Lesson 7 of 7 - evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily

Stepparent - Stepchild
Relationship Problems

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Experts Council

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

Updated  07/25/15

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      This is one of a series of Lesson-7 articles on how to evolve 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 nuclear stepfamily.

      This article offers perspective on common relationship problems between stepparents and their stepkids. The article assumes you're familiar with....

  • the intro this nonprofit Web site and the to premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 7 parts 1 and 2

  • what's unique about family relationships?

  • Q&A about stepparenting and stepkids; and...

  • how to analyze and resolve most relationship problems

True Story

      A 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 identity. Neither co-parent or their ex mates had read or discussed anything about stepfamilies.

      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 said 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 relationship.

 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] cycle 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 psychologically wounded, and were unaware of that and what it meant. One meaning was they had probably made several unwise (needy, uninformed) remarital choices, and didn't (want to) know what they were getting into - a complex, multi-problem stepfamily.

  • These co-parents had unrealistic expectations of themselves and their family relationships because they denied their identity as a stepfamily and what it meant to all of them.

  • the adult couple didn't know how to problems-solve as teammates, and weren't aware of their option to learn this vital skill.

  • 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 relationship triangle, 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 stepfamily loyalty conflict 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 significant unfinished 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 evaluate it.

  • 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 marital discontent 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 openness unlikely.

  • 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 everyone.

      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:

 Possible Root Problems

      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 finish this article before clicking any links.

_ one or more co-parents are unaware of, or deny, significant psychological wounds. Use this to test for this possibility.

_ one or more co-parents deny or minimize their stepfamily identity. See this article for perspective and options.

_ co-parents are ignorant of stepfamily realities, and are using unrealistic (biofamily) expectations to manage their roles and relationships. Follow the links to assess for this problem.

_ co-parents are unaware of, or are trivializing, the many concurrent developmental and 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.

_ co-parents aren't aware of effective discipline principles and/or the keys to effective stepchild discipline. Follow the links.

      Recall: these are common root problems promoting typical stepchild - stepparent stress:

_ 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 to test.

_ 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 loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles that involve or affect the stepchild. This is specially likely if there are significant relationship problems between 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 (GWC).

      If none of these seem like they apply to your situation, consider getting qualified professional help. Before you do, read and discuss this.


      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.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or someone else?

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