Mayo Clinic Health Library

Stepfamilies: How to help your child adjust

Updated: 09-22-2012

Relationships in stepfamilies can be complicated. When a new stepfamily forms, each family member faces a unique set of challenges and potential sources of stress. 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 overcome these hurdles 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 stills harbors hope that you and your ex-spouse will reunite. Similarly, 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

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.

Remember, too, that a child entering a newly blended family might feel torn between the parent with whom he or she lives and the other parent. Respect your child's feelings, and 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 be difficult for a child to learn how to navigate relationships with a new stepparent or stepsiblings.

To help your child form these bonds, you might identify shared interests among members of your blended family. Encourage your child to spend time getting to know his or her new family members. Be careful to let the new relationships develop at their own pace, however.

If your child criticizes his or her stepparent, try not to overreact. Take comfort in the fact that if the stepparent is sincere in his or her effort to build a relationship, positive feelings will likely outweigh negative ones eventually.

Encourage respect

It can take a couple of years — or even longer — for a new stepfamily to adjust to living together.

Don't pressure your child or other family members to make new relationships work right away. Instead, encourage all family members to treat each other with decency and respect.

Make decisions as a team

Think of your blended family as a unit. Consider holding regular family meetings to discuss problems and come up with positive solutions as a team.

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 provider 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
  • 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 stepparent
  • Your child frequently cries or begins to withdraw
  • Family members derive no pleasure from typical enjoyable activities, such as being with friends

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 bonds that'll last a lifetime.