Advice on Stepfamilies

Stepfamilies face many challenges. Taking a group of total strangers and throwing them together and expecting them to get along is chock full of problems. These stepfamilies are often called “blended families”, but there’s nothing blended about most of them. They tend to be more like two opposing armies lined up for battle than anything that can even remotely be referred to as “blended”.  Just ask most couples who have blended and families about their experience and you will probably hear the word “hell” in about 60 seconds.

My best advice to those who are considering remarriage with children from previous marriages: wait. Just hang on, trust God during this time and wait until the kids are grown—and even then it still isn’t a guarantee! Sometimes even adult children will have a difficult time with their parent’s remarriage situation. But generally those who wait until the kids are out of the house have much less trouble and way fewer problems.

If, however, you choose to go into the stepfamily situation, know that it’s going to be a very rough road to travel.  You will have to deal with each other’s children, the ex-spouses, the multiple sets of grandparents, complicated holiday and summer schedules, etc.  Again, in my opinion the best thing you can do is to wait until the kids are all out of the house and then move on to a new relationship.

That being said, here are some general guidelines for those of you who are already in a blended family situation:

  • Don’t make your spouse choose between you and his/her kids.
  • Allow your spouse time with his/her kids.
  • Let the biological parent deal with discipline issues.
  • Get help from other stepfamily organizations. (see our links on the website)
  • And above all: DON’T criticize or condemn your spouse’s children.  I know, I know… you’re just trying to help your spouse see the problems and you’re just trying to help, but trust me – you are headed down the path of misery.  You want to help?  Volunteer at the local homeless shelter.  Let your spouse deal with his/her own kids.

Finally, don’t try to change people – just try to understand them.  People don’t like it when others try to change them.  Go down that path with your step children and you can virtually guarantee you will become the “wicked step-parent” in their minds.  Understand why they act the way they act and let them know you understand, and you have a chance to turn from a wicked step-parent into being a compassionate human being.

I suggest that you use the FLAG PAGE® program that we have available on our website www.flagpage.com and have everybody go online and complete theirs. This is a very simple tool that we use with couples and it works great with step-families. It gives you a measurement of what makes each person tick; why they truly need to feel loved and understood. And remember: while you may know the nuances of your own kids – why they act the way the do and what their emotional buttons are – you can’t possibly know the new kids in your family the same way.  Without a map like the FLAG PAGE®, you will be walking through a mine field. Everyone has their triggers, and if you don’t know where they are, one wrong step and things blow up!

I recommend that you do the FLAG PAGE® with the whole family. Get the book Discovering Your Heart that goes with it and then sit down and talk about all of your Flag Pages together. Then you will get the understanding of why each one acts the way they act, this is what they need to feel loved and happy, and this is who they truly are. It’s still hard, but it can really help everyone understand each other. There is a printout that goes with the Flag Page and I recommend that you read these pages that you get to the family. Read them aloud so that the kids hear what’s right about them. Everyone loves to hear what’s great about them and it really does something for the kids to hear this.

Finally, go through the process explained in Discovering Your Heart of creating everyone’s Five Rules to Feel Loved. It’s a simple exercise that gives you a road map to follow for these kids. Post them on their doors and now everyone knows what the others need, how to relate to them, how to build them up and encourage them. It’s really powerful stuff. That kind of light shining into the relationships helps tremendously.

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28 Responses to “Advice on Stepfamilies”

  1. Joe Chavez says:

    I’ve been married to my wife going on 10 years in April. We are a blended family.

    Although we have had our ups and downs, life has been pretty good and fairly smooth. I’ve been blessed.

    Having said that, I can vouch for each of those bullets up there. I’ve violated (at times) each one of them and I’m here to tell you, Mark is spot-on here. The hardest lesson I’ve had to learn as a stepfather is to bite my tongue.

    Thanks for the reminder post.

    In Christ,

    Joe.

  2. Brenda Stuart says:

    We’re going on 8 years as a stepfamily. Yes, this stepfamily adventure is not for the faint of heart. But with the right resources you can beat the odds and NOT re-divorce. Check us out at http://www.restoredandremarried.com. We HIGHLY recommend the Flag Page at every seminar we do. It has helped our family to understand why we do the things we do….and it has helped us laugh!

  3. Amber says:

    Oh, yes… I now WISH I would have waited. My husband has chosen his 14 year old over us and what we set out to create for our blended family home, and yes, I am miserable. We were doing well when “OUR HOUSE” structure was being followed- then he fell back into his old ways of being the Nice Guy instead of being the parent.He is worried that if he sets down consequences to the behavior, she will not come over here. Now a 14 year old girl rules our home, disrespectfully and doing what she wants- HELP!

