Quick Thoughts on Counseling Stepfamilies

January 30th, 2021 by posted in Marriage and Family

If published statistics are true, 66% or more of second marriages including children from previous marriages fail. This may be due in part to the increased stress experienced by all members of a new step, or blended family. Stress in a new family situation is normal. Even if the transition appears to be going well, the early years of a stepfamily relationship are often more likely to be difficult for all involved. In every stepfamily, at least some of the members have lost a relationship with a spouse or parent as a result of death or divorce.

Secular and integrated biblical counseling approaches do a good job of identifying patterns and similarities within stepfamilies that lead to problems. We will look at a few of these in this paper and then evaluate them against a biblical approach.

Two Common Step Family Issues

Loss   

As I mentioned in the introduction, stepfamilies are unique in contrast to first-time marriages in the fact that a parent and child has experienced significant loss in their life because of the death or divorce of a parent or spouse. Certainly, as a biblical counselor, this adds a unique challenge to premarital, or even post marital counseling. This loss may be significantly more difficult for a child than for a parent, because when the remarriage takes place, the parent has found joy and hope in their new spouse, yet even this new family may be seen as a loss from the viewpoint of the child. In the case of divorce the child must now, in their minds, make a choice between the parent they are no longer living with and their new stepparent. While a fresh start for mom and dad, stepfamily life for children means living in multiple households, having new siblings thrust upon them, and learning a new set of rules.

The New Parent

Another issue that must be dealt with in a new stepfamily, is the disconnect between the birth parent and the stepparent in the role of leading, disciplining, and loving the children. Who is this new adult assuming control in our home? Even worse, I am a stranger in their home. Is the new stepparent a replacement for my old parent? They could never replace the mom or dad that I lost, so it just feels wrong for mom or dad to marry someone else. It just makes me angry, sad, and confused. And so, from the biological parent’s side, it’s tempting to try and buffer their own children from these effects of the new family. It is very common for the birth parent to defend their child in a conflict with the stepparent, this results in tension between the new husband and wife and puts the child in a very powerful position within the family. And so, the step spouse can feel undermined as he or she tries to parent.

How Do We Counsel?

Secular, Christian, and biblical counselors might deal with this issue in different ways. One way counselors try and help with this issue is to set up separate counseling sessions between what they might call “family subsystems.” This means that they might counsel parents alone in one session, children alone in another session, the biological parent and biological child in a separate session, and the stepparent and child in another session. It is my opinion that this may not be the best way to counsel. Children are immature and foolish. Counseling children separately should be done carefully, if at all, because it may tend to give the children ammunition to use against their parents.

Many counselors define love within the family improperly. In his article on counseling stepfamilies, Ron L. Deal comments, “Normalcy in a First Family results from a feeling of love and safety between family members. Love, security, safety, and trust in stepfamilies, is developed slowly over time. “(emphasis mine)[1] This is certainly not a biblical definition of love. While affections grow naturally between the husband and wife, this is not so for the children and step parents. Commenting on this, Winston Smith writes, “God commands and helps us to love each other; he doesn’t command us to like each other. There is a big difference. Like is a feeling; love is much, much more.[2]

Secular and some Christian counselors advise the stepparent to be more of a coach or babysitter, then a parent. This is merely a coping technique that allows the child to progress at his or her own pace, again giving great power to the child.

Secular, and some Christian, counselors may advise that the stepparent allow their spouse “exclusive time with their children in order to help stepchildren not feel abandoned.”[3] This approach is favoritism, which is not a biblical approach to parenting (Romans 2:11, Ephesians 6:9 and Colossians 3:25). Roles do not need to be redefined simply because this is a stepfamily. The biblical roles are set in Scripture for the home.

So how do we respond to and teach stepfamilies? We take them to Scripture. In a very true sense, all Christians are part of God’s stepfamily. We were once strangers and aliens, apart from God. But because of God’s great love for us, he adopted us as his “stepchildren”, if you will. The churches relationship with Jesus is a marriage. Jesus is the husband to God’s stepfamily and while we often don’t understand, God holds his family together with his love and his grace. As in the church, stepfamily life isn’t hard just because everyone else in the family has problems. Some of the challenges stepfamily members face are because of the problems they bring to the family if family members are committed to growing in the grace of God and dependence upon him, they can learn to share that grace with others in their family.

Some quick closing thoughts on helping stepfamilies include, realize that God commands and helps us to love each other, God’s love can’t be earned any more than a parents love can be earned, no one in God’s stepfamily deserves to be there (Romans 3:23), stepfamily members must learn daily to be kind to one another and committed to one another, favoritism is more than a family issue; it’s a spiritual issue and very offensive to God.[4] And finally, God redeems the earthly stepfamily in the same way he redeems his stepfamily.

 

[1] Ron L Deal, Getting Remarried with Children: Effective PreStepfamily Counseling, Marriage & Family: A Christian Journal, (Volume 6, Issue 4, 2003), 486.

[2] Winston T. Smith, Help for Stepfamilies: Avoiding the Pitfalls and Learning to Love (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2008), 10.

[3] Ron L Deal, Getting Remarried with Children: Effective PreStepfamily Counseling, Marriage & Family: A Christian Journal, (Volume 6, Issue 4, 2003), 488.

[4] Winston T. Smith, Help for Stepfamilies: Avoiding the Pitfalls and Learning to Love (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2008), 10-11.

 


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