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Stepfamilies...How do the Children Feel?

Children often enter a stepfamily situation still processing the loss and grief of their first family. Parents may view the process as a merger, but to children it’s more like a hostile takeover where they have little choice. For this new family to work, an understanding of and compassion for the kinds of feelings children experience is a crucial starting point.

Grief: Coming to terms with the reality that things will never be the same is a difficult process for anyone, especially for children who don’t have the comfort of experience to guide them. As adults, we have learned over time that what is lost can be replaced, and that change, although painful, will yield new opportunities. Children have to be guided through this challenging process with lots of support and reassurance. Ultimately, adults are their anchors in an insecure world. For the stepparent, this may mean patience in waiting to form a bond or relationship, giving the child ample room to grieve and adjust.

Anger, Fear and Loss of Control: Children are often fearful and angry about all the changes they have to face in forming a new family. They often wonder after all that has changed, when will it stop? What can they truly count on? Adults need to offer reassurance that these kinds of feelings are normal, and you will help them get through them. If at times these feelings erupt into poor or negative behavior (which will likely happen!) then make sure to talk about the feelings that precipitated the behavior- as well as apply discipline.

Loyalty Issues: As we all know, the experience of divorce often leaves children ‘trapped in the middle’ between two conflictual parents. When a stepfamily is formed, there are even more opportunities for this kind of discomfort. Can I like my stepparent if my parent doesn’t? Can I talk about what I do with my stepparent or will that hurt someone’s feelings? What if one of my parents is happy and the other isn’t- what should I do? These are the questions that many stepchildren are faced with, too scared to utter aloud.

Children need to know that it’s ok to like or love more than one adult: that their feelings for one person need not diminish the feelings for another. Adults need to openly and often assert this fact. Only then will loyalty conflicts ease and family relations improve.

Patience and Understanding are Key: Research has suggested that satisfaction for all members of a new stepfamily unit is typically low at first, but can improve over time with attention to the issues that present themselves. Adults need to focus on the process of forming a new, rather than striving for an instant outcome. They also need to make sure they often look at the unfolding situation through the eyes of their children and stepchildren.


April is a Calgary Psychologist with a specialty in stepfamilies. She is starting a free support group for stepmoms, please call 714-2529 for more info, email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., web: http://www.

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