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Patricia Papernow, EDD

Meeting the (Big!) Challenges of “Blended Families”

Forty-two percent of Americans have a close stepfamily relationship! This means that, whether you work with individuals, couples, or families, with kids or with adults of any age, you likely have clients struggling with stepfamily dynamics.

Delving into a Blended Family Scenario

Mia, a stepmom, and her partner Jim are talking. Jim’s daughter Jenny is on the bus from school, full of stories about her day. Jenny needs to tell her stories to her daddy, not her stepmom. She bursts in the door, “Daddy, Daddy, you wouldn’t believe…” What does Jim do? He does what any good parent would do. He turns to his daughter. Jim feels visible and needed and engaged. But at that very same moment, Mia is suddenly completely left out. This happens over and over and over again in a stepfamily. Later when Mia says, with some irritation, “You did it again! You let Mia interrupt us!” Jim, now torn between his wife and his daughter, gets defensive, “What’s your problem? She’s my daughter!” Jim and Mia go to sleep both feeling very alone.

What happened here is rooted in the fact that stepfamily structure differs fundamentally from a first-time family. Whether you are working with this couple, with either Jim or Mia as individual clients, with the kids in this stepfamily, or with their grandparents, you need to know that stepfamily structure makes five major challenges, all of which make intense feelings in most humans.

Jim and Mia are struggling with the insider/outsider challenge: Stepparent-stepchild relationships are extremely important to children’s wellbeing. However, for most kids, the secure base is their parent, not their stepparent. So, kids often need to reach for their parent, not their stepparent. As a result, when a child is present, stepparents are often stuck outsiders, feeling invisible and rejected. Parents are stuck insiders, feeling torn and anxious about not being able to please all the people they love. Here are the other four challenges:

- Children in stepfamilies often struggle with multiple losses, intensified loyalty binds, and too much change.

- Parenting and stepparenting are different. Both are important. But parenting tasks constantly divide parents and stepparents.

- The family must create a new sense of “us” while respecting at least two deeply rooted pre-existing cultures.

- And, finally, at least one other parent and ex-partner, dead or alive, outside the household is a permanent part of all stepfamilies.

We now have over four decades of research and clinical experience that tell us a lot about meeting each of these challenges. Therapists who recognize these challenges, and who know what works and what doesn’t to meet them, can be incredibly helpful. However, all too often therapists try to help stepfamily members using their first-time family map. This is a bit like driving around Los Angeles with a map of Indianapolis. It all too often leaves clients feeling even more frustrated, ashamed, and inadequate. Most concerning, despite all of this, very few therapists ever receive any specific training in working with stepfamily dynamics.

Here are ways we can help Jim and Mia with their insider/outsider challenge:

1. Supply plenty of empathy to all sides. It’s often in short supply.

  - If I am sitting with this couple, I might say to Mia, knowing Jim is listening, “It is so hard being left out, over and over, up close and personal.”  And to Jim, knowing Mia is listening, “It is so hard feeling torn — when you turn to your kids, you have to turn away from your sweetie, and vice versa.”

2. Provide some psychoeducation about the impact of stepfamily structure.

  - “This isn’t happening because you don’t love each other, though it may feel that way. It’s happening because you live in a different kind of family, a stepfamily. In this kind of family one of you is a parent with strong longstanding attachment and shared history with your kids. The other is a stepparent, without either. Stepparents are very important to kids’ wellbeing. But often, kids need their parent, not their stepparent. That makes you, Mia, a stuck outsider over and over. And you, Jim, a stuck insider over and over. It’s normal for stuck outsiders to feel left out and invisible. And it’s pretty normal for stuck insiders to feel torn and anxious.”  “What’s that like to hear from me?”  If they say “a relief,” I may ask them to turn to each other and share their relief with each other.

3. If you are working with a couple, once you have given them some understanding of the impact of this structure on each of them, help them to slow down and empathize with each other so they each feel held by the other. Your training in couples therapy applies here. In my workshops I teach some of my own ways of doing this.

4. Encourage step-couples to carve out both “family time” and regular reliable alone time for each subsystem–this is a very concrete way to help.

  - Doing fun things as a new family is very important for stepfamilies. AND carving out regular, reliable time one-to-one for the couple and for parent-child relationships maintains regulating nourishing attachment without competition. In addition, stepparent-stepchild alone time doing fun things together, without the parent, enables these new relationships to begin building.

5. If reactivity remains high (or low) consider getting curious about “old bruises” that may be making these challenges especially painful. Always begin by validating the very real power of the structure to create intense feelings in all humans.

  - “Mia, nobody would like to be left out all the time, up close and personal.Or, “Jim, nobody would like feeling caught between the needs of the people you care about — when you turn to your sweetie your kids are unhappy. And when you turn to your kids, your sweetie is unhappy.”

  - “Nobody would like this. AND something is driving your wise mind right offline, just when you really need it! Is there maybe something familiar to you [to stepparent] about being left out or ignored?” [Or to parent] “…about feeling you can’t please the people you care about?

  - “You’ll never like this. But if we can heal that old bruise, you will have a lot more resources available to meet this hard challenge.”

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