Kathi Whitten, LCSW - Individual, Couple & Family Psychotherapy


Many families these days are “blended.”  That is, for various reasons, the family is now composed of people coming from previous relationships who find themselves in a new family composition involving children (their own and/or those of their partner). Becoming a step-parent provides an “instant” family—but what does that mean?  Starting a marriage or partnership without children is challenging enough, but finding ways smoothly to create a new family that does include children who have connections to others outside the new marriage can be difficult at times.

For instance, there are the complexities of all the new relationships (and old ones) to settle into (or resolve).  There are many different people who will be adjusting to all the changes, such as new in-laws & new extended family, while still maintaining connections to former family—such as ex-partners, other siblings living elsewhere, grandparents, etc.

This can be very confusing to the adults and the kids alike.  How does the couple communicate with the “other” parent? Are the children living with you full time, part time or coming on a visitation schedule? Do some kids live with you while others “visit”?  Do you agree about house rules and consequences? Who keeps up with the schedule for all the comings and goings — and does the communicating with the “other” family?

One comes into such a partnership with many expectations and feelings. Sometimes partners do a wonderful job of traversing the many complicated processes that take place as a new family creates itself.  But other times, people find themselves disappointed or anxious that what they had hoped for and expected is not what is happening.  Children may display unexpected loyalty to the “other” parent or sometimes not feel like cooperating in making the adjustments for other reasons. Partners who originally felt they could manage it all may suddenly discover they have problems they didn’t foresee. The couple may realize they don't have as much time for each other as they had hoped for and needed.

One of the most challenging aspects of being a step-parent is how (or even whether) to share the discipline of the children. Kids who are part of a newly blending family were already used to a style of care that made sense to them.  Now that there is someone new who will most likely have his or her own ideas about how to be a parent, the kids may (sometimes) feel confused, angry, resentful, or rebellious toward the efforts of the new step-parent.  On the other hand, a new step-parent may become exceedingly discouraged, if she or he feels no ability to have input into child-raising rules and decisions.

How does a new step-parent guide or discipline a child s/he doesn’t know well?  How does the couple work that out?  How does a new couple stay consistent with what the children have always experienced, especially when two groups of children are being brought together who have previously had very different parenting styles?

This is a good time to consider therapy—either couples’ therapy for help in sorting out all these unexpected issues by themselves, or if the situation has become more serious, family therapy can address the concerns in a more direct fashion. Couple, family or group therapy can be very useful for establishing an improved family connectedness in the middle of all the changes and forming a more cooperative family life together.

Kathi Whitten, LCSW  copyright 2010