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.

How to Keep the Happy in the Holidays While Co-Parenting

by: Laura Moore, B.Sc. (Honours)

The media markets the holiday season as a “picture perfect” time to connect with your family; these unrealistic expectations are especially challenging while trying to co-parent. Letting go of “perfect” and working together with your previous partner during one of the most stressful times of the year may feel nearly impossible. Remembering every co-parenting situation can look different, the following tips can make it possible to keep the ‘happy’ in the holidays while co-parenting.

Plan Ahead But Be Flexible 

Create a holiday plan at least a month or more in advance of the holidays. This plan may be derived from your parenting plan or your separation agreement. While making this plan keep in mind the extended family and still encourage these connections on both sides. Although planning ahead is of the utmost importance, remaining flexible over the holidays will reduce upset for yourself, your previous partner, and your children. Believe it or not, the holiday schedule may be much more important to you than to your children.

It Starts with You

This holiday season (when you know you are going to be alone), make plans to see loved ones. Also, seek the help you need from a therapist to work through some of the grief and loss you may be experiencing during the holidays. In this process, you will begin to let go of expectations and find moments of happiness as you embrace new traditions. Allow space for you and your children to be upset and move away from the expectations surrounding the holiday season. By creating a safe, calm, and positive space for yourself, the effects will trickle down to your children as they often rely on you to help regulate their emotions and see the whole picture. Continue to collectively focus on what you do have together and not what you don’t have.

Less is More 

It’s not the presents that make the holidays so special; instead, it’s the presence of the ones we love. It is essential to communicate with the other parent about items that are off-limits for holidays and what is on your children’s gift list this year. Do not try and outdo one another; this will put a lot of pressure on you and make gift shopping and planning activities quite stressful. Try not to overcompensate with excessive activities and planning, and try to spread out the holidays. Most importantly, enjoy some of the simple pleasures of the holiday season. Doing so will allow you not to lose sight of what is most important!


Communication should be purposeful and child-focused. When you show empathy and care to your previous partner, it allows your children to see you still have a relationship with the other parent in a positive way. Schedule a phone call to talk about the upcoming holidays. If communication is difficult for you and your previous partner, possibly invest in a gift for one another this holiday and use a communication app, either 2houses or Our Family Wizard. Most importantly, do not use your children as a way to communicate messages back and forth between you two.


Although you may experience feeling you are alone, your previous partner is probably struggling just as much as you are. Have your children buy a present and make a card for the other parent. Letting your children love and communicate with the other parent will not affect your child’s love for you. As much as splitting the holiday season is new for you, it is also a new concept for your children. Encourage your children to consistently communicate with the other parent via phone, video call, and text. Create a shared album and add pictures to it each day. Also, your children will enjoy any chance where previous traditions can still be shared with both parents.

You cannot go wrong if you put your children first and let them be your guiding light as you navigate the holiday season while co-parenting. The “good enough” holiday season will happen when we let go of our expectations and enjoy what we have created for ourselves at this moment. Remind your children that no matter who they spend their holidays with, the holidays can create a magical feeling that will be in the memories for years to come!

Laura Moore, B.Sc. (Honours) is a therapist at the Centre For Interpersonal Relationships (CFIR) in Toronto. She is completing her Masters degree in Clinical Psychology at the Adler Graduate Professional School in Toronto. Laura works with adults and couples in therapy, to support them to overcome challenges related to depression, stress, grief and loss, trauma, and relationship conflicts. Her current research focuses on cultivating spousal attunement following traumatic experiences.