Lesson 7 of 7 - evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily

How Stepparenting
Differs from Bioparenting

Why Stepparents Can
 Feel Overwhelmed

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW,
Member NSRC Experts Council

The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/sf/co/sp_bp.htm

Updated 24 July, 2015

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      This is one of a series of lesson-7 articles on how to evolve a high-nurturance (functional) stepfamily. The "/" in re/marriage and re/divorce notes that it may be a stepparent's first union. "Co-parents" means both bioparents, or any of the related stepparents and bioparents co-managing a multi-home nuclear stepfamily.

      This YouTube clip provides perspective on this article. The video mentions eight lessons in this self-improvement Web site -  I've simplified that to seven. :

      This article summarizes over three dozen environmental differences between the roles of biological parent and stepparent. It assumes you're familiar with:

  • the intro to this nonprofit Website and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement lessons 1 thru 7, parts 1 and 2

  • how typical stepfamilies differ from intact biofamilies

  • Q&A items about stepparenting and stepkids.


      A stepparent is an adult who has accepted the family role (responsibility) of co-parenting their mate's children from a prior union. While typical stepparents and bioparents want to provide the same thing for their dependents, there are significant differences between these two family roles:

  • family and social environments, and...

  • co-parent and adult-child relationship differences. 

      Unawareness of these differences and their combined impact can make typical stepparents feel inept, confused, misunderstood, and disoriented. This is often true for stepkids and stepfamily relatives too!

      Family members and supporters often find it hard to empathize with what it feels like to be a stepdad or stepmom if they haven't experienced this ancient caregiving role.

Bioparent - Stepparent Role Differences

      See how many of these role differences you already knew. Also notice what it feels like to see all of them in one place. If you know a stepmom or stepdad, keep them in mind as you review these four groups of differences. Let's start with the big picture ...

A)  Different Social Environment

      "Social environment" includes [ friends + coworkers + neighbors + social-service professionals + media + laws and legal systems + school systems + clergy and churches …]. "Media" includes newspapers, books, magazines, billboards and other public ads, radio, TV, movies, and the Internet.

      1) Negative bias: Intact biofamilies are accepted as "normal" and "traditional" in our culture. Stepfamilies are often judged to be abnormal, nontraditional, and therefore "inferior" in some unspecified way. Reality: stepfamilies are normal and ancient. Historically, they have been far more prevalent in all world cultures and eras than in modern cultures because of  unprotected intercourse, and parental death from disease, war, and famine.

      2) Public ignorance: There is widespread public and professional unawareness of the 60+ structural and dynamic differences between typical stepfamilies and intact  biofamilies. This promotes misunderstandings and misassumptions that confuse co-parents, kids, relatives, and supporters alike 

      3)  Fewer accurate resources: There are few informed books, classes, counselors, groups, or other supports for stepparents and bioparents available in typical communities or on the Web. Average married and divorced ("single") bioparents' have much more informed support available to them.

      4)  Stepparents usually have no legal status or parenting rights unless they adopt their stepchildren. Depending on state law, if a stepparent dies without a will, their estate usually does not pass to their stepkids.

      5)  Celebration stress: National and religious holidays usually cause new-stepfamily role confusion and stress. There are few appropriate greeting cards available for stepparents, stepkids, or step-relatives, vs. many for bioparents. That can breed awkwardness, confusion, guilt, and anxiety for some years;

      6)  There are few realistic media portrayals of stepparent and stepfamily situations, relationships, and roles. This promotes low social empathy with, and widespread misunderstanding of, typical stepfamily relationships, roles, and dynamics; and...

      7)  Negative media bias: TV and print usage of stepfamily labels and role-titles often imply that steppeople are inferior, flawed, substandard, second-best, and abnormal.

      On top of these simultaneous differences in social environment, typical stepparents also experience... 

B)  Family-environment Differences

      8)  Complexity: most nuclear stepfamilies include two or more related co-parenting households, not just one.

