Focus on the Family

Parenting In Blended Families

by Wendy Lawton

We sat on a daybed in the cramped housekeeping unit behind an old motel. "My husband gets out of prison in September, and we want to put our family back together." The woman speaking was the biological mother of our youngest daughter, 13-year-old Rae Lynn. Rae Lynn sat next to her mother with her head down. I could see tears rolling off her cheeks onto her knees.

From my earliest days, I had dreamed of having a perfect family. When we discovered that we were not to have the requisite flesh-of-our-flesh offspring, we watched the Lord piece together a patchwork family. It was at times like these that the traditional "woven of whole cloth" families looked mighty enticing. Especially now, when it seemed we were in for another gut-wrenching upheaval.

Rae Lynn had deeply mourned the loss of her abandoning mother and dreamed of a moment like this for nearly three years. Her imagination had conjured up a hundred ways for her mother to ask forgiveness and beg to take her back. I didn't have to ask if she wanted to live with her mother and her stepfather. No matter how scary the home situation or how much Rae Lynn loved us, she would fight to get home to her mother. Because we have legal guardianship of Rae Lynn, the courts would have the final say.

Of one thing we were sure: We couldn't keep ripping our family apart and stitching it back together again. I resolved to get through this, if we must, and move on. I looked at my husband, Keith, and saw that this was as hard for him as it was for me. Thinking about our other two children, I said to Keith, "Once the courts make the decision, it must be final. We can't continue to put the family through this kind of pain. If Rae Lynn leaves, we cannot take her back again."

Driving home after the visit, I looked in the visor mirror and saw this precious daughter struggling with dual loyalties. The Lord spoke inaudibly, but I heard Him as clearly as if His words were coming from the radio: "And how many times have I taken you back, Wendy? No matter how much pain it costs Me, My door is always open to you, is it not? Can you do less for this little one?"

It reminded me once again what a challenge it is to have a patchwork family. Not patchwork in the sense of the carefully constructed quilting patterns like Jacob's Ladder, Road to Oklahoma and Wedding Ring. We're more like the crazy quilt that was popular in Victorian days. Made of odd-shaped patches of worn velvets, silks, corduroys and wools, the pieces are randomly stitched together, then richly embroidered.

Irregular Pieces

The most intriguing feature of a crazy quilt is the irregular patchwork. Open-door families are like that. Whether the family is blended by marriage, built by adoption or foster parenting, or even created in a group-home setting, the unexpected shapes result in a beautiful pattern. In Matthew 25:34-40 we are called to reach out to those the Lord referred to as "the least of these." It may disrupt the seamless composition of a traditional family, and it may leave us open for heartache, but the blessings can far outweigh the pain.

Running a hand across the variety of textures in the patchwork — nubby corduroy, well-worn wool, slippery silk, plush velvet — exposes the richness of their combination. Because patchwork families don't share genetic traits, sometimes the diversity is striking. All families have differences in temperament and personality, but they're more noticeable in brothers and sisters who weren't raised together from babyhood or who don't share a common childhood. In our family, we not only enjoy these different textures, but our colors add interest as well, from fair-haired and blue-eyed to brown-skinned with black eyes.

The more intricate a pattern, the more it says about the quilt maker. Just as a much-worn patch from an heirloom quilt inspires a memory ("This blue wool was from the dress Grandma wore when she met Grandpa"), our patchwork family is a living reminder of God's love. I look at my oldest daughter and thank God for the miracle that brought her into our life. Seeing our 6-foot-tall, 16-year-old son peering into the refrigerator, I'm reminded of the baby picture — clipped from a magazine and taped to a long-ago refrigerator as a commitment to pray for another child to adopt. And when I look at Rae Lynn, I remember that God sometimes unexpectedly gives us the most wonderful gifts.

The real magic of a crazy quilt happens when the quilt maker embroiders the pieces. Over the top of every seam is an intricate design of multi-colored embroidery. I've seen quilts that never repeat the same embroidery stitch, going from delicate feather stitches to blanket stitches to lazy daisy chains. What a miracle to learn that when God stitches a family together, the thread that connects is stronger than shared genetics. It's the thread of love.

