With 1 in every 5 adults in the United States getting divorced, you could find yourself experiencing your parents’ divorce and becoming part of a step-family or a new family unit (such as a single parent family).
A step-family might be created when your mom or dad marries or moves in with a new partner, who might also have children of their own from previous relationships. Being part of a step-family might mean you live entirely with one parent (and possibly a new family) or that you split your time between parents and families.
Even if your parent’s boyfriend or girlfriend doesn’t move in with you, you may still think of him or her and his or her family as your step-family.
Challenges when you’re part of a new step-family/new family unit
You might face a range of issues when you become part of a new step-family or family unit. These might include:
Divided loyalties. Having more than one family unit can feel like you have to choose between two different families or that you have to divide your loyalties and love between the two.
This might make you feel guilty or distressed. If you feel this way, it is important you speak to your parents about it.
Extended family. As well as adjusting to your parents’ new partners, you may have to adjust to the partner’s children and other members of their family.
Parents. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that your parents and their new partners might also be going through a difficult time coping with the changes too.
Negotiating relationships. Like any new relationship, working out your needs and expectations within the new family can be difficult. It can also be hard to accept and adjust to a new partner in your mom or dad’s life.
For example, it is possible that you may not like the idea of being known as the ‘daughter’ or ‘son’ of your mom or dad’s new partner. If this is the case, it is important that you let your parents know how you feel early on, so that it doesn’t continue to annoy you. Talking to someone outside of the situation can help you work out how to raise this subject if you think it might be a sensitive one.
Your mom or dad’s new partner may want to impose certain rules as a ‘parent’ in the household. This may be difficult to accept at first, especially if the new ‘parent’ has different rules than what you’re used to. These are things that should also be discussed early on in the relationship.
What about the past? A new family doesn’t mean you reject or forget your experiences with your original family. You might feel a range of emotions, including grief, confusion, or anger. You might also feel like you no longer believe a happy family environment is possible.
There are other fact sheets on ReachOut that you might find useful. These include:
- Family counseling or therapy;
- Conflict with your parents;
- Managing expectations;
- Holidays with your family.
Suggestions for making the transition smoother
Accept the challenge. Moving into any new environment or new relationship can be daunting. It’s important not to give up on it before it starts or make any judgments about the new people in your life or about how you will fit in.
Take one day at a time. It can take months and sometimes even years for things to settle down. You might find it helpful to focus on one family member that you click with, and let them help you to get to know everyone else.
Having your own space. If you are dividing your time living between two families, you might feel as if you have no proper home. One solution is to make sure you have your own space at both houses, which might include your toiletries, favorite music, and clothes. If shifting between houses each week is too disruptive and difficult, talk to your parents about changing to an arrangement that you feel will work best. If this is a difficult subject to raise it could be helpful to talk to someone outside of the situation first to work out the best way to approach it.
Make time for yourself. Coping with any new situation and changes can be stressful. It’s important to take time out to do things for yourself and stick to other routines. This might include catching up with friends, going to the park, or exercise.
Speak to other family members. Don’t be afraid to talk to those people who live under the same roof as you, including your mom or dad, their new partner, any siblings, and any stepbrothers or sisters. They could be feeling the same way.
Sharing with others how you are feeling about everything can be helpful because it can lead to decisions on what you want to happen. It’s important to speak up - and earlier, rather than later!
Speak to someone outside the situation. You might also find it helpful to talk to someone who’s not directly involved, such as a friend, teacher or counselor. Even if you think people won’t understand, just giving a voice to your thoughts can help you gain perspective. If things aren’t going so well, the earlier you get help the better.
You may prefer to speak to someone anonymously - The Boys Town National Hotline 1(800) 448-3000 has trained volunteers who are available 24/7, and the call does not show up on the land line phone bill but would show up on your cell phone bill.
Even though it might not feel like it at the beginning, being a part of a step-family can be a positive experience. Once you’ve got through the initial transition stage, some of the positive aspects might include:
A bigger family. A bigger support network means more people to support you through the tough times, as well as celebrate the good times.
More flexibility. Step-families often have more flexibility in finding different ways of working and living together.
The experience will help you gain greater resilience and problem-solving skills.
Statistics provided by the United States Census Bureau.