A stepfamily is a family in which one or both adult members have a child or children from previous partners. If a member of the family is not the biological parent of the child, they are called stepfather or stepmother respectively. If each member of the couple has their own children from previous relationships, the children are referred to as stepbrothers or stepsisters. In past years the term only applied to married couples, but nowadays it can refer to unmarried partners living together with their children.
Despite the fact that exact statistics are not available, it is estimated that in the United States 1,300 new families are formed every day. The US Bureau of Census states that more than half of the families have remarried or re-coupled and 50% of the marriages will end in divorce. It estimates that three out of four divorced people will remarry and an estimated half of all children under the age of 13 live with one biological parent and their new partner.
In her book Becoming A Stepfamily: Patterns of Development in Remarried Families (1993), Patricia Papernow, a psychologist and a board member for the National Stepfamily Resource Center, claims that there are seven stages of development in stepfamilies. This includes three early stages – fantasy, immersion and awareness; two middle stages – mobilization and action; and two later stages – contact and resolution. In the fantasy stage, the parents hope to deal with the pain from a divorce and the child longs to bring his or her parents back together. During the immersion stage of development, both the parents and the child realize the facts and may oppose them by feeling angry, sad or inadequate. The awareness stage gives members of the family the strength to talk about their feelings and start dealing with them.
The middle stages are characterized by initial arguments and fights on trivial subjects and by laying new family rules that apply to all members. The new rules form the basis for the new family and enable it to function. Dr. Papernow explains how "a honeymoon" defines the contact stage. During this stage stepparents and stepchildren begin to co-operate with each other. The final stage resolution is characterized by solid and harmonious relationships between different members of the family, where each member feels comfortable with the current situation. In most cases it will take four to seven years for an average family to go through these stages of development.
Another view into successfully building a stepfamily is to recognizing that it is different from a biological family. Clinical psychologist and marriage counselor Genevieve Clapp identifies and explains three major differences in her book Divorce and New Beginnings (1992). The first one is that there are clear-cut identities in traditional families, whereas in stepfamilies naming the members of the family can vary. In research carried out by sociologist Frank Fustenberg and his associates at the University of Pennsylvania, members of stepfamilies were asked to name the people who belong to their family.
One-third of the children questioned by Fustenberg and his colleagues did not include a stepparent and 41% excluded a stepsibling from the list. Surprisingly, 15 percent of the adult members did not list a stepchild, who lived with them. The second difference is that stepparents are uncertain about their role in a stepchild's life. They do not feel comfortable with setting restrictions, giving advice, delegating housework and communicating in general. This uncertainty is based on fear that they might interfere with the child-biological parent relationship and unwittingly "trespass" into forbidden territory. The third and final difference is that a stepfamily does not function autonomously. Usually, in such families the other biological parent also has a part to play, particularly as far as the children are concerned.
The major problem which stepfamilies face is building trust and respect between stepchildren and their non-biological parent. Psychologists advise parents to try to build rapport with children slowly and gently and to make sure that stepchildren do not feel under pressure to accept the new parent. It is important that parents and stepparents react in similar ways, stick to the same rules and try to make the child's life as predictable as possible. In time, children will get used to the new lifestyle and will be more co-operative if they know what to expect from their stepparents.