Smoothing the Step-Parenting Transition

By: Judith Lavin

Three years ago, when John and Julie Smith fell in love and decided to marry they wanted to know what they could do to ease the transition of their marriage on their children. Each had 2 biological children of their own, ranging in age from 8 to 16 and John and Julie knew that getting the families together could be challenging. Unlike other people in their situation, however, John and Julie were able to discuss many of the typical stepfamily issues before the wedding, which enabled them to smooth their transition into becoming a merged-family.

These days with the increase in stepfamilies across the United States, more and more people are wisely acting like the Smiths. What should stepparents-to-be discuss before jumping into a second or third marriage? There are several things parents can do to help their children adjust to the fact that they are introducing a “new parent” into their household. Dr. Margorie Engel, President of the Stepfamily Association of America in Lincoln, Nebraska (; 1-800-735-0329) suggests the following 10 tips to help smooth the transition:

  1. Read and understand basic child development so you don’t mistake developmentally normal behaviors as inappropriate, uncooperative or as personally against you. “If you are non-parents, what do you know about kids and their developmental stages?” Engel asks. By understanding basic child development, the stepparent will know that a two-year-old’s NOs, for example, are developmentally appropriate, so that the stepparent won’t take the lack of cooperation personally.
  2. Be aware that the first couple of years of marriage are chaotic. Typically, it takes 5 to 7 years for a stepfamily to become cohesive. Initially, everything is up in the air—people are trying to understand each other and find their position in the group. It can be difficult.
  3. Lower your expectations. Stepparents do not have the power or authority to “fix” their stepchildren or the family. Only a biological parent has that ability.
  4. Make the discipline roles clear. Talk with your to-be spouse about what the household rules (i.e., Bedmaking required? Clearing your plate? Watching TV before homework? Which church to attend?) and personal rules (will you allow them to borrow your clothes? If so, are the clothes to be returned to you drycleaned?) are going to be.
  5. Discuss the external household rules, such as how will you handle medical care if the biological parent isn’t there to sign a release. Stepparents do not have legal authority, unless it is given to them.
  6. Talk about money issues. The Stepfamily Association of America has tapes and booklets discussing everything from planning a wedding to doing your own will and estate. Look for information concerning financial issues and figure out as many as you can before you’re married.
  7. Keep you and your spouse’s bond strong. “The couple bond is the core of the success of the stepfamily,” said Engel. People have to build their relationship, alone. That way kids can see how a healthy adult relationship works.
  8. Get creative. Friendships are created through a shared history in the family. You have to create shared memories. Snap pictures of the family doing things together and display the photos out. Find ways to do things with your stepchildren to create a shared memory. Baking, planting, skiing on a trip, whatever creates those special moments should be encouraged.
  9. Make changes slowly. You don’t want to change things all at once. Make your own traditions, but do it over time.
  10. Discuss discipline and make sure the biological parent is the one carrying out the discipline of his or her child.

Judith Lavin and her family spent nearly 16 years struggling with and triumphing over the complex medical challenges faced by her two daughters. Lavin, author of Special Kids Need Special Parents, Berkley Books, 2001, and a former journalist with the Chicago Sun-Times, recognized the need for an easy-to-read resource for physically and emotionally exhausted parents like herself, as well as their families, teachers, doctors and others who work with them. Lavin’s work has been featured in numerous publications such as The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun Times, Newsday, Washington Parent and Chicago Parent and on radio CBS Radio Network and TV news and talk shows including the Today Show and Small Talk for Parents from PBS Chicago around the U.S.

The Stepfamily Association of America publishes YOUR STEPFAMILY, a magazine dealing with common stepfamily issues and offers a six-week class for families that is designed to work with support groups or professionals called Smart Steps for Adults and Children in Stepfamilies ($150.).

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