adoption deliberation is far more complex in typical multi-home stepfamilies vs. intact
homes, and relationships are affected,
there are more personal and
family-merger tasks to balance,
average stepkids need informed, cooperative adult guidance on
special needs that
intact-biofamily youngsters don't have.
start this complex evaluation, first define...
To answer this, some years must
pass and each co-parent must agree that their nuclear-stepfamily's
nurturance level stayed steady
or improved. In other words, some years after the adoption,
all members of
the nuclear stepfamily must agree that the adoption improved...
each primary adult relationship (e.g.
re/marriage) in the stepfamily; and...
personal happiness and well-being of all members of the stepfamily,
not just several; and...
the relationships between the adopted
child/ren and each co-parent and (step)sibling; and...
and security of
each adopted stepchild.
Another way to gauge adoption success is for co-parents to assess whether it
created any significant unresolved conflicts over
is a subjective judgment. Note that most of these criteria focus is
the whole stepfamily, not on one person, dyad, or one home.
this definition in mind, let's look at...
Requisites for Deciding
Premise - over half of typical
American stepfamilies eventually divorce psychologically or legally
because the widespread [wounds + unawareness]
causes five interactive
prepare to evaluate the pros and cons of stepchild adoption realistically,
all stepfamily adults need to:
__ accept that each adult shares
responsibility for guarding the next generation from inheriting the
[wounds + unawareness] cycle;
for significant psychological wounds, and commit to
them as needed (Lesson 1);
knowledge by studying and discussing this self-improvement
__ learn stepfamily basics and
realities, accept their identity as a normal stepfamily, and agree on
what that identity means
__ confirm that each re/married couple
in the stepfamily made wise
__ learn how to resolve these common
together as teammates;
__ remove any of these common
- specially between co-parenting ex mates;
__ learn the special
needs of typical stepkids, and assess each
child's status with these needs; and...
__ agree on a stepfamily
33 years as a
stepfamily therapist and educator, I've found that fewer than 5% of average
stepfamily adults and clinicians can name these adoption requisites, let alone meet
them. If they look like a lot of work - they ARE. Implication:
deciding to adopt a stepchild soon after re/marriage and/or cohabiting is
usually unwise because the adults haven't had enough time to learn
and meet these challenging requirements.
Even if all nuclear-stepfamily adults meet them, co-parents may
have unwise reasons for adopting. Let's explore...
Who Needs to
Adopt - and Why?
People "behave" in order to
- i.e. to increase their current comfort. To make a successful long-term adoption decision, co-parents
need to be clear (a) who needs this family change, (b) what their primary
needs are, and (c) whether the affected adults'
are free to
guide their debate and decision.
Who Needs to Adopt?
Several possibilities are...
A stepparent is the prime mover; or...
a bioparent-stepparent couple is; or...
either or both of the stepchild's bioparents;
a vocal (needy) stepchild, sibling, or
some combination of all these people.
Each person may have unique reasons (needs) for wanting (or opposing) legal
Some family members may be indifferent.
Premise - adults
and kids have
Let's review common surface reasons for adopting a stepchild
and possible underlying reasons.
One or more
stepfamily members believe that adoption will
help them feel more like a "normal" (bio)family. That may work, but it
will not change the ~70 differences between their stepfamily and
an intact biofamily. This reason may indicate that the members haven't
really accepted their
they feel ashamed of it.
2) A co-parent hopes that stepparental
adoption will motivate relatives to finally accept their
divorce, their re/marriage, and/or
to accept the stepparent and their kin as full members of the merging
biofamilies. This is unlikely,
because lack of acceptance is usually due to psychological wounds and
incomplete grief. Stepchild adoption won't affect either of these..
Another common surface reason for stepchild adoption is...
3) The stepparent wants to feel more legitimate about saying and feeling "I'm
your Mom / Dad now, and you're my son / daughter,"
rather than feeling inauthentic as a
"stepparent." This feeling can cause ambivalence and discomfort about disciplining "someone else's child,"
and stepkids' balking and saying" I don't have to obey you - you're not
Legal adoption will not fully fill this need. The lack of shared ancestry, history,
child-conception and birth, and genes will always combine to promote a
stepparent feeling "different" than a bioparent, and a stepchild
feeling "I am not of you." Even if adoption helps the stepparent feel more "legitimate" and
"normal" in their caregiving role, it may
not strengthen the
child's relation with the adult - specially if the youngster is ambivalent about or
indifferent to the adoption, or hasn't been respectfully consulted.
4) Someone hopes
that adoption will reduce stressful
involving the stepparent and stepchild. For example,
someone thinks that by legal stepchild adoption, the re/married
biomom or biodad will no longer feel emotionally trapped in the middle of
stepparent-stepchild conflicts, the stepparent won't feel so guilty, and the
stepchild won't feel so confused.
A special case of this is one or both co-parents wanting to reduce
discomfort from favoring
an "ours" child
over one or more
stepkids. Adoption may or may not help with
this, because of the primal (instinctual) preference for one's own off-spring
and other factors.
legal status as adoptive stepparent will rarely diffuse major loyalty conflicts.