God's Own Patchwork Family

A similar crazy quilt construction is evident throughout history as God keeps His door open to His children. From the fall of Adam and Eve through the blending of foreign marriages into the line of David, from the covenant with the Jews to the New Covenant, it's a fascinating patchwork. On those days when I yearn for an uncomplicated family woven of whole cloth, I picture the complexity and beauty of that crazy biblical quilt. Opening the door of our home — and the heart of our family — is kingdom work.

Rae Lynn is still with us. Her mother has not yet acted on her intentions. If Rae Lynn leaves, it will feel as if a hole has been torn in the fabric of our family, but we'll keep the relationship open. As the Lord reminded me that day in the car, we need to be ready to piece her back into this patchwork family if the time comes. The emerging pattern may be uncertain, but we continue to trust the Quilt Maker.

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Smart Stepparenting

Contrary to what you may think, smart stepparenting is a two-person task.

by Ron Deal

Parenting in stepfamilies is a two, three, or four-person (sometimes more!) dance. Parent-stepparent harmony is the crux of successful parenting within your home. The two most critical relationships in any stepfamily home are the marriage and the stepparent-stepchildren relationships.

The marriage must be strong to endure the many pressures that stepfamily couples face and provide the backbone to stepfamily stability. Almost as important is the stepparent-stepchildren relationship. The stepparent's role in the family is critical because it dramatically affects the level of stress in children. Less stress in children equals more harmony with stepparents; that in turn leads to more harmony in the marriage.

Many people assume incorrectly that stepparenting is the sole responsibility of the stepparent. This assumption pits husband and wife against one another when the stepparent flounders or upsets the children. On the contrary, stepparenting is a two-person task.

Biological parents and stepparents must work out roles that complement one another and play to each other's strengths. Just as in two-biological parent homes, parents and stepparents must be unified in goals and work together as a team. Stepparents who are struggling need biological parents who will step up to the plate.

Stepparents and biological parents do not function in a vacuum, isolated from one another. In fact, what is needed most is a working alliance between the parent and stepparent that helps to clarify the stepparent’s role. Smart stepparenting means planning and parenting together.

Rewards & Challenges

No one ever dreams of growing up and becoming a stepparent. It's just not part of our "and they lived happily ever after" fantasy. Nor does society teach us an effective stepparent role. We make it up as we go.

"I feel more like a maid than a mother."

But not all children feel negatively toward stepparents.

When I was four years old my father died, and two years later my mother met my stepdad. There were six of us kids to raise, plus he had three from his previous marriage. When they got married he helped her raise us and treated us like his very own kids. I never knew my father; Ted is the only real father I ever knew. Though we have had our ups and downs I would never trade him for any other father in the world. Stepdaughter

Please remember when the "going gets tough" that all the hard work and discomfort of stepparenting can pay off. It probably won't live up to the fantasy you have created, but it can be pretty good. Remember, there are both rewards and challenges; only determination will bring rewards.

Be Patient!

General stepfamily integration and bonding with a stepchild hardly ever happens as quickly as adults want it to. It just doesn't happen on their timetable. Stepfamily researcher James Bray discovered that stepfamilies don't begin to think or act like a family until the end of the second or third year.1 Furthermore, Patricia Papernow, author of the book Becoming a Stepfamily, discovered that it takes the average stepfamily seven years to integrate sufficiently to experience intimacy and authenticity in step relationships.2

Fast families can accomplish this in four years, if the children are young and the adults are intentional about bringing their family together. However, slow families, according to Papernow, can take nine or more years. In my experience, very few adults come into their stepfamily believing it will take this long. They want a quick, painless blending process. In fact, if they had known the journey would take so long, they might not have signed on in the first place.

