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This is one of a series of Lesson-7 articles
on howtoevolve a
high-nurturance stepfamily. The "/" in re/marriage and re/divorce
notes that it may be a stepparent's first union. "Co-parents" means both
biological parents, or any of the
three or more stepparents and bioparents co-managing a multi-home
This article offers perspective on common relationship
problems between stepparents and their stepkids. The
article assumes you're familiar with....
this nonprofit Web site and the to premises
distraught biomom called me for a counseling appointment for her and her
second husband Norman - a divorced, non-custodial father of four sons, aged
19 to 25. This college-educated, middle-aged couple had lived with her
daughter Lisa (18) and son Marty (15) for four years (not their real names).
She said they wanted to reduce "some problems" between Norman and Marty, and
that Norman and Lisa "got along just fine."
Several meetings with the couple and her son revealed a familiar saga...
The Mom (Alicia) was increasingly unhappy that Norman often criticized her
Marty "unfairly" for being lazy, defiant, and disrespectful to him, and
often treated the teen with sarcasm (disrespect), criticism, lectures,
little empathy, demands, and cold silences.
Alicia said one result was that
Marty was silent around Norman, avoided him, and came to her with his
problems and successes. His biological father was
distant and erratic in contacting Marty and Lisa, though reliable in supporting them financially. Alicia felt
her ex "was really not part of this problem."
Alicia was hurt, frustrated, and angry that her husband - a professional
educator - often compared Marty unfavorably to his own sons. Norman
repeatedly implied that she and her ex mate had done a poor job raising
Marty so that he (Norman) had to "clean up their mess."
She felt that their
many "discussions" about this family situation had changed nothing, and she
disliked "who I'm becoming" - i.e. frequently
depressed, increasingly hopeless, and angrily siding with her son against her husband
more and more, despite Norman's hurt, resentment, and protests.
Norman felt that Alicia was (a) defending and denying her inept mothering and
wifely disloyalty, (b) unwilling to "listen to reason" (i.e. agree with him),
and (c) was unfairly polarized against him despite his being a caring,
generous, large-hearted "family man."
This articulate, self-confident
stepfather described several instances at great length where Marty had
defied, lied to, and/or insulted him. He acidly said that Alicia had "done
nothing" to reprimand her son, and support Norman "as a wife should."
Norman vehemently denied they were a stepfamily because "I love her kids
like they were my own," and "Lisa has always called me 'Dad'." He called
Marty, Lisa, and his sons "our kids," and rejected his role-title of
stepfather. Alicia did acknowledge she was a biomom and stepmom, and
seemed resigned to Norman's rigid denial of their stepfamily
Neither co-parent or their ex mates had read or discussed anything about
I met with
Marty and his Mother alone. The boy disclosed
that he had always felt hurt because Norman clearly favored his own sons and
Lisa, but denied it; and was rigid, cold, unempathic, and demanding with him. The teen also resented the condescending "macho" way Norman
treated his mother (and that she wouldn't stand up for herself).
he'd never tell Norman these things because "he'd go ballistic." Marty had
given up hope of any good relationship with his stepfather or feeling truly
included by his "holier than thou" stepbrothers. He said bitterly he wished
his mother "had never married this jerk."
Understandably, Alicia was buffeted with many feelings, and desperate to find
some way to solve this escalating
impasse. She said spontaneously that
Norman really did have many wonderful qualities, and that this "thing"
(loyalty conflict) was
"the main problem we haven't been able to solve" in their seven-year
What was the "Problem"?
This vignette illustrates several truisms about typical
"stepparent-stepchild problems." It's a classic example of the
inherited toxic [wounds + unawareness]
eroding a second marriage and stressing the whole stepfamily.
The adults were unaware of the
cycle that was stressing them all.
Both adults appeared to be
and were unaware of that and what it
One meaning was they had probably made several unwise (needy,
and didn't (want to) know what they were getting into - a complex,
the adult couple didn't know how to
as teammates, and weren't aware of their option to learn this
the stepfather was unaware of
promoting "defiance and dishonesty" (disrespect and distrust) in his
stepson because the man was critical of and disrespectful to the
teen and his parents. He also denied feeling and demonstrating a
preference for his own sons, and seem to believe he "loved" his
stepkids like his own.
the couple and the stepson were caught
in a classic
with the stepdad a Persecutor, the teen as Victim, and the mother a
the Rescuer The adults were unaware of this common dynamic
and how to manage it together.
the mother was caught in a classic
between her husband and her son. The adults had no awareness
of this and what to do about it. There were probably other such
conflicts too - e.g. the teen's sister was probably torn about whom
to support in this web of conflicts.
And the vignette also illustrates that...
there was probably significant hurt,
anger, and resentment in the teen because of his biofather's lack of
caring (abandonment). If so, this was inhibiting any bonding between
the stepdad and the teen. The biofather was probably a
Grown Wounded Child in denial like the other adults. If so, there were probably
problems between the divorced parents which were not brought up in therapy.