      9)  Isolation: unlike "standard" intact biofamilies, there are almost 100 different structural kinds of stepfamily, so it's rare to find one like "ours." This can foster a sense of social alienation and uncertainty ("What's normal?") in kids and adults, including ex mates and in-laws; and...

      10)  More family roles: multi-generational biofamilies have up to 15 normal roles (uncle, sister, cousin... ). Multi-home stepfamilies add up to 15 alien new roles and titles (step-aunt, half brother, custodial ex mate, stepcousin...); and...

      11)  More members and relationships: multi-generational stepfamilies come from the merger from three or more or more biofamilies. They often have 80-100+ members. Perspective: 80 stepfamily members have [(80 x 79) / 2] = 3,160 possible relationships! Typical stepparents have many more family members to meet, with whom they usually have no common history, memories, ancestors, customs, names, or shared experiences. 

      12)  Stepfamily identity and membership are often confusing. Definitions of "Who belongs in our stepfamily?" often conflict between members and related homes. This is much less common for traditional intact bioparents, kids, and relatives.

      13)  Merger complexity: As several biofamilies combine after a re/marriage, there are many alien adjustment tasks to accomplish. Typical childless couples have far fewer tasks, involving fewer adults and kids. Implication: confusion and stress.

      14)  Stepfamily finances are usually more complex than in intact biofamilies, because of conflicts over...

  • child-support amounts, regularity, allocation, and 'fairness;'

  • asset and debt ownership and titles;

  • earning, spending, and saving values, traditions, and responsibilities;

  • insurance coverages;

  • tax liabilities;

  • your, my, and our checking and savings accounts;

  • inheritances and estate plans; and for some...

  • prenuptial agreements and ex-mate legal expenses.

      15)  More losses to grieve: typical new steppeople have experienced [ divorce and/or death + re/marriage + cohabiting ] within the past five to seven years. Each of these causes major losses (broken emotional/spiritual bonds) for all kids and adults involved. Typical intact biofamilies experience losses too, but not as many, frequent, or impactful. Stepfamily co-parents have a higher need to be aware of their respective grief traditions, values, policies, and grieving status (blocked, progressing, or "finished") - among more adults and kids than typical intact bioparents.

      16) Less and different love: relatives of stepfamily mates usually don't initially, or sometimes ever, bond with and love each other the way healthy biorelatives do. Stepparents, stepkids, and stepsiblings don't usually grow or feel the same kind of love, loyalty, and bonds that healthy biopeople feel. There are exceptions.

      17)  More diversity: U.S. stepfamily mates are more likely to have differing faiths and ethnic backgrounds than first-marriage partners. This can promote (a) rich mutual appreciation and new experiences; to (b) inter-home hostility, exclusions, rejections, and cross-generational loyalty conflicts and divisive relationship triangles.

      18)  Less family cohesion: weaker household and family bonding, loyalty, and extended-family cohesion. Bonding (caring and concern) among stepfamily members is often weaker than typical biofamily loyalties and ties. That can yield less emotional support and security to stepparents and stepkids;

      19)  More confusion: typical full-time (custodial) or part-time stepparents experience more household confusion because of child visitations and residence and/or child-custody changes. Average co-parenting homes with minor kids have two "states:" (a) kids here, and (b) kids away (visiting). If both stepfamily mates have biokids, they can have many different "states" (his kids are visiting, hers are home, etc.); Also...

      20)  Traditions and rituals: new co-parenting partners share little or no common family history, memories, mementos, rituals, and daily and special traditions. These may clash between the three or more merging biofamily households and families, creating webs of stressful loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles for co-parents, kids, and relatives;

      21)  Dwelling resentments: whose home is this - mine, yours, or ours? Stepparents and any custodial kids of theirs may feel like invaders or invaded, depending on who's home they're living in. The least-stress option is usually a new home for everyone, if committed co-parents can afford that.

+ + +

      How are you doing with all these role-environment differences? We're about half done! Beside societal and family environmental differences, men and women accepting a stepparent role also experience...

