Blended Families — 08 June 2007
The challenge of being a stepparent to adult children

Developing a good relationship with stepchildren living at home is a challenge. However, it is not nearly as complex as forging a healthy relationship with adult stepchildren.

Your new partner’s adult children have many psychological incentives to object, rebuff, and deny your inclusion in the family. They have had an earlier family. Whether it was good or bad, it was their main framework of connection. Now they are struggling, not by their own choice, with reorienting themselves to a new expanded definition of their family.

You may be viewed as the new influence in their parent’s life, which may render their connection as secondary. They may even fear that you may obstruct their access to their parent.

These adult children have not selected you and are not in love with you, as their parent is. So you may be viewed as a powerful adversary. Most likely the adult children do not have a dislike for you as a person, they only fear the power you can yield. So they elect to defend themselves from the potential harm you may inflict on them.

Prior to their parent’s remarriage, adult children may begin a campaign to prevent it from occurring. Some are successful. Drs. King and Scott using data from the 2005 National Survey of Families and Households found that older people as compared to younger ones, choose to cohabit rather than marry not because of incompatibility, but most likely out of concern for their adult children’s feelings, their need to protect their children’s inheritance and other financial reasons.

Once the marriage did take place, adult children yield great power in expressing their dissatisfaction with their parent’s remarriage. Since they are logically devoid of acceptable reasons for their anger they may use you as a pawn in their attempt to ‘punish’ the parent for rebuilding his/her life.

Inflicting guilt may be the first ploy. They may confront the parent claiming that this marriage represents his/her disloyalty to the former mate or loss of caring about them. Research validates some of these concerns.

Dr. Schone, of the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research and Dr. Pezzin, of the John Hopkins University School of Medicine found that ties to stepchildren are not as strong as connection to biological children who get more attention and assistance that is withheld from stepchildren.

Fearing that they are now excluded from the parent’s primary focus, adult children try to interfere with the new union. Some adult children want to meet regularly privately only with their original parent. Some even insist that events celebrated in their homes are to be attended solely by the parent. The attempted efforts to reject, exclude and isolate the stepparent create great difficulty and pain for the parent and may indeed negatively impact the parent’s relationship with the new spouse.

‘Belonging’, is the first human need after food, shelter and clothing as per Dr. Abraham Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs described in ‘A theory of Human Motivation’. Adult children cling to their connection with their original family for emotional survival and comfort and resist reorienting themselves to a new group identity.

What can parents do to deal with adult children’s resistance to a stepparent?

• Understand that the adult children’s resistance to you as a stepparent is not personal. It comes from fear about losing the safe and familiar connection with their parent.
• The introduction of their parent’s new partner and children appears to them as diluting the love and attention they crave. ‘New’ means unfamiliar, lacking history and comfort.  While the parent may be awed by the new partner’s spark, the children may be blinded by it.
• The stepparent must assure the partner’s children that he/she is there to add, not subtract from family unity.
• The parent needs to safeguard his/her prior level of intimacy with the adult children. The new mate is wise to support and encourage this connection.
• The couple must create a new culture of family celebrations and holidays that include all adult children and their families.
• The response to adult children’s attempt to exclude the new spouse must be through a firm statement that this person is the mate and the couple is undividable. It is acceptable, on occasion, for the parent to meet alone with the adult child but not as a primary or only form of contact.
• Time and kindness often quell the fears and permit the creation of a happier extended family.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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