So why does it take so long to combine a stepfamily and bond with a stepchild? Here are a few reasons:

Bewildered by the scenario, I asked for more information. He had become this girl's second stepfather after her mother divorced a second husband. The girl's biological father was uninvolved in her life, leaving a deep wound in her heart. Her first stepfather was aloof, distant and critical.

I suggested to the gentleman that, because of them, he had two strikes against him when he remarried her mother. But the real clincher came when I asked how long he had attempted to win his stepdaughter's heart. Three months. You see, he simply didn't take into consideration all that this girl had been through and how long it takes for step relationships to develop. His intentions were good. His actions were on target. He just wasn't patient enough.

Qualities of Effective Stepparents

The attitudes and expectations you carry either make bonding with a stepchild easier or more difficult. In addition, there are many factors that, in truth, have very little to do with you, and everything to do with the child and his or her other relationships and past.

Finding a map for your stepfamily journey means understanding the factors that make or break your place in the home. Keep reading to continue pulling the pieces together.

Enjoy the Relationship You Have Now

The cardinal rule for stepparent bonding is to let the children set the pace for their relationship with you.

Effective stepparents know that building a connection with stepchildren takes time, yet they don't emphasize "deepening the bond" to the point that they miss the relationship they currently have. Learn to find the nuggets of good in the relationship you have now. Be patient and keep seeking to grow with your stepchildren, but don’t add too much pressure.

Have Realistic Expectations

Parents and stepparents tend to assume that children want a close, warm relationship with the stepparent. Biological parents want their children to be happy with their choice of mate, and stepparents assume they need to be someone special to the children. Kids say otherwise.

When asked how the stepparent role should be performed, parents and stepparents generally envision the role in similar ways. In one study, close to half of them said the ideal stepparent role should be one of "parent" as opposed to "stepparent" or "friend." In contrast, 40 percent of stepchildren identified "friend" as the ideal role. Far fewer children thought a "parent" role was ideal.3 "Parents" give hugs and expect obedience to their rules; "friends" offer support and encourage positive values in a child's life.

Stepparents need to learn to relax into their role and not expect too much of themselves. To expect too much is to set themselves up for disappointment and frustration. Biological parents also need to relax and let stepparents and stepchildren carve out their relationship.

James Bray discovered that most stepchildren in the early years of stepfamily life view the stepparent like a coach or camp counselor.4 Such people have limited authority with children and provide instruction, but they are not "parents." However, just because your stepchildren don't give you unsolicited hugs does not mean you don't have a decent relationship. Having stepchildren who talk to you only when they want something is not an indication that you are a poor stepparent. It represents where you are today. Relax and trust that the relationship will grow over time.

1James Bray, Stepfamilies: Love, Marriage, and Parenting in the First Decade (New York: Broadway Books, 1998.
2Patricia Papernow, Becoming a Stepfamily: Patterns of Development in Remarried Families (New York: Gardner Press, 1993
3Fine, M. (1997, Fall). The Role of the Stepparent: How Similar are the Views of Stepparents, Parents, and Stepchildren? Stepfamilies Quarterly [online]. Available:
4James Bray, (1998). Stepfamilies: Love, Marriage, and Parenting in the First Decade (New York: Broadway Books).

Stepparenting: It Takes Two

Contrary to what you may think, stepparenting is a two-person task.

by Ron Deal

Grow into Your Role

Stepparenting changes as relationships grow.

"Early in remarriage, the most successful stepparent-stepchild relationships are those where the stepparent focuses first on the development of a warm, friendly interaction style with the stepchild. Once a foundation of mutual respect and affection is established, stepparents who then attempt to assume a disciplinarian role are less likely to meet with resentment from the stepchild."1

Closeness and the authority to discipline develop over time, and neither should be rushed. For example, stepparents are often eager to build a relationship and commonly seek one-on-one activities with stepchildren. But for a time, stepchildren are often uncomfortable being alone with a stepparent.

The research evidence suggests that the best stepparent initially works through and with the children's parent.

