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Traditionally, a stepfamily is the family one acquires when a parent enters a new marriage, whether the parent was widowed or divorced. For example, if one's mother dies and one's father marries another woman, the new woman is one's stepmother. A less common term is blended family. The counseling slogan "Stepfamilies are born out of loss" applies to such a case. In modern stepfamilies, there is recognition that the biological parents may never have married. Unless one bioparent of a stepchild is deceased, typical nuclear stepfamilies do not live in one house, consisting of three or more parents, biological and otherwise. It is also possible, in a less strict sense, that the new mate chooses the role of full- or part-time caregiver without marital commitment. However, it is generally understood that after a "child" reaches adulthood, a parent's subsequent marriage cannot create a stepparent relationship without the adult "child's" express written consent.

In a simple stepfamily, only one stepparent has a prior child or children. Usually this is thought of in terms of minors, but the children of a stepfamily can also be adults. Stepbrothers and stepsisters exist in a blended, or complex stepfamily. In any case, any subsequent children fathered through the new marriage are one's half-siblings instead of stepsiblings, being related through one blood line, that of the one biological parent. Having a new child does not change the identity of stepfamily, nor does legal stepchild adoption.


The earliest recorded use of the prefix step-, in the form steop-, is from an 8th century]] glossary of Latin-Old English words. Steopsunu is given for the Latin word filiaster and steopmoder for nouerca. Similar words recorded later in Old English include stepbairn, stepchild and stepfather. The words are used to denote a connection resulting from the remarriage of a widowed parent and are related to the word ástíeped meaning bereaved, with stepbairn and stepchild occasionally used simply as synonyms for orphan. Words such as step-brother, step-niece and step-parent appeared much later and do not have any particular connotation with bereavement. Corresponding words in other Germanic languages include: Old High German stiuf- and Old Norse stjúp-.[1]

Legal status[]

Although, historically, stepfamilies are built through the institution of marriage, and are legally recognized, it is currently unclear if a stepfamily can be both established and recognized by less formal arrangements, such as when a man or woman with children cohabits with another man or woman outside of marriage. This relationship is becoming more common in all Western countries. Many divorced parents, often with children, re-couple with new partners outside of traditional marriage.

Historically and to this day, there appear to be many cultures in which these families are recognized socially, as de facto families. However in modern western culture it is often unclear as what, if any, social status and protection they enjoy in law.

The stepparent is a "legal stranger" in most of the US and has no legal right to the minor child no matter how involved in the child's life they are. The bioparents (and, where applicable adoptive parents) hold that privilege and responsibility. In most cases, the stepparent can not be ordered to pay child support.

With regard to unmarried couples; one can easily imagine such social and legal recognition; most notably in the case of common law marriage. Unmarried couples today may also find recognition locally through community consensus.

Still it is not at all clear what formal parenting roles, rights, responsibilities and social etiquette, should exist between "stepparents" and their "stepchildren". This often leaves the parents in unexpected conflicts with each other, their former spouses and the children.

For all the confusion which stepparents may feel, it is often even less clear to the stepchildren what the interpersonal relationships are, or should be between themselves and their stepsiblings; between themselves and their stepparent; and even between themselves and their birth parents.

These relationships can be extremely complex, especially in circumstances where each "step spouse" may bring children of their own to the home. Or alternatively, in households where children are expected to actively participate in each of the newly created families of both birth parents.

Although most stepfamilies can agree on what they do not want to be for one another, they are often hard pressed to agree upon what they do want to be for one another. This makes it difficult for everyone in the family to learn their roles. It is especially difficult for the children, because the roles and expectations of them change as they move between the homes and families of both of their birth parents.

Stepparent adoption[]

Stepparents can become legal parents to their stepchildren through the process of stepparent adoption. Both biological parents must consent, or agree, to the adoption. When a stepparent adopts their stepchild, either the non-custodial parent of the child willingly gives up his or her parental rights to the child, or the court terminates the parental rights of a biological parent if there is evidence of abuse or neglect to the child. If a parent is not involved in the child's life, the court can terminate that biological parents rights on the grounds of abandonment. Grounds for abandonment in most states are no contact between the parent and child for at least one year.

It is important to check with local laws when looking to complete a stepparent adoption. While having the non-custodial parent consent to the adoption is the easiest way to complete a stepparent adoption, it is still possible to have one completed when they either do not consent, or cannot be located.

