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How age affects children's adjustment to stepfamilies

Raising children is demanding in any family. But, raising children in a blended family — a stepfamily — poses its own special challenges and tensions. Parents who bring children from a previous marriage to a new marriage need information, tools and resources for:

  • Helping their children adapt to changed conditions, and
  • Creating a new, healthy family unit

One important piece of information concerns how children typically react to living in a stepfamily. Their reactions vary according to age and stages of:

  • Physical development
  • Mental development
  • Emotional development

Ages and stages

The more parents know about these ages and stages, the more equipped they are to respond to their children’s needs.  The following information will help you reduce tension and improve relationships in stepfamilies.

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Conclusion

Keep children’s ages and developmental stages in mind as you decide how to deal with problems that arise in your stepfamily.

Start by asking if your child’s problem behavior is normal for his or her age and stage of development. If it’s not normal, you may need to seek professional help. If the behavior is normal, such as sibling rivalries or standard “teenage angst,” deal with it as you would in any family. Start by talking to your children to get to the bottom of things so you can respond appropriately.

Some problem behavior is directly related to the stepfamily. Here are a few:

Guilt 

As noted, this is a particular issue for preschoolers and elementary school-age children following a divorce. But these feelings can occur in children of any age. They think that if they had behaved “better” or done something different, the family would still be together.

Poor self-esteem

Some children might suffer from poor self-esteem following divorce. This is especially true if one parent abandons, or nearly abandons, them. A child might think, “Dad doesn’t love me, so how can anyone else love me?” Keep these things in mind in your dealings with your children.

Regressive behavior

Following divorce or a parent’s remarriage, some children might revert to problem behaviors they had when they were younger. These include bed-wetting and thumb-sucking. These kinds of regressive behaviors usually disappear on their own. But if they don’t, seek professional help for your children.

Love, patience, and know-how are key to addressing children's problem behaviors after divorce. Listen to your children. Show affection. Get information and, if necessary, consult professionals. Together, you can overcome problems and create a happy, healthy stepfamily.

Wendy Rubinyi, instructional design specialist, independent contractor

Minnell L. Tralle, Extension educator emeritus in family resiliency

Heather M. Lee, Extension educational resource development and support manager

Reviewed in 2012

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