  4. Mary Ann says:

    Hi Mark,
    I must say although I had to learn this lesson the hard way for my Blended family..I totally Agree with you.
    I would like to Add before a Single person/Parent is ready to be remarried…I suggest taking the time to heal and learn from your mistakes…Marriage Takes three!God, Husband & Wife.
    Some faults are obvious but we all make mistakes in broken relationships.
    I also would say if you do not Love that person enough to take them and there children you have no business in marrying them.
    If you do not respect there beliefs or there Parenting ways do not be so foolish and think you are there savior and you can change them. Leave them alone and do not Get married.
    Broken Families are painful to children even if it was for the best.
    Never ever degrade a childs Parent as a step Parent or Ex spouse no matter what…..never put children in your war against eachother You tear at there being!
    Thanks for allowing me to share!

    I will say I do not think all Blended families are Hell..But I can say in My own Journey that because we did not apply these guidelines to ourselves and eachother it has been rough.
    But I trust In God and his Promise to do what only he can do as I take the lessons I learned and work on applying them.

    I would much rather share Love then fight anyday…:)!
    Mary Ann

  5. R. Smith says:

    Hi Mark,
    I have been married to my husband for almost 2 years, been with him for 4 years. He has a 7 year old daughter, and I do see that he will stick up for his daughter even when she is in the wrong. I am the only one in my step-daughters life that shows her right from wrong & i discipline her with time outs, I don’t see the need to spank her. She listens to me more, and doesn’t walk all over me like she does with both her parents.
    I find it difficult to just back off and let her father be the Parent, as he wants me to treat her as if she is mine, but in the next breath, makes it clear i have no right in any decision making or in her raising.

  6. Sharon says:

    I agree, I wish I would have waited.If the children are really little maybe, but I still am not even sure about that.I think it can only be possible if both adults are really patient and UNSELFISHand have the maturity to ralize the children will be leaving eventually!!

  7. Grace says:

    I was so disappointed by this article. I didn’t think it was at all helpful or positive. )-:

    The whole “wait until the children are grown”… I want my children to have a positive male role model NOW while they are growing, a father-figure who cares for them and provides the emotional support and male things that boys need to be exposed to to bring them up as well-rounded men. (As opposed to a father who abused them and me.)

    I also want to have a man in my life, to support and lean on, to make joint decisions with, to face the storms of life with. I want my children to see a healthy adult relationship, so that they don’t repeat the same mistakes they saw enacted in their parents’ relationship. Being alone is not good. In Genesis 2:18 “…the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.” We are created with the NEED to have someone else in our lives. It is so wearying to have no-one to turn to, no-one to share with, to be the one that the buck always stops with.
    We single parent families already have enough to mourn, the loss of a spouse/parent due to death or divorce, the loss of physical possessions due to straightened financial circumstances, the loss of work due to childcare issues, the loss of lifestyle, the loss of friends and family due to moving or estrangement, the loss of social status, the loss of self esteem… do we have to cope with the loss of hopes and dreams for ever living in a happy family too?

    I did however persevere to the end of the article, and found hope in the suggestion of making a FLAGPAGE, only to find that it cost $15 _per person_, so a total of $90 for our very impecunious blended family. )-:
    With no explanation of what exactly a flagpage is, only some glowing testimonials (which I find very dubious, how easy is it to add testimonials to add veracity to a product?)as to the magic wrought by using one, I am very hesitant to hand over money for anything unless I at least know what it is!
    Oh, and then there is the advice to buy a book as well… more money!

    This has ended up sounding like a real whinge. I am sorry for that, I had such hopes of Mark’s insight, that it is a real letdown. )-:
    I hope that others are able to respond in a more positive manner.

  8. Rhonda says:

    There is validity in this article, but if my husband had taken that stanced (he was divorced w/1 child-I had never been married), then we wouldn’t have 18 yrs. of marriage & 4 wonderful sons who are blessings. If ppl wait, then they could very well be cheated out of another chance at life, another family & happiness. God bless everyone who is past a first marriage. BTW, I was blessed w/the situation I had, but I know that unfortunately, everyone is not as blessed as I was.

  9. Wayne says:

    I’ve been teaching Biblical principles to both single adults and married couples for almost 20 years. In addition, I’ve also facilitated and directed divorce recovery programs for 15 years. I counsel with couples contemplating marriage as well as married couples in crisis. I teach and counsel on opposite sex relationship issues at a Christian drug and alcohol recovery center.