If the biological parent who is not involved in the child's life cannot be found, a stepparent adoption can still occur. Typically, a public notice must be published in the newspaper for 30–45 days, stating the intention to have the biological parents' rights terminated, and the intent for the stepparent to adopt the child. If the biological parent does not respond to the notice, then the stepparent adoption will continue as though the absent parent consented to the adoption. [How to reference and link to summary or text]

In research[]

In her book, Becoming a Stepfamily, Patricia Papernow (1993) suggests that each stepfamily goes through seven distinct stages of development, which can be divided into the Early, Middle, and Late stages. The early stages consist of the Fantasy, Immersion, and Awareness stages. In the Fantasy stage, both children and parents are typically "stuck" in their fantasies or wishes for what their family could be like. The developmental task for this stage is for each member to articulate their wants and needs. In the Immersion stage, the family is typically struggling to live out the fantasy of a "perfect" blended family. In this stage, it is critical for the "insider spouse" (i.e. the biological parent who typically forms the emotional hub of the family) to understand that the feelings of the "outsider spouse" and children are real. The task of this stage is to persist in the struggle to become aware of the various experiences. This stage is followed by the Awareness stage, in which the family gathers information about what the new family looks like (e.g., roles, traditions, "family culture") and how each member feels about it. The tasks of this stage are twofold: individual and joint. The individual task is for each member to begin to put words to the feelings they are experiencing, and to voice their needs to other family members. The joint task is for family members to begin to transcend the "experiential gaps" and to try to form an understanding of other members' roles and experiences.

The middle stages consist of the Mobilization and Action stages. In the Mobilization stage, the step-parent can begin to step forward to address the family's process and structure. The tasks of this stage are to confront differences in each member's perception of the new family, as well as to influence one another without shaming or blaming. In the Action stage, the family begins to take action to reorganize the family structure. The goal here is to make joint decisions about new stepfamily rituals, rules, and roles. The focus in this stage is on the stepfamily's unique "middle ground" (i.e. the "areas of shared experience, shared values, and easy cooperative functioning created over time", p. 39), and on balancing this new middle ground with honoring of past and other relationships.

The later stages consist of the Contact and Resolution stages. In the Contact stage, the couple is working well together, the boundaries between households are clear, and step-parents have definite roles with step-children as "intimate outsiders." The task for this stage is in solidifying the step-parent's role, and in continuing the process of awareness. Finally, in the Resolution stage, the step-family's identity has become secure. The family accepts itself for who it is, there is a strong sense of the step-family's middle ground, and children feel secure in both households. The task for this stage is to nourish the depth and maturity gained through this process, and to rework any issues that might arise at family "nodal events" (e.g., weddings, funerals, graduations, etc.).

The stepfamily in myth and fiction[]

Main article: The stepfamily in myth and fiction

See also[]


  1. "step-" The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 4 April 2000 <Registration required, retrieved 15 December 2006.>

External links[]

United States[]

  • National Stepfamily Day - September 16. Stepfamily Day is enhanced by our strong commitment to support the stepfamilies of our nation in their mission to raise their children, create strong family structures to support the individual members of the family. Stepfamily Day is celebrated with a National Stepfamily Day picnic.
  • Step Talk - Where Stepparents Come to Vent Step Talk is a collaborative weblog which provides a place for stepparents to talk about their issues, offer support, provide solutions, give helpful advice, ask questions on stepparenting and blended families and vent. You can register for a free account and blog about your stepparent situation, post a question to one of many forums or just read about the drama others are going through.
  • 2nd Wives Club - Sisterhood for Stepmoms - Conversations about stepfamilies, remarriage, ex-wives, and more.
  • Stepparent Adoption Blog A blogs about all aspects of stepparent adoption. Articles about how to get through the legal process, dealing with emotional issues and abandonment issues in children, PAS and how to prevent being forced out of your child's life.
  • Barbara LeBey, Author of Remarried with Children, Ten Secrets for Blending and Extending Your Family published by Bantam, now in paperback 2005.
  • Gift-Children: The Future Term For Stepchildren?This is a look at using a new term to describe the role a stepchild takes in the family.


  • The British Second Wives Club The Club for Second Wives and Stepmothers in Britain, offering help, advice, support and friendship. The British Second Wives Club also welcomes international Second Wives And Stepmothers.
  • Care for the Family is a UK-based charity which aims to strengthen family life and help those hurting because of family breakdown. Its Life in a Stepfamily initiative offers help and support to stepfamilies.


  • Stepfamily Zone Australian site dedicated to stepfamilies and their unique challenges.
  • Stepfamily Forum Free forum and discussion board for all members of the stepfamily.


Further reading[]

  • Bray, J. H., & Berger, S. H. (1993). Developmental issues in stepfamilies research project: Family relationships and parent-child interactions. Journal of Family Psychology, 7, 76-90.
  • Bray, J. H., & Kelly, J. (1998). StepFamilies: Love, marriage, and parenting in the first decade. New York: Broadway Books. Paperback edition, April, 1999.
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