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Helping Stepchildren Cope with Dual Citizenship

Divorced parents who fight with each other are trampling on their most prized possession—their children who have to live in both homes
By Ron L. Deal

Most stepchildren live in two countries; that is, they hold citizenship in two homes and are invested in the quality of life found in both. Parents should do everything they can to help children thrive and enjoy each of their two homes.

Often I’m asked, “What if the rules in my ex’s home are different from the rules in our home?”

My answer? “It all depends on your diplomacy and how cooperative you are as an ambassador.” Let me explain.

Over 23 years ago my wife and I went with my parents to Kenya for a brief missionary effort. I will never forget going on safari in the Masai Mara and seeing lions, cheetahs, giraffes, and hundreds of other wild animals that Americans can only see in a zoo. But what I remember most distinctly was the radical change in culture that we experienced. Clothing was different, social customs seemed odd, the economy and systems of government were unknown to us. We had to learn to drive on the left side of the road. Despite all of these shifts in customs, ritual behaviors, and rules of conduct, we learned to adapt quite quickly.

My parents later returned to Kenya (about 15 times) to coordinate volunteer mission efforts in East Africa. The changes in culture we experienced initially grew more predictable for them, but they always experienced an adjustment period when traveling between countries. One year my father returned to the U.S. and began driving on the left side of the road. The oncoming traffic abruptly reminded him of the change in driving system! Generally speaking, though, my parents adapted to each country as needed.

Children can adjust

There are many parallels for stepchildren. At first, different rules, customs, and expectations between homes requires an extended adjustment. Later, when the territory becomes more familiar, only a brief adjustment time is required. Sometimes children need gentle reminders from their parents about what the rules are (“You may be able to play before homework at your mom’s house, but here the rule is...”). But generally speaking, children can adjust to the many differences rather well.

Can you imagine what travel for my parents would have been like if Kenya and the United States had been at war? Getting on a plane and heading to the “other side” would have been considered treason. An old African proverb says, “When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.” Divorced parents who fight with each other are trampling on their most prized possession—their children who have to live in both homes.

In his book, Stepfamilies: Love, Marriage, and Parenting in the First Decade, researcher James Bray warns that when one parent speaks negatively about a child’s other biological parent, the child internalizes the comment. In other words, “A child who hears a parent attacked thinks, in some way, he is also being attacked.” A simple comment like, “Your father is late again. He can be so irresponsible,” cuts the child as well as the parent.

Remember the biblical story of the two mothers fighting over a child (1 Kings 3)? Each woman had had a baby, but one accidently smothered hers to death during the night. She tried to take the other woman’s baby as her own. A battle ensued and each woman claimed to be the child’s mother.

No one knew who the living child belonged to, so the women were taken to Solomon for a decision. His ruse judgment to cut the baby in half and give half to each woman revealed the compassion of the true mother; ultimately she was given the child. I’ve long thought that Solomon’s decision was simply making plain what the battling parents were already doing—cutting the child. Ex-spouses and stepparents can do the same if they are not careful.

Are you making a POW swap every other weekend? How often are children trampled? As citizens of two countries, they should be privileged to all the rights, relationships, and responsibilities of each home. Your job is to be at peace with the other country so your children can travel back and forth in love.


For those ministering to stepfamilies:

Most church-based education programs for parents never discuss conflicts and parenting matters that occur between homes. Speak to the teachers of your Bible classes and small groups and encourage them to address these issues. Ron’s free online e-booklet, Parenting After Divorce, can help.


© 2010 by Ron L. Deal. All rights reserved.

FamilyLife is a donor-supported ministry offering practical and biblical resources and events to help you build a godly marriage and family.

Meet the Author: Ron L. Deal

Ron Deal

Ron Deal is a marriage and family author, conference speaker, and therapist. He is founder and president of Smart Stepfamilies™ and director of FamilyLife Blended™, the ministry initiative of FamilyLife® to stepfamilies (for more visit and 

Ron is author of The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family (and DVD series), The Smart Stepdad, Dating and the Single Parent, The Smart Stepmom (with Laura Petherbridge), and The Smart Stepfamily Marriage: Keys to Success in the Blended Family (with Dr. David Olson). A highly sought-after, recognized expert in marriage and blended families, Ron is a member of the Stepfamily Expert Council for the National Stepfamily Resource Center, and is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Licensed Professional Counselor with over 25 years experience in local church ministry and family ministry consulting. He is a featured expert on the video curriculum Single and Parenting (2011, Church Initiative) and his material is widely distributed by a variety of family education initiatives

Ron served as a member of the Couple Checkup Research Team (headed by Dr. David Olson, PREPARE-ENRICH) which conducted the two largest studies of marital strength ever accomplished. They surveyed over 100,000 marriages and remarriages (over 200,000 people) and examined the qualitative differences between highly satisfied marriages and low-quality marriages. The results of their groundbreaking research for couples are published in the books The Couple Checkup (Olson, Larson, & Olson-Sigg, 2008) and The Smart Stepfamily Marriage (Deal & Olson, 2015), and are featured in Ron’s newest seminar for dating, engaged, married, and remarried couples, the Couple Checkup Conference.

Ron is a popular conference speaker and has appeared in dozens of national radio and TV broadcasts both in the U.S. and Canada. His daily 60-second radio feature, FamilyLife Blended, is heard by thousands each week around the country and online. He has appeared on Fox News, MSNBC, ABC’s Nightline, WGN-News, The Mike Huckabee Show, FamilyLife Today, Focus on the Family, HomeWord with Jim Burns, Celebration, and The 700 Club, and his work has been referenced online (e.g.,,, in magazines (e.g., Essence), and in newspapers throughout the world (e.g., USA Today, New York Daily News, Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal, and Minnesota Star Tribune). The May 2012 issue of Ladies' Home Journal featured Ron's therapy work with a blended family couple in their popular feature column “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” Ron has written feature family articles addressing a variety of family matters for a variety of publications and online magazines including Focus on the Family magazine, ParentLife, The Family Room, Gospel Today, Christianity Today, and HomeLife magazine. On a regular basis Ron trains therapists, marriage educators, and ministry professionals at conferences around the country and has spoken at the National Stepfamily Conference, and the Utah and Arkansas Governors' conferences on the family.

Ron and his wife, Nan, have three boys. Their middle son, Connor, died unexpectedly in February 2009 at the age of 12. In his memory, the Deal's have partnered with Touch a Life Foundation to rescue and rehabilitate children in Ghana, West Africa, from trafficking. They would be honored if you would help them sing Connor's song. Visit Connor's Song to learn more about this ministry and to hear Connor sing.

In addition to FamilyLife sponsored events Ron is available to present his Couple Checkup Conference or Building A Successful Stepfamily conference in your church or community. Learn more here.



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