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The Recovery Expert
with Sharie Stines, Psy.D.

Navigating the Extended Family in a Step Family

Navigating a step-family can be a challenging endeavor. Add the inclusion of extended family relationships, and the endeavor can prove daunting. If you are in one, you understand this truth.

The creation of a step-family is not seamless; it is convoluted. As with all relationships, people bring a history. Each family member brings an individual family history with him or herself.  Every family has a culture. When a new step family is created, it is born out of loss and grief.  The rules for step families are not in any way the same as in traditional families.

There are many unspoken dynamics in families. The unspoken dynamics in step-families are no exception.  For instance, there really is no history between the stepchildren and their new stepparent, while there is lifelong history between children and their bio-parents. This instantly creates alliances and loyalties that simply do not occur in traditional families.  These underlying alliances come with underlying beliefs, emotions, and coping mechanisms.

Adding extended family members’ underlying beliefs, emotions, and coping mechanisms to the mix creates a recipe for potential chaos.

This article is written to help step-families best cope with the issue of the extended family.

Oftentimes, the new parents are somewhat oblivious to the feelings of the extended family members; newlyweds are full of the promise of a new beginning, while the extended family is not feeling the oxytocin, adrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine that the lovers are feeling. Instead, they may still have the cortisol coursing through their system from the anger and hurt experienced by broken dreams.

Be aware of unrealistic expectations.

In divorce situations there are almost always feelings of betrayal.  This leads to strong emotions on the part of the parents, which result in needing their children to pick sides. Unfortunately, even the most mature of individuals struggle with needing their loved ones to make a stand of loyalty by picking sides; this same expectation applies to ones’ own children.

When you feel betrayed by your ex you do not want your children to choose to be with him, or his extended family.  Moms particularly feel incensed by a perceived lack of loyalty, and must learn to fight this urge.

The ex-husband’s extended family will usually side with him, while the ex-wife’s extended family will usually side with her. The children, unfortunate innocents in the situation, do not love either parent any less – regardless of who was “at fault.”  They most likely enjoy being with all members of their family and are crushed that now everything is divided.

For children, this sense of living between two angry parents and two factions of a war zone is stressful and anxiety producing.  How can you help your children have a healthy and happy life in spite of their situation?

Here is some advice on how to traverse this difficult terrain:

  • See the truth. Realize that your children love both parents equally. This same reality applies to extended family members as well. Just because two people choose to end their relationship, everyone else involved were innocent bystanders. Acknowledge this reality.
  • Reflect and attune with your children. Reflect that the situation is painful, and let them have the freedom to express their true thoughts and feelings with you. When they do open up to you, mirror back to them what they are saying, such as, “I see that this is very painful for you…” Do not try to fix their feelings or make what they feel wrong. Validate their emotions.
  • Give your children space to make their own decisions regarding family. Neither force your children to visit extended family members, nor prevent them from visiting them, unless, of course, safety and security are at stake.
  • Support them in their decision. Let your children feel your support. Children need adults to teach them things. As you allow your children to make decisions about who they want to visit or not, you are empowering them to make their own important decisions in life. This helps build their confidence.
  • If your children do not want to see a particular relative, be the adult and have the difficult conversation; don’t require your children to take on adults.
  • Do not make it your kids’ job to worry about how the adults feel. Your children are not responsible for your feelings. If the other parent tries to lay “guilt trips” on your children, remind your children that the only person each one is responsible for is the self.
  • Teach your children how to have healthy boundaries in a blended family. Let them understand that they can have their own individual relationships with each of their extended family members as they see fit. They do not need to share these relationships with you.
  • Lay down your need for loyalty. Give up the hope that your kids will choose sides. It’s hard, but you can do it. Take a deep breath and hold your hands open in order to let go.
  • When your children do visit extended family members, make sure that they have a cell phone with them so they can contact you at any time. Anything you can do to safeguard your children’s security is beneficial for all involved.
  • If the extended family is toxic, make every effort to protect your children. Be prepared to remove your children from any toxic situations. Take legal action if that is necessary.
  • Do not demonstrate bitterness and resentment around your children. Learn to process your negative feelings regarding the other party and his extended family separately from your children. You can be honest with your children without processing all of your negative feelings in their presence.

While the journey of the step family is difficult, there can be many positive results. Give yourself, your children, and the other relatives time to grieve, adjust, and develop a new “normal.”  Take your life one day at a time, one challenge at a time. Do not be surprised that it is difficult, but do not rest in the belief that it will always be hard. Find the silver linings and be open to creating new traditions while also holding on to some of the old.  Remind yourself that you are teaching your children how to be resilient, open, and loving.

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Navigating the Extended Family in a Step Family

APA Reference
Stines, S. (2017). Navigating the Extended Family in a Step Family. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 21, 2019, from