Typical loyalty conflicts are complex
psychological struggles, not
logical ones. Stepchild adoption may increase existing
interpersonal loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles, and foster new ones - specially if one or more
relatives oppose an adoption.
stepchild's legal status and perhaps their last name will not change
her/his personality, nor adults' emotional bonds with and preferences
for (loyalty to) one child over another. If anything, adoption may
increase any guilt about not valuing a stepchild over a stepparent's
biological child (if any).
5) Re/married mates may want the stepparent to gain legal
parental rights in interactions with medical facilities and the child's
school. Many schools will not release kids' records to a stepparent, and
some hospitals and clinics don't recognize a stepparent's authority in
admitting a minor child for treatment. Legal adoption usually can
fill these needs
stepfamily couple may hope that stepchild adoption will "somehow"
repair a wobbly re/marriage. A
variation is one mate believing that a legal adoption will make it
harder for their mate to divorce them.
cannot correct unwise courtship
or heal remarital frustrations -
and may increase them. Working patiently at these self-improvement
together is a better long-term marital strategy than
common reasons for stepchild adoption...
7) One or both
re/married co-parents may see adoption as a way of
gaining an advantage in relations with the stepchild's other
bioparent and/or relatives - e.g. a legal advantage in
fights, or an emotional power boost to legitimize the stepparent's rights,
opinions, and needs in inter-home co-parenting conflicts. The core
reasons for intra-family conflict is usually some mix of these nine
Stepchild adoption will not reduce any of them
8) Someone thinks that
stepchild adoption will resolve the youngster's "illogical" longing to have their
divorced bioparents and biofamily reunite.
A symptom of that longing is often galling
indifference to or caustic
rejection of a stepparent, stepsiblings, and/or step-kin.
Adoption probably won't
reduce this common
fantasy," because the underlying problem is usually
Adoption may or may not bring the child closer to admitting their
fantasy, and accepting the permanence of their
(broken bonds) from biofamily break-up and parental re/marriage.
for perspective and options.
Four more possible surface reasons for adopting a stepchild...
Someone sees a child-support and/or tax advantage to adoption. Adoption may reduce some
stepfamily financial conflicts, but risks creating new values and loyalty
conflicts and relationship triangles in their place. And/or...
10) Someone thinks that some or all stepfamily members will "feel
better and closer" if a child legally adopts their stepfather's last name
- specially if...
their biomom uses it and/or...
she has conceived an "ours" child
with the stepfather, and/or...
the stepparent has biokids of their own.
ease this surface problem, but will often cause new resentments, hurts, and
stressful relationship triangles. See reason 1
Someone thinks that a
stepchild's confusion and anxiety over their
family identity and
role will be relieved by being legally adopted by their
stepparent. The odds are against this, because the roots of role and identity confusion are
+ ignorance or
rejection of stepfamily identity and realities + incomplete grief + unresolved
final adoption-decision scenario:
12) After deep
reflection and much honest discussion of all the factors above, all
affected stepfamily adults and kids feel clearly that legal stepchild adoption will strengthen the
(functioning) in and among their
This is the best case. It
illustrates that carefully researched and deliberated stepchild adoption really can bring
significant new strength, warmth, and unity to everyone in their
three or more merging
We've just reviewed 12 common reasons
typical co-parents to seek legal adoption of one or more
stepkids. Note these themes...
adoption is a complex decision with many emotional,
relationship, and perhaps financial impacts. Hastily or impulsively made, this decision has a
high chance of increasing
re/marital and stepfamily stress, because it affects many
people and family-adjustment tasks, fundamentally alters the stepfamily system, and
usually does not
successful, long-term, truly raising the whole family's nurturance
can happen if all affected co-parents, minor and grown kids, and
genetic and legal relatives are clear on...
their identity a normal multi-home
stepfamily and what that identity
what they're doing (resolving
a stream of conflicts from a complex multi-year biofamily merger),
primary reasons (needs) for adoption, and all adults...
have realistic expectations of what it will and won't provide.
can co-parents raise their odds for a successful long-term
Improve Your Odds for Deciding Wisely
Though every stepfamily is unique, some adoption-criteria apply
to most of them. The
goal is your co-parents helping each other make an informed,
wide-angle, long-range adoption decision. The real questions are:
needs to adopt, and why?
What problems may legal adoption cause, if
What is the right time to consider adoption?,
What are the right reasons to adopt a
Needs to Adopt?
Get very clear
on (a) which family members are promoting stepchild adoption, and
(b) whether all adults'
are evaluating the decision (Lesson 1). If not, stepchild
acting on unrealistic adoption
expectations and being disappointed and frustrated;
lowering your stepfamily's nurturance
escalating stepfamily stress and possible re/divorce,
wounds to your descendents.
Include your stepchild's
other bioparent, if alive and accessible, as a full partner in your
evaluation process. Try to see him or her as a resource,
vs. an opponent or non-participant. If you really accept
that you're a stepfamily, you'll accept the necessity of including this co-parent.
