The Reality of Step-Families

Terry Top

February 27, 2019

Remember the Brady Bunch? Carol had three girls and Mike had three boys. On a hunch they married to form one big happy family. America watched faithfully as the family faced one silly crisis after another, but within 30 minutes all was well again.

The fantasy of the “Brady Bunch” often creates unrealistic expectations for real blended families. Many people enter step-families thinking that the same rules apply as first-time families. Instead, disappointment, anger, and bitterness can be the result.

Blended Family Challenges

One third of the USA population lives in a blended family. These families will face some unique challenges:

  • Children may feel that if they accept the new step-parent they will be disloyal to the absent biological parent. Emotional ties with biological family members can often create divisions along first family lines.
  • The newly married couple may differ on how to raise/discipline children as they try to merge different family styles and histories. Step-parents often try to assume an authoritative role with step-children too quickly before an emotional tie has been formed and they have “earned" the right to parent.
  • The other biological parent may try to sabotage the newly formed family out of anger or jealousy. While the loss of the first family is painful, the most damaging thing for children is ongoing conflict between the adults they love.
  • Family boundaries must be flexible enough to include multiple family groups living in different locations. Households need to expand or contract to include family members that are present during the week, on weekends, or holidays.

Suggestions for navigating the challenges:

  1. Normalize the loyalty confusion that family members are experiencing. Reassure children that the step-parent is not trying to replace the biological parent. Encourage the child to find a new spot in her heart for the step-parent that doesn’t compete with the biological parent.
  2. Parents cannot require children to love the step-parent or step-siblings, but they can require being courteous and civil.
  3. It is often helpful if the amount of change is regulated so that members are not overwhelmed trying to make too many adjustments simultaneously.
  4. Try to lower conflict with other households of the family whenever possible. Differences between divorced parents need to be resolved without putting the children in the middle.
  5. Parents need to keep having individual time with their biological children apart from the new family members. Some of the old family traditions need to be continued so that members don’t feel like they have lost all of their past connections.
  6. Communication needs to be honest and open to avoid unresolved issues from festering. This requires a lot of grace and tolerance.
  7. Try to stay positive and supportive while avoiding harsh criticism.
  8. Pray for your family. God is the only one who can soften and change hearts. God is faithful. Deuteronomy 31:6 reminds us to "Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.”

Not all step-family relationships can negotiate this challenging work. It requires a great deal of maturity and skill. Even the best of us will likely need some help in the process. Professional counseling from a family therapist experienced in working with step-families can greatly enhance the chances of success and happiness. Let God's grace guide your interactions and lean on his word for wisdom.

About the author — Terry Top

Terry Top, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) in Illinois and Indiana, has worked at New Leaf Resources for 27 years and also serves as the Executive Director. His areas of interest include marital, family and relationship issues including blended families and divorce situations. New Leaf Resources is a nonprofit counseling center with offices in Lansing, IL, Crown Point and Wheatfield, IN. For more information, call (708) 895-7310 or visit

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