If all three of his co-parents were
psychologically wounded, the adolescent boy had probably begun
developing his own wounds.; If so, this would promote a web of
scholastic and relationship problems which invited the criticism and
scorn of his unaware stepfather.
Several or all of these people (and
other family members?) were probably not finished grieving their
many losses from prior divorce and parental remarriage and
cohabiting. The adults were unaware of this and how to
the teen was losing respect for his
mother because she allowed the stepdad to blame her and his dad as
inept parents. His disrespect added to the stepfather's disapproval
of the boy.
the couple focused on the stepfather-stepson problems rather than
admitting their growing
and the possibility of another divorce (denial).
Because of the couple's widespread
unawareness, most of these problems weren't identified as
therapeutic goals. This ensured that - unless both adults were open
to learning about and admitting all these problems - therapy
would "fail" (not improve the stepparent-stepchild relationship and
reduce household stress). Their wounds and ignorance made such
As is common, the biomom sought professional help for this growing problem in her home
and remarriage. Her "well educated" husband seemed to feel it was
her job to correct her son and solve their problems, rather than
admit he was half of the (multiple) problems. This is GWC
denial (distortion) in action.
What do you notice about this daunting web of interactive
surface and underlying primary stepfamily problems? One
overarching truth: what the couple felt was the main problem
(the stepdad - stepson relationship) was really a cluster of
surface and primary problems the adults couldn't articulate or
admit. All of
them stemmed from their inheriting psychological wounds and
unawareness and their ignorance of stepfamily realities..
Problems between stepparents and stepkids may surface during adult
courtship, or develop over some years as everyone ages and co-parents'
several biofamilies slowly merge. Problems are usually compounded by
concurrent relationship stresses between divorcing parents, biological
and step siblings, and adults and their parents, relatives, and in-laws
In other words, stepparent-stepchild problems usually occur among an
interactive web of family-relationship stressors.
The best way to reduce or adapt to stepchild-stepparent problems is to
see them as part of a dynamic mosaic of all relationship problems
in a multi-home stepfamily, not just an individual problem. The mosaic
has common roots, so identifying and resolving them will benefit
As a foundation for improving stepchild relationships, help all
your adults appreciate the special adjustment tasks that typical stepkids face.
Stepparents and other adults have their own complex
family-merger tasks to master as they
try to help their stepkids master theirs.
With any relationship "problem," two broad possibilities are: (1)
one-way or mutual dislike ("bad chemistry"), and (2) the problem is a
symptom of several underlying family-system problems. The first can
only be accepted, not "fixed." There are many options to improve the
second scenario, starting with identifying the real problems
Use the following checklist to help with this identification:
If you have a stepparent and stepchild who "don't get along" well enough,
several of the issues below may be contributing to the problem. Many of the
links below will take you to a new article, so I suggest you
article before clicking any links.
_ one or more
co-parents are unaware of, or deny, significant psychological wounds.
Use this to test for this
_ one or more
co-parents deny or minimize their stepfamily identity. See
this article for perspective and options.
unaware of, or are trivializing, the many concurrent
adjustment tasks faced by a stepchild. They
may not see that the child's "problem behavior" is a symptom of
being overwhelmed by these many tasks.
_ one or more adults
or kids aren't finished grieving major losses from prior divorce or
death, and stepfamily cohabiting and biofamily-merging. Study
Lesson 3 for perspective and options.
Recall: these are common root problems promoting typical stepchild -
_ the stepchild's
irritating behavior is really instinctive (unconscious) testing to see how much power s/he
has, who's in charge of the family, and how s/he ranks in the home and
whole family. Adults are often unaware of or minimize this normal need
_ the stepchild
perceives that the stepparent favors one or more other (bio or step)
kids, and the child c/overtly resents this. This is amplified if the
child's bioparent/s don't protest the favoritism.
_ the co-parents
don't know how to avoid - or spot and resolve -
values, membership, and
triangles that involve or affect the stepchild. This is
specially likely if there are significant relationship
the child's divorced parents.
_ the child is
"acting out" because their non-custodial; parent has abandoned them
and/or a sibling, and/or is mistreating some family member.
_ a bioparent or
other bio-relative is urging the child to defy, ignore, or resist the
stepparent. If so, this usually indicates the adult is an unrecovering
Grown Wounded Child
If none of these seem like they apply to your situation, consider getting
professional help. Before you do, read and discuss
Relations between stepparents and stepkids vary
between hostility and dislike to indifference to genuine bonding,
friendship, and love. This article presents a real example of a stepfather-stepson
"relationship problem," and identifies multiple underlying problems that the
co-parenting spouses were unaware of and/or denied.
The article offers a checklist to help identify common underlying
family-system problems that manifest as one-way or mutual dislike,
disrespect, distrust, dishonesty, antagonism, avoidance, and conflict. The
checklist applies to most troubled stepfamily relationships, including mates
and ex mates.