Move Gradually into Discipline

The ability to lead and influence children comes the old-fashioned way — you earn it. Trust, respect and honor grow out of a relational history, and there is no quick way to establish that. Stepparents must be dedicated to building a relationship over time.

Effective stepparents gradually move into disciplinary roles. Power comes with relationship and grows over time. Let's look at three positive relationship styles that give way to parental authority.

1. The baby-sitter role. Baby-sitters have power to manage children only if parents give them power. When our favorite baby-sitter, Amy, comes to watch our three boys, I remind them in front of her that she is in charge while we're away. "She knows the rules and if you disobey her, you are disobeying me. She has my permission to enforce the consequences. Plus, she'll tell me about it later and you'll have to deal with me, too." After saying this before a number of date nights, my kids now finish the sentence before me. "We know, we know. Amy's in charge."

2. The "uncle/aunt" role. After a moderate relationship has developed, stepparents can move into the "uncle or aunt" stepparenting role. If my sister comes to my house and Nan and I are away for a few hours, she carries some authority with my children simply because she's their aunt. She is not a full-fledged parent but carries power through her extended family kinship. Stepparents can gradually gain a basic level of respect that allows children to accept them as extended family members by marriage. Stepparents can become more authoritative: clearly communicating limits and encouraging family discussion of rules. Furthermore, as personal bonds deepen, shows of affection and appreciation can become more common. One-on-one activities can become more frequent and personal connections increase.

3. The "parent" or stepparent role. Eventually, some stepparents will gain "parental" status with some stepchildren. Younger children tend to grant stepparents parental status much more quickly than adolescents. It is quite common to be considered a baby-sitter by an older child, an aunt by a middle child, and a parent by the youngest child. These roles can be confusing so be sure you and your spouse are a solid parenting team. Discuss circumstances often and work together to make changes over time.

Make Your Marriage a Priority

Stress in a stepfamily generally divides people along biological lines. When push comes to shove, the allegiance (or loyalty) between parents and children often wins out over the marriage unless the couple can form a unified position of leadership. If they cannot govern the family as a team, the household is headed for anger, jealousy, and unacceptance.

Unity within the couple's relationship bridges the emotional gap between the stepparent and stepchildren and positions both adults to lead the family. If a biological parent is not willing to build such a bridge with the stepparent, the stepchildren will receive an unhealthy amount of power in the home. All they have to do is cry "unfair" and their parent protects them from the "mean, nasty" stepparent. This almost always results in marital tension, conflict, resentment, and isolation.

Now let me balance this truth by noting that biological parents must take a "both/and" stance with their children and new spouse. They must invest time and energy in both. Early in the remarriage, for example, it is especially important to stay connected with your children. But eventually the marriage must be made a priority, even in front of the children.

Key Points to Remember

Recognize the Losses of Your Stepchildren

No one in stepfamilies experiences more loss than children. This truth is difficult for most adults to recognize simply because they are consumed with their own losses. It's human nature to notice our own wounds more than someone else's. Yet children, because of a lack of maturity and coping skills, need more help processing their grief than adults.

The death of a parent or a parental divorce means children lose control of their lives, lose contact with parents, grandparents and siblings, and lose continuity to living arrangements and routines.2 Life in a single-parent family and stepfamily is full of transition and change.

Here are just a few changes that bring loss to children:

This list doesn't begin to capture the kinds of changes (losses) forced upon children when families end and begin. And some changes have greater impact than others.

For example, couples need to realize that marriage for them is a gain, but for their children it is another loss. This important truth — that remarriage often disrupts the parent-child bond and produces insecurity in children — is not intended to make you feel guilty. If you are a parent, you need to understand the impact loss has on your children. If you are a stepparent, you need to empathize with — not resent — your stepchildren's grief.

I believe that one of the hardest things children in stepfamilies must learn is to share a parent with a stepparent or stepsiblings. They've lost so much already, it's understandable why they would resist "losing" another parent. To protect their relationships, children may push away a stepparent. This brings about competition and insecurity, especially if a stepparent takes the threat personally.

