Building a Successful Stepfamily

by: Alice Lurie, M.A., R.P.

Are you struggling in your new stepfamily? It is important to ensure that all stepfamily members have reliable information about what is typical in stepfamilies and how to work toward building healthy stepfamily dynamics. Stepfamily success is built on strong one-on-one relationships before strengthening the larger stepfamily system. Specifically, the couple relationship and the parent-child relationship need to be stabilized before other step relationships are focused on. Often, solutions to step-issues are about finding a middle ground and having empathy and compassion. This is especially important as step-relationships tend to accentuate and polarize differences in families (Papernow, 2013)

In some ways, stepfamilies do not function the same as nuclear families do yet many stepfamily members enter into their new family relationships with hopes or dreams of “returning to a normal” life pathway that was disrupted by death or divorce (Papernow, 1993). The more tightly stepfamily members hold on to expectations that may not apply any longer, the harder they will experience stepfamily formation and the more likely they are to experience significant difficulties in it. Building realistic expectations based on information about how stepfamilies function most effectively is important.

Stepfamilies tend to have more conflict than first families (Martin, 2009). This is distressing for adults and children alike, and can leave the adults more likely to give up before the family has had a chance to stabilize if they are unaware of this dynamic (Hetherington 1988). At times it can be challenging to integrate a step-parent into a child’s life. The manner of integration is crucial to how this relationship will evolve. Clinicians at CFIR are skilled in providing support to develop a healthy blended family environment.


Hetherington, E. M. (1988). Parents, children, and siblings six years after divorce. In R. Hinde & J. Stevenson-Hinde (Eds.), Relationships within families (pp. 55–79). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Martin, W. (2009). Stepmonster (1st ed.). New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Papernow, P. (1993). Becoming a stepfamily (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Papernow, P. (2013). Surviving and thriving in stepfamily relationships: what works and what doesn’t (1st ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Alice Lurie, M.A., R.P. is a registered psychotherapist at the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships (CFIR) in Ottawa. She works with adults and couples to support them to relieve distress and overcome difficulties related to anxiety and stress, depression and grief, anger management and emotional regulation, and career and workplace issues.