Therapist Kit Baker directs his thoughts to kids in this article, but his advice can apply to adults in stepfamilies, too.
Here’s the situation: Your parents are divorced, maybe for a year now, maybe for as long as you can remember. You’ve become used to things being a certain way in your home and family.
Then one day, your parent starts dating again and falls in love. Perhaps the person your parent is dating also has kids.
Maybe you really like your parent’s new love interest and get along with their kids. Maybe you realize early on how much your personality clashes with the other kids or the love interest. Or, perhaps you only like them in small amounts and they quickly get on your nerves.
Before you know it, your parent is marrying this person and your world, as you know it, is turned completely upside down. New people have moved into your house, or you’re moving into their house, possibly leaving behind friends, school, and your life as you know it, for better or for worse.
You now find yourself living with new people with their own ways of doing things, their own history, their own quirks, and their own drama. You are now what’s called a blended family, or stepfamily.
Whether you’ve been in a stepfamily for a good chunk of your life or you’re just starting out, learning how to get along with a stepparent and stepsiblings can be pretty tricky. Here are some points that I share with my clients that will hopefully help.
(Please note I’m not addressing what to do about stepparents who are hurtful or abusive, because that is a topic for another time. If there is actual abuse taking place in your new family, please get help by reporting it to a trusted adult!)
You probably have some very important questions. For example, what do you call this new person taking on the role of “parent”? What kinds of rules will you have? Where will you go for holidays? Are you betraying your other parent? These are just a few of the questions that come up. They will need to be talked about.
1. Allow Time to Build Relationships
The first thing to keep in mind is these new people in your life are just as nervous and insecure as you are. They are undoubtedly feeling many of the same things you are. It’s okay if you don’t like each other that much or if you feel resentful over the sudden changes. Building relationships takes time, especially with people you are suddenly forced to live with.
2. Find Common Ground
Don’t expect to be best friends right away with a stepparent or stepsiblings. You can, however, start by focusing on common interests and looking for things that you have in common.
Along with that, take the time to listen to their stories and to learn about their lives and interests.
3. Expect New Rules and Routines
Do know there will be new rules put in place. At the very least, routines and ways of doing things will change. Some of these changes will be for the better, and some will definitely be for the worse.
Change is hard. It is natural to resist change, even when it’s for the better, simply because change is hard. You can choose to be stubborn, let resentment fester inside of you, and misbehave to show exactly what you think of the situation. But be honest, how helpful will any of that be?
Or you can decide that it is okay to give the new rules and new ways of doing things a try.
If it turns out these changes are for the better, awesome!
If not, you can call a family council for a discussion.
Remember to always, always, always be respectful when presenting your case. You obviously want the time to express your view points. So will everyone else. Remember, your new family members are most likely dealing with the same struggles you are.
There may be issues that family councils cannot resolve. If that is the case, it is helpful to seek professional help from a qualified therapist in the form of family counseling. A family therapist will be trained in various relational patterns. (Your parent can schedule a free consultation with me or another therapist by calling our team at 801-855-7999.)
If you don’t feel quite ready to go that route, you can also talk to your clergy for guidance. Regardless, make sure to get outside help if you and your new family seem unable to resolve differences on your own.
Relationships take time. Stepfamilies can be especially challenging. The payoff is well worth the work, though. Over time, and with much effort, you may come to forget you are a stepfamily. Instead, you will come to think of your stepsiblings as your “real” siblings and your stepparents as your “real” parents.
Kit Baker grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, and holds a master’s degree in Marital and Family Therapy. Kit works very well with kids and teens who feel like they don’t “fit in” and who face challenges such as depression, anxiety, family conflict, abuse, self harm, and many others. (Read Kit’s excellent article, “Ask a Therapist: How Can I Fit in Better at School?“) In his free time, Kit enjoys watching sci-fi shows and cooking, especially Southern dishes.