How to Parent Adult Step Children

Almost thirty years ago, Robert married a woman who had five grown children. No big deal, right? They ranged in age from mid-twenties to mid-thirties, so they had all been on their own for many years. They appeared to be well-adjusted, independent, responsible adults. They lived locally, and Robert and his wife socialized with them on a regular basis. So what was the problem?

It turns out that there were many, but primary among them was the fact that his wife’s family was, what the shrinks would call, enmeshed. They were ‘all up in’ one another’s business—they spoke to one another almost every day, saw one another several times a week, and seemed to be one another’s best friends, often to the exclusion of all others, including Robert. They were bright and funny people, but he often felt left out, like he was being humored, or allowed in on a conditional basis. The real pisser was that this was frequently happening under his own roof!

This wasn’t what he signed up for; he thought he was marrying a wonderful woman with whom to share his life. Instead, he commonly felt like an outsider in his own home. Occasionally, as his frustration mounted, he blew his top. This generally resulted in a mass exodus; instead of relief, however, he was left with a furious wife, who blamed him for driving her children from their home. The only way out of the doghouse was to make nice, invite everyone over again, grin and bear it; essentially starting back at the beginning of the vicious cycle.

So how has it changed in the ensuing decades?—quite a bit, though not necessarily in the ways and to the degree you might think or hope. Robert has developed close and loving relationships with some of his stepchildren, and has a genuine fondness for others. Their children (his step grandchildren) are especially important to him; for some, he is the only grandfather they’ve ever known, and he has played an active and essential role in their lives. As the adult children have become familiar with his privacy and space needs, they make every effort to respect them, and don’t take his outbursts so personally. True trust and intimacy are still elusive, though occasionally they feel within reach. His house continues to function as the hub, and is regularly overrun with step family members and the complexity they bring with them. His relationships with his own children have suffered, as resentment over the time, attention, and financial resources accorded the step family has erupted from time to time.

If you ask him, Robert will say that it hasn’t been easy, but it’s been worth it. The challenges of parenting adult step children are dramatically different than those of parenting younger children still living at home, but no less difficult. There is a shift in focus, away from the management of daily living and decision-making issues, and toward the larger life skills of communication, relationship and trust building. As with younger families, clarity and commitment are everything. Here are some of the lessons Robert has learned along the way:

1. Set boundaries. Especially in a moderately enmeshed family like this one, setting boundaries is an essential step toward creating the space and time necessary for the new marriage to flourish. As a couple, decide when, how often, and in what areas of the house family members are welcome. No need to apologize; just set the rules and respectfully enforce them.

2. Create and publish your Estate Plan. In some situations, relationships between step parent and adult biological children, or between adult step and biological siblings, will be strained by concerns over the dispensation of assets. If you make a plan before you marry, and let your adult children know what that plan is, you can avoid setting family members against one another. By the same token, if you make changes to your will or estate plan, be sure to inform (not discuss or get the approval of) the affected parties.

3. Divide your time between step and biological children/grandchildren. You’ve heard the old adage that mothers lose their sons, but keep their daughters. This refers, of course, to the tendency of couples to spend more time with the wife’s family than with the husband’s. I think that this usually evolves naturally, as wives are most often the ‘relationship keepers’; as the managers of this process, they understandably lean in the direction of those with whom they feel most comfortable. As a step parent, step out of your comfort zone and make a conscious effort to include both sets of children/grandchildren in your family traditions. Don’t give up; the children may not appreciate your efforts at first, but your spouse certainly will.

4. Stay open to relationships evolving over time. The only constant in life is change; do not assume that an initially strained or even overtly unfriendly relationship with an adult step child will stay that way forever. Grandchildren can be excellent bridge builders, and the death of biological parents can leave a hole you may be able to fill. Make a promise to yourself to stay open and positive. If or when they decide to accept your friendship is entirely up to them; meanwhile, you haven’t wasted precious energy and life force worrying over something which you cannot control.

The most common issue with adult step children is the misconception that they will not be a factor in the marriage. If your spouse has any relationship at all with his/her children, they will have an impact on your lives. Accept that fact, and do what you can to manage it in healthy ways.