    What Mark says here is not only valid, but scriptural. God said, “It is not good for man to be alone so I’ll make a helper suitable for him.” It wasn’t good for him to be alone because without a woman it would not have been possible to propagate the human species. Also, Paul says it’s better not to marry (if you have the gift of celibacy).

    A period of being alone is absolutely healthy for any Christian IF he/she is seeking God and His will rather than their own desires. One great problem in our society today is that people haven’t been alone long enough to become content, but rather spend their time and efforts seeking another person to be a crutch. That’s Jesus’ job, enabling us, upholding us and growing us through difficult times.

    One should never take their neediness into another’s life. A person is perhaps ready for marriage after a divorce when they need no one but our Lord. Depending on another person for your happiness is setting yourself up for disappointment. Not only that, but you’re putting an unfair burden on someone you say you love. Do you depend upon your children to make you happy? Probably not.

    As I read Mark’s comments, I don’t really hear him saying that you should never remarry, but just wait until the kids are out of the house. Parents should be putting raising their children before filling a vacancy in the bedroom anyway.

    These are not words that a lonely, wounded, and needy person wants to hear. But these are words they definately need to hear. They may anger many of you, but Ben Franklin once said that “the sting in any rebuke is the truth.”

    • Kerri Pritchard says:

      Wayne,

      You have a lot of “experience” with divorcees / blended families… but have you ever WALKED IN THOSE SHOES? You seem to GENERALIZE as so many so-called experts, pastors and counselors do… and your flippant Ben Franklin quote emphasizes your judgmental – Holier-than-thou views.

  10. Vicki says:

    I am heading over to the links above right after I type this.

    You mentioned adult step-children this is what I have and I’ve really tried but it seems I am doomed to be the wicked stepmom.
    It is a difficult cituation all the way around, different than most and I do pray about it daily & have prayed about it for years.
    I know I have made a few mistakes and a lot more good steps/actions but it seems unlikely that she will ever come around.

    Do you believe there are times when you should just say enough is enough & get on without them? She has had no contact with us in 2 yrs. We have not seen the grandkids in 4 yrs. It breaks my heart.

    Thanks for any info.

    Vicki

  11. Kerri Pritchard says:

    What are the current statistics for divorced couples? Single parents? How many blended families are there? Remarriages?!? How many people in the world today are finding themselves in this situation ?!?!

    AND the advice given is to STAY SINGLE and FOCUS on your children?! That seems naively unrealistic and impractical. Tell that to the thousands in this situation…. It will land of deaf ears. (www.steptalk.org)

    I am always surprised at those (usually overly zealous religious) that are so loudly vocal in their “DO AS I SAY NOT AS I DO or have done.”

    Every situation and relationship is unique.

    To have someone that has not walked on that path to be overly generalizing for others (“wait until your children are grown”)… seems to be living in an idealistic world.

    • Kerri Pritchard says:

      Why wouldn’t the advice given be, GROW TOGETHER IN CHRIST, be teachable and learn from others in your situation, gain counsel and fellowship with other parents in blended families, rely on each other, prioritize you MARRIAGE AND FAMILY and above all love…..

  12. Mike says:

    Lots of comments from the “blenders” so far. How about one from a 50 year-old “blendee”:-) I was three years old when Mom left the United States to take me to meet her parents, who knew about her and Dad’s marriage problems and convinced her to leave him and stay with them in Europe. My parents were thus separated and later divorced. When I was nearly eight, Mom remarried and we moved back to the United States. I didn’t see my birth-father again until I was nearly nineteen years old and sought him out. That fact alone avoided the holiday issue, but I’m sure it was hard on my father, thinking Mom and I would be back in a month and then not seeing me again for sixteen years. Fortunately my blended family never had the problems you speak of. I never felt like a stepson. In fact, I have no memory of ever calling my stepfather anything other than “Dad”. I was sixteen when my birth father finally consented to let Dad adopt me and change my name, and Mom gave birth to my sister. I can honestly say that I never felt like Dad ever treated me like anything other than his own natural son and to this day I see Dad as my hero because of it. How did Dad do it? I knew he was completely committed to Mom…I KNEW he loved her, and I knew he loved me! Mom handled probably 99% of the corporal punishment (except the one time Dad used a belt…trust me, I earned it). When I was a teen, Dad would ground me (only had to do that twice…I was fairly compliant). Anyway, I think Mark makes some very valid points and I totally agree with his advice. I recognize that I am an exception and I count my blessings for it. I think the age at my parent’s separation and going cold-turkey had a lot to do with how things turned out. As a child, I had no recollection of my natural father…just an image from a photograph. Living with Mom and her parents I had a “father” figure…a strong sense of belonging to a family.