C) Different Co-parent-relationship Environments

       There are significant differences between stepparent and bioparent roles (responsibilities).

      22) There are more co-parents to coordinate and harmonize: typical nuclear stepfamilies usually have three or more caregivers, vs. two in an intact biofamily. Implication: more role (responsibility) confusion and conflict for stepparents and mates.

      23) In my 36-year clinical experience, the incidence of significant adult psychological wounding seems higher in typical divorcing families and stepfamilies than in intact biofamilies. This implies higher odds of innerpersonal and interpersonal conflict and lower nurturance levels among members of their several related homes.

      24) A stepparent is never their mate's first marital or parenting partner, which may reduce feeling special at vulnerable times. Each stepchild, ex-mate’s relatives, and many household items are constant reminders of this;

      25) Stepfamily co-parents are often seven to 15+ years older at initial cohabitation than first-time bioparents, so they may have different priorities and attitudes on child conception, work, money, spirituality, etc. than younger caregivers;

      26) Unrealistic role and relationship expectations: unawareness of up to 60 structural and merger-task differences between stepfamilies and intact biofamilies can cause co-parents (and others) to expect their stepfamily roles, relationships, and life to feel pretty much like traditional bioparenting.

      When reality inexorably  proves that wrong, co-parents and kids usually all feel confused and insecure until they grieve lost dreams ("You and my kids will love each other!"), and adjust. This usually takes four or more years after re/wedding (vs. after cohabiting);

      Difference 27) Low initial parenting-role confidence. If a stepmom or stepdad is childless or has never parented a boy / girl / teen / twins / special-needs child, it's likely that s/he + their stepkids and  their bioparents, biorelatives, and/or any involved professionals, can initially distrust and discount the stepparent's caregiving competence.

      Even if stepparents have kids of their own, stepkids have many alien adjustment needs, and the stepparent's new caregiving role is still alien and often confusing. That's true for stepkids and step-grandparents too!

      28) More parenting "competition" - one or both of a stepchild's bioparents can disapprove of a stepparents' values and choices, or may compete with them for "best" parent, and vice versa. Stepkids may instinctively turn this to their advantage for security or excitement.

      29) More complex child "ownership:" yours, mine, and maybe ours, vs. "all ours" in biofamilies. This usually requires all co-parents to evolve strategies to avoid or resolve webs of stressful loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles. Relatively few counselors, case workers, and mediators are trained to help effectively with these.  

      30) Lower child-behavior tolerances: Often, stepparents see their mate and/or their mate's ex as being too permissive or too strict with a stepchild. Stepmoms and stepdads may get irritated faster at their mate's kids than their own (if any), specially if their stepfamily is using biofamily expectations.

      31) Greater initial role motivation: previously-divorced co-parents can vow never to subject their (or others') kids to family trauma and divorce again. Spurred by social unawareness and tradition, new stepparents can try too hard to be perfect caregivers or rescuers for needy or floundering stepkids;

      32) Higher odds of major bioparent guilt: divorced bioparents can feel compelled to "make it up" to their kids because of unreleased guilt over their kids' family losses and pain. Non-custodial bioparents can try to create a local Disneyland during visitations, because of this. Stepparents can grow to resent feeling second-best to their visiting stepkids too often, and their mate not wanting to reduce their discomfort. Stepparents who aren't clear on their identity, personal rights, and boundaries can feel guilty and/or torn for feeling resentful.

      33) Stepfamily co-parents often experience more complex child-conception decisions: many more people, family roles, and relationships are affected. And...

      34) Stepfamily co-parents often have more legal restrictions (e.g. divorce-settlement decrees and parenting-agreements) and legal fights over child custody, support, and visitation are possible for years. Traditional bioparents don't encounter these and what they cause.

      Besides social, family, and co-parenting environmental differences, typical stepmoms and stepdads also experience many...

