Blended Families

Blended families face unique challenges, and pediatricians can assist these parents and children by providing specific education that will help improve family relationships and expectations.


Approximately 40% of families with married parents and children in the United States are stepfamilies.(1)  
  1. 55% are African American families 
  2. 39% are white families 
  3. 36% are Hispanic families 
Children in stepfamilies have previously experienced loss (most commonly through the divorce of their biological parents) and often have difficulty adjusting to new family arrangements. Stepchildren face greater levels of family conflict (compared to nuclear family children) and are at increased risk for developmental behavioral problems, health problems, and substance abuse. A particularly risky time when these problems may emerge is during the time the stepfamily is initially integrating. 
The higher divorce rate for second marriages than first suggests that second marriages can be more challenging and the divorce rate is even higher if stepchildren are involved. 
Recently, researchers have reevaluated the statistics on divorce and demonstrated a lower divorce rate than previously noted. Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau, researchers found 72% of people are still married to their first spouse.(2)


  • Stepparents need support and education to lead a successful stepfamily and help break the cycle of divorce. The marriage must be strong to endure the many pressures stepfamilies face, thus providing a backbone of family stability.   
  • Stepchildren, especially those who have lived through a parental divorce, need to witness and learn from a healthy marital relationship.
  • Stepchildren benefit greatly when a stepfamily grows into a bonded, low-conflict family unit centered in a stable marriage.


If a child’s biological parents have divorced, that child is roughly twice as likely to divorce in the future as a child from an intact family. (3) 

If the child marries another stepchild, the divorce risk is three times higher.(4) 

The child’s future divorce risk increases with repeated divorces of parent(s), and the general well-being of children decreases as the number of marital transitions increases.(5) 

When step couples break the cycle of divorce by remaining married, this increases a child’s likelihood of a future stable marriage when they marry and increases the well-being of their children. (6)

Children of healthy stepfamilies tend to have the quality of their own marriages more closely mirror the stepfamily’s healthy marriage than the poor-quality marriage that ended in divorce.(7) 

Closeness with either a biological father or stepfather is associated with a decrease in the likelihood that an adolescent boy will someday divorce.(8)

 A 10-year longitudinal study of stepfamilies in America revealed that a loving, well-functioning stepfamily over time can negate many of the detrimental psychological impacts of divorce on children.(9)

Increased stress level

The average step couple has about three times as much stress as married couples of non-blended families.(10) 

Research shows that it often takes five to seven years of marriage for the tension levels of a step couple’s relationship to decrease to the level found in most first marriages. (10)


Prep for forming a blended family

Most couples in stepfamilies don’t seek premarital preparation. Less than 25% of step couples-to-be in a series of studies sought relationship or educational opportunities to discuss their upcoming marriage. Less than half read a book or magazine article about remarriage or step parenting. (11)

Premarital preparation can reduce the risk of divorce by 30%. (12)

Importance of parental unity

A study of more than 1,000 children in stepfather households found that children are better able to adapt to changes brought on by the introduction of a stepfather, and are more open to connecting with him emotionally, if they see a strong, united, and cooperative alliance between their mother and stepfather. (13)



This conversation should occur as soon as is possible when dealing with blended families.

This conversation involves the parents in blended family situations.

If possible, talk to the parents before the marriage occurs.

Children need more time than adults to accept the possibility of a parent remarrying. Introduce the children to your potential spouse gradually and in casual situations. Allow your children to develop their own relationship with your potential spouse without any pressure from you. When initially introducing your children, adults should not demonstrate physical affection. Allow your children to determine which enjoyable activities they would like you all to participate in together. Picnics in the park, visits to the zoo, and biking together are all nonthreatening events that allow the children to set the agenda and determine the degree of interaction they want with the potential spouse.

