps your child still harbors hope that you and your ex-spouse will reunite. Your child might also worry that the new marriage and family situation won't last.

Listen to your child's fears and concerns, and allow your child to heal at his or her own pace. Don't expect your child's feelings to resolve quickly or at any specific moment — such as at your wedding or on moving day.

Nurture existing family relationships

A child entering a newly blended family might feel torn between the parent with whom he or she primarily lives and the other parent. Remarriage also can cause a parent to spend less time with a child, resulting in feelings of abandonment or competition.

To reassure your child and prevent him or her from feeling overwhelmed by change, spend time nurturing family relationships that existed before the creation of your stepfamily. For example, plan special activities or outings that involve only you and your child.

Also, be careful not to make negative comments about the other parent — regardless of your feelings for him or her.

Foster new family relationships

It can take years for a new stepfamily to adjust to living together. Your child doesn't have a shared family history with his or her new stepparent or stepsiblings, and they may have different beliefs and ways of doing things. A child also might feel that liking a new stepparent makes him or her disloyal to another parent.

Don't pressure your child or other family members to make new relationships work right away or to be physically affectionate. Instead, encourage all family members to spend time getting to know one another and to treat each other with decency and respect. To help your child form bonds, you might identify shared interests among members of your blended family.

Early on, the stepparent might view his or her role as being a kind of camp counselor. Once the stepparent and child develop a strong connection, the stepparent can become involved in disciplining the child.

Know when to seek additional help

Most stepfamilies are able to build relationships and work out their problems over time. Others need extra help. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, your child might benefit from talking to a mental health professional if he or she feels:

  • Alone in dealing with his or her losses
  • Torn between two parents or households
  • Excluded
  • Isolated by feelings of anger and guilt
  • Unsure about what's right
  • Very uncomfortable with any member of his or her original family or stepfamily

In addition, family therapy might be helpful if:

  • Your child shows anger or resentment toward a particular family member
  • One child seems to be favored over another
  • Discipline is left only to the child's parent, rather than involving both the parent and the stepparent
  • Your child frequently cries or begins to withdraw
  • Family members derive no pleasure from typical enjoyable activities, such as being with friends
  • One of the parents is experiencing stress and can't help with the child's increased needs

Remember, making a successful stepfamily takes time. Encourage your family to get to know each other and develop new traditions together. Over time, your blended family can build lasting bonds.

Nov. 05, 2020 See more In-depth