By Dennis Rainey
One of the most challenging and complicated problems facing families today is the issue of developing and maintaining healthy relationships with stepchildren. Undoubtedly, many new spouses must feel, upon entering into a stepfamily situation, that they are suddenly expected to act like Superman and “leap tall buildings with a single bound.”
Though stepfamilies may look like traditional nuclear families on the outside, the dynamics on the inside are very different. Two completely unique family cultures, two completely different sets of traditions, two completely different ways of dealing with issues must now reach happy (or at least peaceful) coexistence in one family.
Think about it: Roles for everyone are jumbled and confused … responsibilities are not clear cut as they usually are in a traditional family … activities once taken for granted (disciplining children, media and recreation choices, purchasing gifts, etc.) must now be reconsidered in light of their impact on new family members. Even something as basic as what titles you should use for each other needs to be discussed and decided upon as a family.
As a Christian stepparent, your ultimate goals should be no different from those of any other Christian parent. You should seek to honor Christ in your life, and you should seek to teach and model biblical principles to your children and help them apply those principles to their lives. Your challenge is how to reach those goals.
Following are a few suggestions for how you can work with your spouse to create a family environment where adults and children alike are faithfully growing and learning to apply God’s principles in your lives. Note that, while several of these suggestions apply to any family, you will need to find special ways to apply them in a stepfamily situation.
Make your marriage your top priority in family relationships
Stepparenting is often hampered by a new couple’s lack of commitment to build a strong marriage. Many remarried couples have experienced the truth of Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:24-27:
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall.”
Because of the unusual pressures they face, a new husband and wife who have children from previous marriages often have virtually no honeymoon period to concentrate on building a strong foundation for their marriage. So when the storms of a stepfamily hit the home, many couples crash and experience divorce quickly—often within the first two years.
Your marriage is the most important relationship in your family. Why? First, because it sets the tone for the stability and security of the home. Your children have not experienced this type of stability lately, and they need it. They also need to see a model of what God’s design for marriage should look like.
Second, you will draw strength and unity from your marriage relationship more than any other human relationship. Your spouse’s encouragement will help you keep going despite the flack you might be taking in the battle.
Teach and model sacrificial love in all your relationships
As children go through the pain and bitterness of divorce, and as they wrestle through their emotions watching their parents marry someone other than their biological parent, their understanding and perception of love is seriously challenged. Stepparents Edward and Sharon Douglas write, “Feelings of disappointment and anger may surface in children who are suddenly forced to adjust to a new family after separating from their biological parent whom they deeply love and care for. … The loss of a special relationship is one of the deepest psychological losses experienced.”
Some children will take the blame for their parents’ divorce and will think, “My parents don’t love me.” Others may be asking, “What is love? Is there really any such thing?” As doubt and cynicism set in, children often reject expressions of love toward them—not only from their stepparents but even from their biological parents.
This is why it’s critical that parents both teach and model sacrificial love in their relationships. John 15:12-14 says:
“This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you do what I command you.”
Stepchildren may need to be reintroduced to this type of love. As they hear parents communicating and modeling Christ’s love, the recent, imperfect examples of love will slowly but surely fade into the background.
Teach and model repentance and forgiveness in your relationships
Joshua once said, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). Are you proclaiming this to your children by your words and by your actions? To what extent are you willing to go to make this a reality?
Modeling repentance and forgiveness in all the relationships of a stepfamily situation may be one of your greatest challenges. Yet it will make an incredible impact on everyone if your family.
For example, you may face ongoing struggles with your ex-spouse—over time with your children, over differing standards of morality, or any number of other issues. This ex-spouse may act unreasonable and even vindictive. It is incredibly challenging to deal with a biological parent who has different ideas, values and expectations about the way their child should be raised.
In your anger and frustration, you may be tempted to malign the character of your ex-spouse in front of the children. You may want to seek revenge. But this is also one of the greatest opportunities you will have to model the love and grace of Jesus Christ. You have a critical choice to make: Will you model to your children how to walk in the flesh, or how to walk in the Spirit? Will you express grace and forgiveness?
Your children and stepchildren need you to lead them. It won’t be easy. However, the Bible exhorts us to teach and model how to resolve conflict correctly—through repentance, through forgiveness, and through His grace. Your example of Christ-like patience and kindness can show your children and stepchildren that God is at work in your stepfamily. And it will do something even more important—it will show them the Gospel. Your real-life example of forgiveness can give them a picture of Jesus Christ, who
“… was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. … He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth” (Isaiah 53:5,7).
Allow bonding to proceed at the pace of the child
Don’t expect to quickly develop a close relationship with a stepchild. Dena Sposato, who with her husband, Steve, directs a ministry for stepfamilies, writes, “It may take as many years as the child was old when the marriage occurred, for a ‘family feeling’ to develop between stepparent and stepchild. Children who were in the teen years when the marriage occurred may never bond to a point where the stepparent is a parent figure to them, they may develop only a good friendship.”
Allow the biological parent to assume primary disciplinary responsibilities for each stepchild
You need to develop a relationship with a stepchild before you begin to be involved in discipline. “Don’t rush it, or the bonding could take even longer and cause conflict in your stepfamily,” write Steve and Dena Sposato. “If the stepparent begins giving consequences and discipline before the child trusts that they are loved and safe with the stepparent, the relationship can be damaged.”
Young children may accept discipline from you more quickly, but with older children and teenagers, it may take at least a year. Talk regularly with your spouse, agree on boundaries and disciplinary actions, and back each other up as you deal with your children.
Establish God as the overriding authority in all of your lives
Children need to know that God has given you the position of authority over them. But more important, they need to know that:
For a child adjusting to divorce and remarriage, the world has been turned upside down. They are working through emotions of grief and loss, as well as anger, guilt, and fear. Even their sense of right and wrong has been significantly challenged through a series of events that have occurred before their very eyes. No longer is the world black and white but instead many shades of gray.
Wise stepparents will communicate to their children that though “The mind of man plans his way,” it is ultimately the Lord who is in control (Proverbs 16:9). And though they may be questioning decisions and the authority of their parents, His authority is always to be trusted for there is no end to “the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” His judgments are “unsearchable” and His ways “unfathomable!” (Romans 11:33).
They may not always be willing to listen, but children will take note as you model a submission to God’s authority. As they see you honor, respect and obey God in all matters, they will begin to follow your lead.
This becomes especially critical as stepchildren question and challenge the decisions of their stepparents. Or as you fail and fall short as a parent. Faithfully and lovingly going to Scripture when you’re questioned, and humbly admitting when you’re wrong, will show them that you follow God’s commands even when it’s hard. This deep respect for God and His Word and His authority over your life will serve to create an atmosphere that fosters good, healthy relationships with your children.