After the marriage, talk to the parents about the following topics:

The average stepfamily needs between five to seven years to form a family identity. In movies, love between adults and bonding with children happens quickly; in real life, it happens gradually. Be patient with yourself, your marriage, and the children as family members find their fit. You cook a stepfamily slowly in a Crock-pot, not forcibly in a blender. Do not expect that your stepchildren will instantly love and appreciate you as a new parent. 
The marriage relationship is the most important relationship in a stepfamily, yet often the most neglected. In stepfamilies, the parent-child bonds predate the couple’s relationship, often making the marriage the weakest relationship in the home and vulnerable to family stress. Express to your children that your marriage is the new foundation of the family and strive to balance nurturing your marriage with a strong commitment of time and energy to your children. Stepchildren will often be antagonistic toward your marriage, but maintain a long-term perspective and live as if a healthy marriage is just what the children desire. Someday they may come to appreciate, even celebrate, your marital commitment.   Constantly remind yourself that you are in this marriage for the long term. Be careful that you do not keep yourself emotionally guarded to protect yourself from hurt. Become a ghost buster. Identify and deal with any painful ghosts from a previous marriage so they don’t affect trust in this relationship. Try to prevent your fears from determining your actions because actions led by fears are problematic for your family.
Consider counseling for help working through challenges from the past and present. Common emotional stages for step couples are: 
– Anticipation/excitement 
 – Disillusionment/fear 
 – Struggle/discouragement 
 – Satisfaction/safety 
There is a honeymoon for step couples who persevere in their marriages; it just comes at the end of the journey, not at the beginning.

Make sure the new parents are working together as a parental team.

Early on, biological parents should continue to be the primary disciplinarian to their children while stepparents build relationship, trust, and respect with stepchildren. As stepparents transition toward having more authority, they need support from the biological parent. Biological parents should avoid making critical remarks about the stepparent in front of the children or reversing the stepparent’s decisions, as this undermines their authority. When in doubt about what to do in a parenting situation, tell the children that you will get back with them after discussing with your spouse. This response communicates to the children that you seek, respect, and honor each other’s input in parenting decisions, and it will speak volumes about your unity as a couple. Be proactive. Don’t wait until problems occur to discuss behavioral expectations, preferred methods of punishment and consequences to be enforced, and the values you wish to instill in the children. In general, communicate changes in rules or expectations to the children together. It is best if the biological parent takes the lead in sharing the change with the stepparent standing alongside. Remember, the home is the primary context in which your children will hopefully learn and experience the character of love. Love can be what holds the jigsaw pieces of a successful stepfamily together, resulting not in a bunch of broken, disconnected pieces, but a home.

Talk to the parents about helping their children work through difficult emotions.

Common difficult emotions for children in stepfamilies are grief, anger, separation, loss, disappointment, rejection, and feelings of uprootedness. Children also often struggle with divided loyalties between biological parents and stepparents. Children in stepfamilies have experienced loss by a divorce or death of a parent. When a custodial parent remarries after a divorce, children may feel further feelings of loss that the parent is abandoning them. The pain of the past often leads children to be guarded and untrusting and may cause a tremendous fear of the future. Painful emotions from the past must be dealt with so that children can grow to trust and move on. Children need their grief to be acknowledged and processed. A child who says, “You’re not my mom, I don’t have to listen to you” is telling you about their sadness that their mother is not present. Be aware that birth order is a powerful family dynamic, and shifts in birth order when families combine can be problematic for children. Pay special attention to the roles and jobs your children had in the family before the remarriage and try to have consistency when possible. Talk with your children about their feelings about how their place in the family has changed. During the early years, spend time every week with each child away from stepsiblings so as to affirm their uniqueness. Parents also need to work through their own painful emotions so they can better help their children work through their emotions.
Help the parents set up guidelines for dealing with ex-spouses.

If children transition between households, it is crucial to strive toward good communication with your ex-spouse. Good cooperation between households typically results in well-disciplined and better adjusted children. Ex-spouses who communicate well and cooperate on behalf of their children are also contributing to the success of the second marriage. Put your differences aside and focus on being good parents for your children.