    My heart goes out to the “blenders”. Make sure your step-child KNOWS beyond a shadow of a doubt that you love and are fully committed and loyal to their birth-parent. If you can do that, then your on the same team because you can bet your life that the step-child is fully committed and loyal to their birth parent!

    Blessings to you.

    • Patti says:

      Mike, thanks so much for your “blendee” comments. I’m in a blended situation, and one of your comments struck me to the core more than anything anyone has said thus far: “Make sure your step-child KNOWS beyond a shadow of a doubt that you love and are fully committed and loyal to their birth-parent. f you can do that, then you’re on the same team because you can bet your life that the step-child is fully committed and loyal to their birth parent.”

      Positively enlightening. I get along great with one my three step-kiddoes, and I think I do exhibit the behavior you’re referring to. However, I think I never realized what an impact that has had to help us, and how if I put more emphasis on that it may help with the other two kids–focus on what’s important to THEM in their relationship with their dad.

      Thank you so much, Mike!

  13. Laura says:

    My husband and I have a family that is mostly mixed. We share one son and one grandson. My husband has 2 daughters and 8 grandchildren from his first life, I have one daughter an one son from my former life,and seven grandchildren. We took in a friends daughter who is fixin to be 17 in a couple weeks. Her mother was my best friend and was killed in a car accideent a couple years ago and to make a long story short,she is with us.We have been together 30 years, married 27 . when I have needed help, answers there has not been any human who could help me until now.Thank you, your a god sent GIFT! Life is good again thanks, I was at the end of my rope with all the hell,when I heard about you and you have helped me to get control of my life and family again.It’s not perfect but what is…Thank you for being you and so funny as well..

  14. Candy Hughes says:

    Mark – I do agree with you to a point about blended families. When my husband and I got married 20 years ago, he had 4 children and I had 3. He was married twice before me, so I had two ex-wives to deal with. We definately had our moments and I learned to deal with two other women besides the children. The kids ranged in ages from 4 – 17. But after all these years, the kids are now adults and they refer each other as brothers and sisters, not stepbrothers or stepsisters. They are really close and their children call each other cousins. The grandchildren all get along and we are all one big happy family. Of course it would have been better if we would have waited, but we would have missed out of alot of memories that we made together as a family. I know if God wasn’t in our lives and if we didn’t have the support of our extended families it would have been alot harder. I guess fear can be a big part of bringing two families together, but you have to have a strong commitment to each other to make it work. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way and I’m proud of our accomplishment of a loving normal family.

    Candy Hughes

  15. Gazelle Ruck says:

    Hi Mark

    I have been remarried for going on 3 years, and I am so pleased to see that the problems we face are actually “normal” for stepfamilies. Thank you for all you inspiration and words of wisdom. Regards, Gazelle, Johannesburg, South Africa

  16. angelic says:

    Your article was interesting to read and the advice you had for those who went on to blend their families was great. But I don’t think I really agree with the “holding off another marriage until the kids are grown and out of the house” idea. Both my husband and I have kids from previous marriages but his were grown and independent by the time we met. Mine were 18, 12 and 11 when we met. Surprisingly, his children were more resistant than mine when we first gotten together almost four years ago. To this day, his daughter has little to do with me though she did attend the wedding (I’m not sure if it’s because of her VERY independent lifestyle that limits our contact),one son accepted the situation relatively fast and he, too, made the wedding and the third one, well, he made it very clear he wasn’t attending nor supporting the marriage.
    Inside my own family, more difficulties surfaced. Though my children were accepting of my husband only my youngest daughter had the most difficulty even liking him. Our problems stemmed from our differences in parenting and a great majority revolved around my youngest and a few were about my middle child. None were about my oldest daughter since she was 18 and almost out of the house to attend college.
    I have to say, it was difficult in the early years, so difficult we attended marriage counselling and a lot of hurt feelings came out of it. We found we were breaking ALL of your guidelines for blended families…I defended my children and often would confront him in front of the kids or drag my daughter into the argument when we had differences of opinion in her. He was trying to change AND discipline them but how hard is that when I’ve raised them solo for 18 years and they ARE good kids just the normal rebellious behavior they attempted to exert…with our counselling I was able to put into words “You can’t change them when they’ve already been molded…it’s like I’ve molded the clay and put it into the oven to harden, it’s done now, and now you come into the picture and you want to break it down and change it’s form. You can’t. All that is left now is assuring peer pressure doesn’t break make them crack, dealing with it before it becomes a problem and taking corrective steps to deal with it.”
    It was probably the best thing we did. I learned and am still learning to bite my tongue and confront him away from the kids. Sometimes I hurt still hurt him with what I perceive as an innocent statement. He’s learned to let me discipline them, and after attending your LAUGH YOUR WAY TO A BETTER MARRIAGE (the third best thing we’ve done for our marriage. The second was returning to church), to just listen to me vent and to not try to “fix it” by disciplining the kids himself, thinking he was supporting me. He does give me his advice and if I agree with it we’ll approach the child and present it as a “we” decision. Do we still sometimes mess up? Yep. But as our arguments subsided and we learned to work together his relationship with my youngest daughter improved to where she will tell him “I love you.” (she even keeps a picture of them by her bed and when he said he was going to be baptized she wanted to join him). We’ve come a long ways but we knew we were committed to one another and four years ago when we began talking marriage we vowed that we would make our marriage work and not use divorce as an easy way out. Happy endings CAN AND DO happen for blended families…but there will always be a bump in the road, you just got to learn from it and keep the communication open.