D)  Adult-Child Relationship Differences

      35) Multi-home nuclear stepfamilies typically have more kids than intact biofamilies, so stepparents and mates are "stretched thinner" and often have less time alone together. Also, the number of kids in a step-home varies with visitations, decreasing household stability and requiring more flexibility and complex scheduling efforts.

      36) Lower (or no) mutual acceptance and tolerances: stepkids and parents may or may not like each other at first, or ever. Stepkids don't choose and may not want their stepparents and/or stepsibs. They also may be delighted with them!

      37) Stepparents may be more objective and detached about their stepchildren; Stepkids may confide in empathic stepparents before their bioparents. This may breed significant jealousies and competitions, or gratitude and bondings.

      38) Role unfamiliarity I: Stepparents encounter new, alien, concurrent co-parenting tasks like...

  • disciplining someone else's child/ren "fairly;"

  • guiding visitations and holidays;

  • grieving many tangible and invisible losses;

  • resolving stepsibling rivalry;

  • adapting to stepchild and step-relative rejections,

  • feeling ignored and/or "second best"; and...

  • relating with their stepchild/ren's "other" bioparent.

      39)  Role unfamiliarity II: Stepparents and their co-parenting partners need to learn and grow competence at helping typical minor stepkids fill ~25 normal development needs, plus up to three groups of concurrent family-adjustment needs that kids in intact high-nurturance biofamilies don't have. There are few sources of useful information on these needs for typical co-parents and supporters.

      40) Different sexual environment: because stepparents and stepkids (and stepsibs) usually didn't grow up together, the incest taboo in stepfamilies is weaker, and stepsiblings may feel sexual attraction that biosibs don't; Stepkids can feel confused and uncomfortable seeing a bioparent physically affectionate or sexual with a "strange" adult, specially if their other bioparent and/or a relative is upset about this.

      41)  Confusion over role titles and names: what shall step-adults and kids call each other? This varies by home, situation, and person. There are few social norms so far. Unlike biofamilies, each mate may have a same-name child (e.g. two Davids), and/or a stepparent and stepchild may have the same name, as can prior and new spouses. Stepparents and stepkids usually have different last names, unless the former legally adopts. Some re/married Moms have a different last name than their kids. Net result: initial and situational confusions that typical biofamily members don't experience.

      42) Full co-parenting responsibility, with less or little authority: it takes time for stepparents to earn the co-operation and respect of their stepkids; Stepchild obedience is often lower than in bio-homes, as stepkids test their power, securities, and who's in charge of their homes;

      Finally, typical stepparents can experience...

      43)  Different physical features: typical stepparents and stepkids usually don't resemble each other the way bioparents and kids do. This can range from no problem to significant situational discomfort - specially if one or more members needs to minimize or deny their stepfamily identity.

+  +  + 

      Pause and reflect - how many average stepfamily members could describe even ten of these alien co-parenting role differences? This is part of the "unawareness" that can be a significant stepfamily, re/marital, and personal stressor

So What?

      What do all these differences mean? The individual differences may not be overly stressful. Collectively they can feel overwhelming - specially to psychologically-wounded co-parents who haven't accepted their identity as a normal multi-home stepfamily.

      Re/marrying mates who know and accept these differences without excessive shame, anxiety, or guilt can evolve realistic co-parenting role and relationship expectations if they have the motivation, knowledge, and communication-skills to do so. These in turn promote more co-parenting harmony and effectiveness over time - i.e. high family nurturance, which their stepkids depend on them for.

      Notice how you feel now and where your thoughts go. Did you realize how different stepparenting environments could be compared to traditional bioparenting? Is there someone you want to show this summary to, and/or discuss it with?


        This Lesson-7 article proposes 43 environmental differences between the roles of bio(logical)parent and stepparent. These combined differences document why many new-stepfamily adults and kids can feel confused and disoriented as they merge and stabilize their several biofamilies. Learning these role-differences and what they mean is one of several dozen merger tasks typical stepfamily members must master, with little cultural guidance. Stepfamily co-parenting is not for the faint of heart!

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