Although difficult, it is definitely possible to blend two families together to form a cohesive, strong family. Encouraging parents who are anticipating forming a stepfamily to move slowly and allow time for children to adjust will help. By providing information on the stages of development in stepfamily formation, along with helpful resources, health care professionals can help ensure the strength and stability of stepfamilies and thus improve the long-term outcome of the children involved.


1. Karney BR, Garvan CW, Thomas MS. Family Formation in Florida: 2003 Baseline Survey of Attitudes, Beliefs, and Demographics Relating to Marriage and Family Formation. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida; 2003. Note: These findings were replicated in two other state representative samples.   
2. Kreider RM, Ellis R. Number, timing, and duration of marriages and divorces: 2009.  Current Population Reports P70-125. May 2011:19, table 10.
3. Fagan, P. The Effects of Divorce on Children. World Congress of Families II. 1999. August 24, 2015. 
4. Accessed August 24, 2015. 
5. Cherlin AJ. The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009;18-24. 
6. Deal RL. The Smart Stepfamily: 7 Steps to a Healthy Family. Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers; 2014. 
7. Yu T, Adler-Baeder F. The intergenerational transmission of relationship quality. J Divorce Remarriage. 2007;47(3):87-102. 
8. Risch SC, Jodi KM, Eccles JS. Role of the father-adolescent relationship in shaping adolescents’ attitudes. J Marriage Fam. 2004;66(1):46-58. 
9. Bray J. Stepfamilies: Love, Marriage, and Parenting in the First DecadeNew York, NY: Broadway Books; 1998. 
10. Hetherington EM, Kelly J. For Better or For Worse: Divorce ReconsideredNew York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company; 2002:165,197. 
11. Ganong L, Colman M. Stepfamily Relationships: Development, Dynamics, and Interventions. New York, NY: Kluwer Academic; 2004:68. 
12. Stanley SM, Amato PR, Johnson CA, Markman HJ. Premarital education, marital quality, and marital stability: findings from a large, random household survey. J Fam Psychol. 2006;20(1)117-126. 
13. Jensen TM, Shafer K. Stepfamily functioning and closeness: children’s views on second marriages and stepfather relationships. Soc Workadvance access, published March 24, 2013. doi: 10.1093/sw/swt007.


1. American College of Pediatricians handout, “Tips for Stepfamily Success,”
2. American College of Pediatricians, The Family Cycle,
5. The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family by Ron Deal and Gary Chapman ( sr=1-1&keywords=%E2%80%A2%09The+Smart+Stepfamily%3A+Seven+Steps+t o+a+Healthy+Family+by+Ron+Deal+and+Gary+Chapman ) 
6. The Smart Family DVD: An 8-Session Guide to a Healthy Stepfamily by Ron Deal ( &sr=1-1&keywords=%E2%80%A2%09The+Smart+Family+DVD%3A+An+8-Session+Guide+to+a+Healthy+Stepfamily+by+Ron+Deal ) 
7. The Smart Stepmom: Practical Steps to Help You Thrive by Laura Petherbride and Ron Deal ( 3382&sr=1-1-fkmr0&keywords=%E2%80%A2%09The+Smart+Stepmom%3A+Practical+S teps+to+Help+You+Thrive+by+Laura+Petherbride+and+Ron+Deal ) 
8. The Remarriage Check-Up by Ron Deal and David Olson ( =8-1-fkmr0&keywords=%E2%80%A2%09The+Remarriage+Check-Up+by+Ron+Deal+and+David+Olson ) 
9. Life in a Blender: Living in a Stepfamily by Ron L. Deal, booklet for children ages 10+ with parent discussion guide. Available from ( ) 
10. How Do I Feel About My Stepfamily by Julie Johnson, for ages 8-12 years ( ) 
11. Room for Rabbit by Roni Schotter, for ages 4-8 years ( &sr=1-1&keywords=%E2%80%A2%09Room+for+Rabbit+by+Roni+Schotter ) 
12. Two Homes by Claire Masurel, for ages 3-7 years ( &sr=1-1&keywords=Two+Homes+by+Claire+Masurel )