Let’s Talk About Stepfamilies

By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

Dear Terry,

 When I was six years old I became a stepchild. When my mom told me that she was going to marry Paul, I fantasized that everything would be normal and wonderful for me. Like other kids, I’d have a mom and dad, and we’d all live together in the same house. My mom even promised me that I’d have a sister or brother, which I always dreamt about.  At that point, I felt as though my life would be like the other kids who lived with both parents, but not much changed.

Actually things became more complicated when we moved an hour away. This meant not seeing my grandparents as much— which was hard because they helped raise me. Even more upsetting was getting used to my stepfather’s large family, and his two daughters. Although we get along better now, we used to fight a lot when they came to visit on weekends. We just didn’t seem to have much in common.  Even though I was young, I remember feeling rejected by them because they were older and more popular than me.

From the start, my stepdad tried to treat me like his own daughter but whenever he came close, I’d push him away or say something mean. I never really developed a father-daughter relationship with my stepdad. To this day, I still have a closer bond with my real dad, even though I don’t see him very much since he married Karen and they have a new baby. 

The problem is that I’ve always felt torn between my two dads and living in their different worlds. I’ve always felt as if I had to choose between them.  My family was split apart after the divorce. I lived with my mom and felt like I had to take sides. When my dad married Karen, it made matters worse because I knew that I couldn’t trust her. One weekend, I found her going through my stuff. Even though she said she was looking for a necklace she misplaced, I didn’t trust her after that. There has always been a lot of conflict between us and it feels like my dad picks her over me.  Last year they had a son, and he takes all of my dad’s time.    

This brings me to an experience that I’m currently having. Now that I’m sixteen, I want to move in with my grandparents and my mom thinks it’s a bad idea. Since I’ve visited them on weekends all these years, I still have close friends in their neighborhood. I’m not doing too well in school either so feel like I want a fresh start. My dad agrees that I should be able to choose where I live but how do I convince my mom that it’s the best decision for me?       

— Maggie, age 16  

Dear Maggie,

It is not surprising that you want to carve out your own identity and that you’re questioning your living arrangement. It’s normal to feel torn and to experience divided loyalties between two competing households in your situation. You never asked for all of these complications and being raised in a stepfamily is a mixed bag for sure. Living in a stepfamily is incredibly challenging – especially blended or complex ones, where one or both parents bring in children from previous marriages.

 In my blended family growing up, I also had to adjust to both a stepdad and a stepmom. My two sisters, who were teenagers when our parents’ divorced, never accepted my stepmother or stepbrother.  In my case, I was younger and bonded with my stepmom and stepbrother, but considered my stepdad to be a rival. Like you, I felt that if I was close to my stepdad, I was being disloyal to my real dad. For the most part, girls have a harder time getting close to stepdads than boys do, partly because girls may view their stepdad as a competitor for their mom’s attention or time.

It makes sense that you would want to reconnect with your grandparents and close friends. After all, stepfamily life is by far the most challenging for adolescent girls. Based on my research, girls have more difficulty coping with life in a stepfamily during adolescence than when they are younger. In most cases, living in a stepfamily means taking one day at a time.  If your mother won’t agree for you to move in with your grandparents, consider the following survival tips:

  • Avoid viewing your situation as permanent by taking on the perspective that while stepfamily life is stressful, it’s always changing. Most likely, you will be able to assert more independence and have more options as you get older.

  • Try to adopt a realistic viewpoint of your parents’ divorce. While you might wish that they never split, most parents divorce because they don’t get along. So if they’d stayed together, they’d probably have more problems today.

  • Use friends and websites geared for daughters of divorce as a way to vent your frustrations and to get support.  Professional counselors can be a good sounding board and sometimes they offer groups for teens from divorced families. Consider talking to a counselor in your high school about creating a group for kids dealing with divorce and stepfamilies if one doesn’t exist.

There has been a dramatic upsurge of people living in stepfamilies in recent years. Also, divorce occurs at a 10% higher rate for remarriages so some kids have to deal with multiple stepparents. Half of all divorced adults will remarry within four years after a divorce. These statistics may help you to realize that you’re not alone. Try not to take on the burden of your parents’ divorce and remember that things can and do get better. You can create a new story for your life – one that includes loving people and opportunities for personal growth.



Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter and Facebook.  She is pleased to announce the publication of Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-lasting Relationship (Sourcebooks).

Terry’s new book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, was published by Sounds True in February of 2020 and can be ordered here.