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Feeling like a Family: Turning Points in Step-Families

By Jennifer Harman Ph.D. - Colorado State University

Adventures in Blending: Memoirs of Mixing Families

Photo Credit: News.com.au

After the Consultant and I moved our families in together, his youngest daughter (who I will refer to as #3 due to her birth order in our blended brood) started to attend the same elementary school as my two boys. I picked up my sons from school one day during a week when the Consultant’s kids were with their mother. While walking past us and after saying hello, a friend of #3’s asked, “who were they?” Her response was “they are my step-brothers.” My mouth dropped. Over the next several months, we then heard all of the children refer to each other as stepsiblings, without prompting or being instructed to do so. The Consultant and I were touched to say the least.

Prior to marriage ceremonies, members of stepfamilies report feeling like a family; cohabiting stepfamily members (where the parents do not marry but just live together) also undergo a process by which they redefine their roles and who they are to each other.1 When stepfamilies cohabit without marriage of the parents, there is understandably more uncertainty about the future of the family structure and the extent that the family relationships are involved with each other.2 How do kids resolve this uncertainty when they have to describe who they are in relation to each other?

Several years ago, I wrote a column about trying to find another word to describe who the Consultant was to me, because “boyfriend” did not feel significant enough, and neither of us had any intentions of getting married again (at that time). I wanted to learn more about how children find ways to label the changes in their family structure and relationships, as it had to be even more complicated than what I grappled with.  I am sure it could not have been easy for #3 to say, “those are my dad’s girlfriend’s sons who I live with every other week.” Stepsibling is much easier to say and requires less explanation.

In a study that interviewed 28 stepsiblings, researchers found that particular relational turning points, or periods of developmental change, predicted when stepsiblings started seeing themselves as a family.3 The turning points that led to increased feelings of being a family for most of the children were:

  1. Quality time: high quality time such as vacations and shared leisure activities.
  2. Remarriage: engagement or wedding ceremony that formalizes the stepparent’s relationship.
  3. Change in household and family composition: adding new members (e.g., new half-sibling) increased feelings of security.
  4. Relocation or geographical move: moving into a new house/location creates a new identity and start to the new family.
  5. Low conflict or disagreement: greater conflict with stepfamily members was associated with lower “family-like” feelings.
  6. Prosocial actions: gift giving or acts of kindness increased feelings of security and investment of stepfamily members.

At that time, we had about 5 of the 6 turning points working in our favor to explain why the kids were now referring to each other as stepsiblings. We spent a lot of leisure time together (e.g., family ski trips), a new puppy and kitten joined our family, we renovated and made my house “ours,” there was not much conflict within our family itself, and the Consultant and I regularly scheduled activities with each other’s children to show care and investment, such as getting pedicures together or throwing the football around.

Despite the fact that we all were starting to consider each other as family members, I learned that not being formal (legal) stepsiblings by marriage can cause problems for children. For example, others outside of the family don’t always recognize the step-relationships (e.g., school officials, medical providers)4 and they also often challenge the validity of the family relationships (e.g., “they are not real brothers if your parents are not married”). For example, when children are uncertain about whether their parent and new romantic partner will ultimately marry, they often have to manage negative evaluations and challenges from others about the authenticity (e.g., it is not a real relationship) and morality of their blended family.5 Ultimately, it was these types of challenges that motivated us to finally plan a commitment ceremony to formally bring our families together. 

All characters and events appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, or real experiences is purely coincidental. To learn more about this series, please click here.

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1Baxter, L. A., Braithwaite, D. O., Bryant, L., & Wagner, A. (2004). Stepchildren’s perceptions of the contradictions in communication with stepparents. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 21, 447467.

2Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2009). Couples’ reasons for cohabitation: Associations with individual well-being and relationship quality. Journal of Family Issues, 30, 233258.

3Nuru, A. K. & Wang, T. R. (2014). “She was stomping on everything that we used to think of as a family”: Communication and turning points in cohabiting (step)families. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 55, 145-163.

4Johnson, A. J., Craig, E. A., Haigh, M. M., Gilchrist, E. S., Lane, L. T., & Welch, N. S. (2009). Stepfamilies interfacing outside the home: Barriers to stepparent/stepchild communication with educational, medical, and legal personnel. In T. J. Socha & G. H. Stamp (Eds.), Parents, children, and communication II: Interfacing outside of the home (pp. 305–322). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

5Nuru, A. K., & Wang, T. R. (2017). “He’s my dad because he just is!”: Cohabiting (step)children’s responses to discursive challenges. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 58, 227-243.  

Dr.  Jennifer Harman - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Harman's research examines relationship behaviors that put people at-risk for physical and psychological health problems, such as how feelings and beliefs about risk (e.g., sexual risk taking) can be biased when in a relationship. She also studies the role of power on relationship commitment.

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