Episode 45: Supporting Healthy Stepfamilies

In this episode of The Family Couch, we talk with Marquita Johnson, a Licensed Professional Counselor, about stepfamilies and the dynamics that come with part of being in a stepfamily.  

We dive right in and discuss qualities that a stepfamily has that other traditional families may not have.  Johnson provides that different parenting styles is number one.  Another is having children that live between multiple homes.  She explains that it is difficult to manage the changes between the rules and lifestyle of two different homes.  Stepfamilies are born out of some type of grief or loss.  In stepfamilies we want individuals to still keep their identity and not necessarily blend into one family as many people describe as the “blended family.”  We all want to keep our identity and be ourselves.  This is especially concerning for children because they are already going through changes.  

We next discuss how to navigate the dynamic with the child and their new parent.  Johnson describes this relationship as “loyalty bonds.”  She gives an example of when you have a best friend and they make a new friend that you have to accept into your friend group.  You have to share your best friend with this new person and it’s an odd feeling.  In families, it’s the same issue but it’s at a heightened level.  Children may have a feeling of guilt in liking their new stepparent–like they’re going against their biological parent.  Johnson suggests having family meetings to discuss the transition to the new family and says that often parents just expect their children to be happy because they are happy.  If you have a toxic ex-spouse that is in the mix, this can create even more confusion and drama.  Splitting up holidays and birthdays, etc, becomes stressful for the child.  Johnson provides that it normally takes about seven years for a stepfamily to form.  

To manage loyalty bonds and the parent on the outside of the new stepfamily, Johnson says the mirroring technique is very helpful.  We need to display the behavior that we want the other parent to display.  This means we have to be the bigger person, as our children are watching.  Johnson provides a quote, “You have to love your child more than you dislike your ex-spouse.”  This will help you communicate and make the co-parenting relationship work.  Sometimes the struggle is that the new stepparent needs to take a different role for a while until things really come together.  You have to recognize that you are not the birth parent, even though you may be supporting the child financially and emotionally at the time.  Johnson suggests trying to be more proactive than reactive and having a plan in place before situations occur.  It is extremely important that everyone in the family feels that their voice is being heard.

We change gears and discuss the stepparent’s role in forming the new family.  Johnson uses herself as an example.  She was a stepmother who at the time did not have children of her own, so she was ready to jump in.  She was not thinking about what the child needed from her but instead what her plan was to help the child.  Johnson said the stepparent needs to look at what their motives are and recognize his or her place within the family.  She suggests taking things slow and being open to the fact that your role may change from time to time.  Sometimes old issues may come up, like unresolved issues from the past that the stepparent may need to deal with.  Communication between the spouses is key, and Johnson suggests making sure the stepparents’ voice is also heard.

Johnson says it is good to let the child identify you as what is comfortable to them.  Sometimes it is Bonus Mom, Stepmom, Mrs. Smith, or Mom #2.  It is good to give the child the freedom to use the name they are comfortable with.  It is also important to note that the relationship between the old spouse or partner and the new spouse can also be very murky.  How the relationship ended is an important factor.  If there is unfinished business, they may not even recognize they are in need of healing.  In this circumstance, everyone is grieving at some level–the children, the significant other, the new spouse…you have to move through the stages of grief, and everyone does this differently.  

When moving through the grief process, Johnson feels that the most emotionally stable person should be the one to guide the rest of the family through. Sometimes this may be the new spouse, since they are coming from the outside looking in.  This may mean reaching out to a professional to help get your family on the right path.  If you’re in a serious relationship with someone, you want to be able to seek out help to be more preventative if necessary.  If you are willing to do the work, you can have a great experience as a new family unit.  We want to be able to physically bring the new person or people into the family but also emotionally deal with any baggage or issues up front.



Marquita Johnson is a Licensed Professional Counselor in the state of Georgia whose specialties include relationships, including dating relationships and stepfamily relationships among others.  She also provides presentations and consultation to schools, companies, and places of worship.



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