Doing this honestly leads to confronting any significant
teamwork in and between your several homes. Best case: reduce these
before evaluating stepchild adoption.
Review your co-parental
As a foundation for making important
family decisions like
stepchild adoption, I suggest consistently putting (a) your individual
integrity and wholistic health first, (b) your primary relationships second, and (c) all else
third, except in emergencies. If any co-parent balks at this, s/he's
Get clear on the scope of
your decision. If your co-parents see stepchild adoption as a
than just a affecting one or more kids or one home, then go ahead. If any of
you disagree, yellow light!
After doing these
you're trying to
fill by step-child adoption. The examples above illustrate some seductive surface
reasons to adopt a
aim to reduce significant personal or relationship tensions. A better option is
resolving unmet primary needs one at a time, and then using
adoption to strengthen your stabilized stepfamily.
on the pros and cons of stepchild
adoption in your unique stepfamily. If all your co-parents
agree that adoption will probably yield more pros than cons long term,
then go ahead. Option: have each co-parent and any active co-grandparents
read this article and then discuss how it applies to all your adults and
kids. Disinterest or resistance to this suggests psychological wounds and/or
What Problems May Adoption Cause?
Though every stepfamily is unique, unwise or premature legal
stepchild-adoption decisions may cause cascades of significant
membership, values, and loyalty conflicts; and/or divisive relationship
triangles. They may also amplify significant relationship barriers
between some family members.
Common problems to watch for are...
the stepchild's other bioparent fearing
that the adopting stepparent is trying to displace him or her,
and/or to prove s/he is a "better parent." A related fear is that
their child will love the stepparent more than themselves. This may
be caused by insecurity and/or the illusion that "love" is a limited resource.
the stepchild feeling anxiety and guilt
that s/he must now "love" the adoptive stepparent and/or
stepsiblings though s/he doesn't feel love;
the stepparent's own child/ren resenting
that their mom or dad is treating a stepsibling as an equal to them
and feeling somehow demoted and/or less secure;
names and titles: a stepparent may have
been called by their first name before adoption, and now asks or
demands to be called Mom or Dad. There may be new family confusion
about whether the adopting adult is still "my stepparent" or "my
parent." These are values conflicts;
a grandparent blaming their adult child
for allowing "a stranger?" to adopt their grandchild - specially if
they disapprove of the stepparent and/or her or his parenting values
someone resenting changes to a
stepparent's estate plan giving equal bequests to an adopted
the stepchild (or someone) resenting
that s/he must change her/his last name to their stepfather's name,
and/or that the stepparent now refers to them as "my son or
daughter." The later is specially common if the other bioparent
objects to this title or the stepparent demanding to be called "Mom"
Aware co-parents guided by their true Selves can avoid or resolve these
and similar problems using the resources in this site's nonprofit self-improvement course.
What are the Right Reasons to Adopt?
See the examples above. In summary, the best reasons are those which
strengthen all your stepfamily
relationships, bonding, and unity;
do not cause significant loyalty
conflicts and relationship triangles, or amplify any relationship
in and between your homes; and
will increase your stepfamily's long-term
these criteria is complex and emotional, consider using
to help you decide. A
great resource is other stable (vs. new) stepfamilies who
have gone through this evaluation process. Though their circumstances
and structure will differ from yours, the core pros and cons are probably similar.
Is there a
support group near you? If not, explore some of the many co-parent support and chat groups on the
Web. Also, use several Web search programs like
and see what "adoption," "child adoption," and
"stepchild adoption" bring
Even if you have healthy reasons to adopt, you may do so at the wrong
When Is the Right Time to Adopt?
The best answer is "when we all
agree we have all the requisites above." Stepfamily
commentators generally agree it takes four or
more years after re/wedding and cohabiting to stabilize the complex
of three or more
The further along you all are with your set of concurrent
tasks and these
likely it is you all can make a wise long-term adoption decision. Option: adapt
this "Right Time" courtship worksheet to help you all answer this key
Take your time! Because this
decision will affect many kids and adults in many ways, help each other to
be patient at learning each affected adult's and child's
feelings, needs, and opinions. A stepchild-adoption decision is at
least as complex as buying or building a house. If any co-parent is
confused or unsure about adoption, resolve that first!
Lesson-7 article exists because a significant minority of American
stepparents legally adopt one or more stepkids. This complex family-wide
decision can benefit or stress a typical multi-home step-family over
time. It deserves thoughtful deliberation by all affected adults, and
caring consultation with all affected kids.
This article defines "successful stepchild adoption,"
proposes requisites for making a wise adoption decision, and reviews 12
common adoption motives. Most of them aim
to fill alluring surface needs, and
often don't turn out the way co-parents hope, long term. The
article closes with four key adoption questions step-adults need to discuss together.
Adoption, a Resource Book, by Tim O'Hanlon, PhD; Adoption Shop; 2004
Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get
what you needed? If not, what
you need? Who's
these questions - your
Prior page /
/ Lesson-7 links