Adult Stepfamilies: Bridging Connection Across the Generations
Adapted from the book When Your Parent Remarries Late In Life (2007) by Terri P. Smith
Compiled by Ron L. Deal. Used with permission of the author.
Adult stepfamilies (those with adult stepchildren) have similar dynamics to stepfamilies with minor aged children, but they also have some unique dynamics and challenges. In her insightful book When Your Parent Remarries Late In Life, Terri P. Smith provides help and hope to later life, multi-generational stepfamilies. While the book is primarily written to the adult stepchild, it holds great insight for the older couple and extended family members as well.
With the author’s permission, I share with you here just some of the insights from Terri’s book.
Before the Wedding:
1. Adult Children: acknowledge that your parent’s feelings and desires to pursue dating or marriage are legitimate. Watching a parent being romantic or affectionate with someone can be difficult and awkward. Prepare your heart to witness this at some point and plan how you will react.
2. Acknowledge the feelings of the adult stepchild. When a parent remarries adult children face complicated adjustments, divided loyalties, and feelings such as anger at their biological parent, exaggerated grief over the deceased or absent parent, betrayal, loneliness, even robbed of familiar family life. (p. xviii)
3. Adult Children: distinguish between your feelings (what you can’t control) and the behaviors you choose (what you can control). Don’t let your first reaction to a new marriage be based on the fear that your parent is making a poor decision.
4. Adult Children: mothers tend to be more open with dating decisions while fathers may not inform you of their dating and courtship practices. However, it is okay for you to ask if they are dating. Don’t be nosey, but articulating interest in their life is appropriate.
5. Extend a hand of friendship to one another. Get to know one another rather than treating them as an outsider.
6. Maintain communication and trust. Open and honest communication alleviates misinformed judgments about one another. If you have concerns, express them gently.
7. An engagement announcement can elicit strong feelings of hurt or anger if there is regret or hurt feelings related to the original family. The strong emotions sound the alarm that there is work to be done. Take the time to work through the hurt together so both you and the family can move forward.
8. Adult Children: an “I won’t support this marriage” posture is unbecoming of an adult and ultimately hurts you.
After the Wedding:
1. Adult Children: Find reasons to rejoice in your parent’s marriage. Obviously they are experiencing many blessings or they wouldn’t have gotten married. Try to celebrate that with them even if you are struggling to accept the situation.
2. Adult Children: Be considerate and give the newlyweds time to bond their relationship.
3. Stepparents: Occasionally give your new spouse and their children time together without you. This “compartmentalization” of relationships helps adult children (and grandchildren) to maintain their bonds without the constant sacrifice of having to share them with you. More often than not you will be with your spouse when he/she is with their children. An occasional “break” is helpful, especially in the early years of the marriage.
4. Discuss what terms or names you will use to refer to one another. Find something mutually agreeable and comfortable. Share how you would like the other to introduce you to others. Also, decide what names you will encourage the grandchildren to use. Young grandchildren may use uncomplicated terms of endearment (e.g., “grandpa”) or you find a variation on a family term that suits everyone (e.g., “Papa Joe”).
5. Treat one another as you would like to be treated. The Golden Rule isn’t just for kids.
6. Engage one another to get better acquainted. Share your interests, engage in the other’s interests, ask questions about their family history, and seek out opportunities to be together.
7. Adult Children: replace negative feelings with thoughts of respect. Esteem your stepparent for his/her position as your parent’s spouse. Try to embrace your stepparent’s children and extended family. Doing so serves your parent’s heart.
8. Adult Children: where your parent and stepparent live is their decision. Try to accept that.
9. Accept the fact that mom or dad’s financial assets belong to them. They can allocate them however they choose. Encourage them to communicate their wishes to you and to complete legal documents to minimize family squabbles. Realize that inheritance and financial changes may occur over time. Place your emphasis on relationships rather than material possessions. If you have a major concern for your parent’s welfare, consult a lawyer in your area to discuss your options.
10. Adult Children: remember your stepparent on holidays and invite them to special family celebrations. Send a Mother’s Day or Father’s Day card that reflects your sentiment and/or have a grandchild acknowledge them. Try to make them feel part of the family.
11. Simple mistakes are common during family transitions. Learn to overlook or move beyond them rather than “turn mountains into mole hills.”