Stepfamilies: How Congregations Can Provide Needed Support
Congregations can and should provide support for stepfamilies. But to do so, they need to understand some of the dynamics of stepfamilies. Here are four quick reminders:
- Stepfamily roles are unclear. In churches, we often don’t even acknowledge stepfamily relationships. The examples we use in our literature, sermons, and newsletter articles often reflect only a “first family” experience. And even when we make an effort to include single-parent families, we still fail to include stepfamily examples, images, and language. Support groups that provide settings for adults to talk with one another about what it means to be a stepparent are helpful. Groups for children and youth are also important.
- In many stepfamilies, the children move in and out of the family configuration. In fact, these families are sometimes called “revolving door families.” If both spouses have children from previous marriages, at any given point in time the children in the household may shift and change. Some weeks, there are five children. Other weeks, there may be only one in the household. Remember this when you ask children such questions as: Who is in your family? (Which family? When?) Describe your room at home (Which home?) Do you have brothers or sisters? (In which home? Do I count my stepbrothers and stepsisters if I don’t spend much time with them?)
- Stepfamilies are ALWAYS different from “first families.” In a stepfamily, those who have come from a previous marriage/family have at some level experienced loss that has changed their lives. Even adults who move from an unhappy marriage to a happy one still experience the loss of the previous relationship and the hope and dream with which they began the previous marriage. It is important to recognize that stepfamilies are a different kind of family with different needs because of prior family experiences.
- Stepfamilies often have to create new rituals and celebrations. To have everyone in the new family present at a given holiday is often difficult. Children from previous marriages may or may not be present at such times as Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, birthdays, and so on. In resourcing families for these religious and cultural celebrations, include suggestions for celebrations and rituals at times other than the designated time on the calendar.
- Breaking & Mending: Divorce and God's Grace by Mary Lou Redding (Upper Room Books, 1-800-972-0433). In struggling to make sense of her own painful divorce, Redding looked to the Bible where she found guidance and hope.
- National Stepfamily Resource Center provides resources and organizational help to people working with stepfamilies.
- The Stepfamily Foundation provides counseling lectures, seminars, and resources related to stepfamily issues. Contact Stepfamily Foundation Resources, 310 West 85th St., #1B, New York, NY 10024; 212-877-3244. Website: http://www.stepfamily.org.