How Age Affects Children's Adjustment to Stepfamilies
Wendy Rubinyi, Instructional Design Specialist — Independent Contractor; Minnell L. Tralle, Extension Educator — Family Resiliency; and Heather M. Lee, Project Manager — Extension Center for Family Development
Raising children is demanding in any family. But raising children in a blended family — a stepfamily — poses its own special challenges and tensions. Parents who bring children from a previous marriage to a new marriage need tools and resources to help their children adapt to changed conditions and create a healthy, new family unit.
One important “tool” is information on how children typically react to living in a stepfamily. Those responses vary according to children’s ages, and to their stages of physical, mental and emotional development. The more parents know about these ages and stages, the more equipped they are to respond to their children’s needs. Whether you’re a biological parent or a stepparent, the following information will help you reduce tension and improve relationships in stepfamilies.
Preschoolers (ages 2-5)
Divorce is seldom final for preschoolers. If they believe their original family may one day be reunited, remarriage poses a threat. Many preschoolers feel guilty about their parents’ divorce, with thoughts such as, “Daddy left because I was too noisy,” or “If I hadn’t been naughty, Mommy would not have gone away.”
Biological parents can help preschoolers adjust to a new family by being sensitive to their feelings, listening to them, and frequently reassuring them of their (parents’) love and continued presence in their lives. Note, however, that preschoolers’ thoughts and feelings are not easily dispelled. Just because you say something once, preschoolers might not believe it. You need to repeat things to help very young children accept what’s happening.
On the plus side, preschoolers who divide their time between their biological parents’ households adjust relatively easily to having two homes and two sets of rules. Despite this, they often still fear abandonment by the other parent following a remarriage. However, as long as both biological parents continually reassure preschoolers of their love, they handle most changes associated with living in two households fairly well.
You also need to assure preschoolers that it’s okay to love the stepparent — that this doesn’t cancel their love for their biological parent. However, understand that love for a stepparent won’t happen immediately. Again, assure preschoolers that it’s possible to love both biological parents and stepparents. Do not make preschoolers (or any child) choose between parents or families! This can delay, or even seriously damage, children’s emotional development.
Elementary School-Age Children (ages 6-10)
Like preschoolers, elementary school-age children may feel a sense of guilt over a divorce. This feeling might manifest itself in poor school performance or lack of interest in activities outside school. Children of this age often feel as if everything is out of control, so try to give them more say in their personal lives. For example, let them choose their own clothes and hairstyles and let them decorate their rooms. (Don’t forget to enforce standards, however. For example, they still need to keep their rooms neat and follow school dress codes regarding clothes and hair.)
Also remember that remarriage ends elementary school-age children’s illusions that their biological parents will get back together. This may restart the grieving process for them and cause them to neglect school or chores (and appear disorganized or lazy). If you see these signs, give children ample opportunity to talk about feelings. Let them know you understand their sense of loss.
Preteens (ages 11-12)
Adolescence is the time when children begin to pull away from the family and start to test their independence. This is also when the potential for conflict increases in stepfamilies. Psychologist Carl Pickhardt has said, “Divorce and remarriage tend to intensify the natural grievance of adolescence" (2009).
Preteens in stepfamilies will likely focus the usual resentment of adult authority that comes with adolescence on the stepparent. Pickhardt also notes that the stepparent is “an easy target for blame, since in this relationship there is no history of love — so there’s no love to lose.”
So what should the adults in a stepfamily do to smooth the family transition for preteens? Above all, remember that, despite their bid for more independence, preteens still need to know that the family will support them when they need it.
Part of a parent and stepparent’s job at this stage is to help children think through what might happen if they take various actions. Don’t make decisions for preteens, which might push them to make bad choices just to show their independence. Instead, give them “safe” options and alternatives, and then let them choose and learn from the natural consequences that follow.
If you’re a stepparent, you might be tempted to back away from interacting with preteens in order to avoid conflict. Pickhardt, however, advises the opposite. “Stepparent and adolescent actually need more contact, just the two of them together, without the [biological] parent or partner around.” This exclusive time together will give you (the stepparent) a chance to communicate, create companionship, and simply get to know each other better.
Teens (ages 13-18)
Although teens are becoming aware of their own sexuality, they often see their parents as nonsexual. As a result, teens may find a biological parent’s remarriage uncomfortable — especially if a couple shows affection for each other in the teens’ presence.
When a parent remarries, teens may also resent giving up some of the adult responsibilities they took on while they were living with one parent. Those responsibilities might have included decision making about family finances or watching over younger siblings.
Open, honest communication will help teens realize they’re still loved and valued even if the stepparent takes over some of the responsibilities they once had. You can also identify which tasks teens may want to continue doing, as well as decisions they’d still like to be part of. On the other hand, teens may welcome giving up some adult responsibilities in exchange for more time to pursue worthwhile activities of their own choice.
Still other teens may want to spend more time with the non-residential parent while they adjust to a parent’s remarriage. Be flexible and let your teens have more say about the household where they want to spend their time.
Keep children’s ages and developmental stages in mind as you decide how to deal with problems that arise in your stepfamily.
Start by asking if your child’s problem behavior is normal for his or her age and stage of development. If it’s not normal, you may need to seek professional help. However, if the behavior is normal, such as sibling rivalries or standard “teenage angst,” deal with it as you would in any family. Start by talking to your children to get to the bottom of things so you can respond appropriately.
On the other hand, some problem behavior is directly related to the stepfamily. Here are a few:
- Guilt — As noted, preschoolers and elementary school-age children are especially prone to feelings of guilt following a divorce. However, these feelings can occur in children of any ag. They think that if they had behaved “better” or done something different, the family would still be together.
- Poor self-esteem — Some children might suffer from poor self-esteem following divorce — especially if one parent abandons, or nearly abandons, them. A child might think, “Dad doesn’t love me, so how can anyone else love me?” Keep these things in mind in your dealings with your children.
- Regressive behavior — Following divorce or a parent’s remarriage, some children might revert to problem behaviors they had when they were younger, such as bed-wetting or thumb-sucking. These kinds of regressive behaviors usually disappear on their own, but if they don’t — seek professional help for your children.
Love, patience, and know-how are key to addressing all these problem behaviors. Listen to your children. Show affection. Get information and, if necessary, consult professionals. Together, you can overcome problems and create a happy, healthy stepfamily.
Ohio State University Extension. (1996). How age affects a child’s reaction to step-families. [Family and Consumer Sciences Fact Sheet No. HYG-5217-96.] Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Extension.
Pickhardt, C. (2009, September 6). Remarriage with adolescents: The perils of step relationship [Web log post].
Suggestions for Stepfamilies — It can take up to three years for a combined stepfamily to start functioning like a family. Review a summary of some of the unique challenges you’ll encounter as a stepparent and suggestions for how to approach the stepparent role.
New Families and Traditions — Transitions in family life create a unique challenge for new families.