I wish I could count the number of stepparents who have described their stepchildren as "jealous" and "trying to be manipulative." I respond with, "I know that's what it looks like on the outside, but what they are on the inside is hurt. These children have experienced a great deal of loss in the past and that makes them scared of more hurt. One of the things they fear most is losing their parent to you. Don't get hooked into competing for time. You're the adult. Back away every once in a while and give them exclusive time with their parent so they don't fear you quite so much. Someday, when they allow you in, you can share time with their parent more equitably."

Respect and be aware of how previous losses creates fear in children.

1Pasley, K., Dollahite, D., & Ihinger-Tallman, M. (2000). What We Know About the Role of the Stepparent. Stepfamilies Quarterly [online]. Available:
2Visher, E. B. & Visher, J.S. (1988). Old Loyalties, New Ties: Therapeutic Strategies with Stepfamilies. New York: Brunner/Mazel.

The Smart Stepparent

How to discover your place in your stepchild's life.

by Ron Deal

We all like to know what is expected of us, especially regarding our family roles. Stepparents often discover that the ambiguous nature of their role leads to great frustration. Being a smart stepparent starts by knowing your place in the family.

Jennifer, now a 28-year-old mother, reflects on how awkward it was at 13 to embrace her mother's new marriage and the family's move to a small Arkansas community. "It took me years to appreciate what my stepfather did for me," Jennifer says. "He provided for us and loved me — even when I wouldn't give him any credit. I just couldn't let myself love him for a while. But eventually I relaxed and let him in, and now we have an awesome relationship. What a blessing he has been in my life."

Finding your fit may not be easy, but take time and be patient. As your role becomes clearer, you can confidently begin building a closer relationship with your new children.

First, recognize that you are an added parent figure in the child's life; you are not a replacement parent. A child who feels that his biological parent is being displaced will resist your influence. Honor and encourage the biological connection.

Second, realize that a child's openness to you determines the pace at which you are allowed into his heart. While acting in loving ways facilitates bonding, the child’s level of openness largely depends on factors that are out of your control: the age of the child, his relationship with the other parent, the amount of time spent in the stepparent's home. So flexibility is the key to finding the right stepparenting fit. Listen to the child's openness cues and respond in kind. For example, if the child calls you "Mommy" or "Daddy," by all means allow it; if that label isn’t comfortable for the child, don't demand he use it.

As the emotional connection with a child develops over time, stepparents move through a progression of roles.

The baby sitter role

An adult can enjoy relational authority only after a child has developed an emotional attachment. Stepparents must earn this level of influence over time; it cannot be demanded. Until then, accept that you are limited to positional authority like that of a teacher, coach or baby sitter.

A baby sitter has influence only if it is given by parents who tell the children that the sitter is in charge while they are away. The same is initially true for stepparents. A biological father, for example, can empower a stepmother by saying, "She knows the rules, and if you disobey her, you are disobeying me. She has my permission to enforce the consequences." This borrowed authority allows stepparents behavioral management of children while they initially focus their energy on relationship building.

The uncle/aunt role

When a moderate relationship has developed, stepparents can relate to the child like an uncle or aunt. When my sister Cherilyn visits, she carries some authority with my children because she’s their aunt. She is not a full-fledged parent in their hearts, but she carries a unique influence because she’s family.

When stepparents achieve this level of connection, they can become more authoritative, deepen emotional bonds and share greater affection with the child.

The parent role

Eventually, stepparents may gain significant parental authority with some stepchildren. Younger children tend to grant stepparents this status more quickly than adolescents.

The friend or mentor role

Stepparents who have limited visitation or have adult stepchildren often find that being a friend or mentor works best. Their role is much like a father-in-law who seeks to encourage and support without overstepping boundaries.

Like the gradual acceleration of a train, stepparents slowly gain momentum, moving from a minor role in a child's life to progressively more influential ones. The challenge is to accept your current level of relationship while optimistically moving forward.

Next Steps and Related Information

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