  17. Lynne says:

    “Just ask most couples who have blended and families about their experience and you will probably hear the word “hell” in about 60 seconds”.

    “Best thing you can do is to wait until the kids are all out of the house and then move on to a new relationship”.

    Lived and still living the first sentence, and so wished I had heard the second sentence 4 years ago!

    Thank you Mark for the general guidelines – I had an epiphany about this exactly yesterday and your email arrived in my inbox today – I have broken them all and you are totally spot on – I am the wicked step-parent, told I am 100% to blame and the only problem in this marriage – having unwittingly volunteered for this position can I resign asap – is there hope of turning this around 3.5 years down the line?

    First thing I will be printing out the guidelines, memorizing them and implementing them, please Lord help me, strengthen me to do this as soon as possible!

    Thanks Mark for sharing your gems of wisdom!

  18. Linda Baum says:

    Bro Mark-
    what an excellent article with EXCELENT advice re: waiting for remarriage and stepchildren! I pray many will listen to this wise counsel.
    Even after 30 years…in a Christian home…with Christian children, there are still painful issues with my husband’s three, and my two, adult children. Now that we have fifteen grandchildren, the pain increases and the division is more obvious. Everyone is polite and social at forced family functions, but the tension is obviously there.
    Blending is a term created by counselors, in the ’70′s, to convince families they can create a fantasy family where all will get along and live happily ever after. Honestly, I’m not aware of any successes.
    Thanks for sharing your brilliant humor and honest ministry!

  19. Dan and Trina Arnott says:

    I think that wait, is the wrong answer. I would say take this road slow but putting your life on hold for the sake of peasing children is not the right path. Get to know each others children, set the bars high for the kids and be understanding as they impress you with their resiliance on reaching those bars. All families struggle with parenting at one time or another as NO two people completly agree on how to handle every situation involving the kids and “blended” families are no different. Respect and expect respect in return. We have struggled with the step parent role, but through these struggles we have created memories and are family has grown to include mine, his and ours..parents, cousins etc…
    Putting your life on hold and placing your happiness is not teaching your kids healthy lifestyle choices. Change in life is inevitable and teaching and showing them how to adapt with pride, love, respect and perciverance is something so valuable that can be learned when blending families.

  20. Mike Louthan says:

    I was linked to your site via a comment on my post at Focus on The Family titled Do The Children Come First in Marriage? I can tell you my journey in this process has been the most dissapointing experience in my life of 49 years. The “hands off step parent” and the “go along to get along” advice sounds wonderful but what if the choices made by the step children are costing you? My house was invaded by a 15 year old and an 18 year old. Carpets were destroyed, furniture abused,food, water and electricity wasted, doors left unlocked, ovens left on, simple household rules constantly violated, immorality conducted at will, 2 cars totalled, a step son arrested on 7 counts of felony, a high school drop out, 2 drop outs from post high school education, long periods of unemployment and now a pregnancy of a 20 year old who can’t even take care of her own headaches. The core problem, a permissive parent, a co-dependent parent, an enabler and the lack of a God/Christian centered household but rather a selfish centered pair of step children without any true direction in life despite the many efforts of this non-bio step father. The absolute necessity is that each spouse has to forsake all others (including children) for each other. If anything other than that stance is possible, you are doomed. Otherwise, get used to being known as the “door-mat” and endure what you thought was your vision of life being directed by the entity that you married.

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