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.

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.

Preschoolers (ages 2-5)

Divorce is seldom final for preschoolers. If they believe their original family may one day be reunited, remarriage poses a threat. Many preschoolers feel guilty about their parents’ divorce. They think things like, “Daddy left because I was too noisy,” or “If I hadn’t been naughty, Mommy would not have gone away.”

As a biological parent, you can help preschoolers adjust to a new family in three important ways:

  • Being sensitive to their feelings.
  • Listening to them.
  • Frequently reassuring them of your love and continued presence in their lives.

Preschoolers handle dividing their time between two households relatively easily. But their thoughts and feelings don't go away easily. And they may still fear abandonment by one parent following a remarriage. This makes it even more important to reassure your children of your love often. And repeat other things often to help very young children accept what’s happening.

You also need to assure preschoolers that it’s okay to love the stepparent. Tell them this doesn’t cancel their love for you or their other biological parent. But, understand that love for a stepparent won’t happen immediately.

Again, assure preschoolers that it’s possible to love both biological parents and stepparents. Do not make preschoolers (or any child) choose between parents or families! This can delay, or even seriously damage, children’s emotional development.

Elementary school-age children (ages 6-10)

Like preschoolers, elementary school-age children may feel guilty over a divorce. This feeling might manifest itself in poor school performance or lack of interest in activities outside school.

Children of this age often feel as if everything is out of control, so try to give them more say in their personal lives. For example, let them choose their own clothes and hairstyles and let them decorate their rooms. (But don’t forget to enforce standards. They still need to keep their rooms neat and follow school dress codes about clothes and hair.)

Elementary school-age children may think their biological parents will get back together. Remarriage ends that illusion. This may restart the grieving process for them and cause them to neglect school or chores (and appear disorganized or lazy). If you see these signs, give children ample opportunity to talk about feelings. Let them know you understand their sense of loss.

Preteens (ages 11-12)

Adolescence is the time when children begin to pull away from the family and start to test their independence. This is also when the potential for conflict increases in stepfamilies. Adolescence is a period of grievances. Divorce and remarriage tend to increase those feelings, says Psychologist Carl Pickhardt.

Preteens in stepfamilies often focus resentment of adult authority on the stepparent. Pickhardt also notes that the stepparent is “an easy target for blame, since in this relationship there is no history of love — so there’s no love to lose.”

So what should the adults in a stepfamily do to smooth the family transition for preteens? Above all, remember that preteens still need to know that the family will support them when they need it.

Part of a parent and stepparent’s job at this stage is to help children think through what might happen if they take various actions.

Don’t make decisions for preteens, which might push them to make bad choices just to show their independence. Instead, give them “safe” options and alternatives, and then let them choose and learn from the natural consequences that follow.

If you’re a stepparent, you might be tempted to back away from interacting with preteens to avoid conflict. Pickhardt advises the opposite. “Stepparent and adolescent actually need more contact," he says. They need to spend time together without the biological parent around, he adds. Spending exclusive time together gives stepparent and preteen a chance to get to know each other better. This also fosters communication and companionship.

Teens (ages 13-18)

Although teens are becoming aware of their own sexuality, they often see their parents as nonsexual. As a result, teens may find a biological parent’s remarriage uncomfortable. Especially if a couple shows affection for each other in the teens’ presence.

When a parent remarries, teens may also resent giving up some of the adult responsibilities they took on while they were living with one parent. Those responsibilities might have included decision making about family finances. Or watching over younger siblings.

When this happens, open, honest communication will help teens realize they’re still loved and valued. You can also identify which tasks teens may want to continue doing, as well as decisions they’d still like to be part of. Some teens might also welcome giving up some adult responsibilities. This will give them more time to pursue worthwhile activities of their own choice.

Some teens may want to spend more time with the non-residential parent while they adjust to a parent’s remarriage. Be flexible and let your teens have more say about the household where they want to spend their time.

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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