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Is It Graduation Time?

Transitioning your stepfamily to the next level.
By Ron L. Deal

Graduation is a time when many high school and college students, along with their families, experience the reward of hard work and dedication. In addition to the celebration, graduation creates an important transition and gateway to another stage of life. Increased independence, financial autonomy, a job or college, even marriage awaits the new graduate.

I’ve often wondered, When is it time for stepfamilies and stepparents to graduate to the next stage of life? For example, stepfamilies often spend a number of years learning how to become family to one another, but when is it time for them to stop viewing their relationships as new or tentative and instead graduate into an established family identity?

A stepmom named Carri got me thinking about this when she asked an insightful question. “Much of the stepfamily materials that I read are really about surviving the first few years. I know that’s the most difficult aspect of stepfamily living for most people, but what happens after that?”

A healthy stepfamily perspective recognizes that due to a lack of emotional bonds, stepfamilies function differently than biological families in many key ways. For example, stepparents cannot claim the same level of authority as biological parents just because they are adults in the home. Respect and authority must be earned and developed over time.

But once this has been established, how does a stepparent know when it’s time to “graduate” to the next level? How do parents know it’s time to move into the next season of their family experience?

Two key questions

Carri’s family has a lot going for it. At the age of 46, Carri is the stepmother of two young adult children and has been in their lives since they were four and two years old. She and her husband, Doug, have a strong marriage and his ex-wife is cordial and cooperative for the most part.

I told Carri that there’s not an established criteria to determine when a stepfamily is ready to “graduate” to the next level because the pace of stepfamily development and maturity is different for each family. But I did offer her two questions that she and her husband could discuss to help them decide if was time to move past thinking of themselves as a “family in the making.”

Question 1: Reflect back on the emotional climate after you first married. How have relationships between stepsiblings and with the stepparent improved?

Have family members bonded and do they love and trust one another? For example, during times of stress or anxiety do stepchildren lean on their stepparent as they do their biological parents?

Question 2: If a miracle happened and the stepparent felt the full rank and acceptance as a parent and family member (to both those in the home and extended family members), how would the stepparent demonstrate that truth in how they relate to others and respond in the home?

If the answer to the first question highlights substantial growth in family bonding and trust, and if the second question leads you to recognize that the stepparent already lives out of this acceptance, then you might be ready to graduate to the next level of family identity. As reported in my book The Smart Stepfamily, most stepfamilies need from 5-7 years to move to this level of bonding.

Unless you live out of confidence rather than apprehension, you won’t reap the full rewards of your family’s growth. Ironically, some stepfamilies are already there but don’t graduate in their heart because they are afraid of messing things up. In that case, finding courage to move to the next level will acknowledge the emotional bonding that already exists and may mature what just needed a little push.

Carri and Doug talked through these questions and realized they could put behind them the cautiousness that characterizes a fragile stepfamily identity and embrace a more confident posture. They celebrated “graduation” and are moving forward with the next season of life…with anticipation of how the Lord will bless them next.



Characteristics of stepparents with a well established role in the home (not a fragile, tentative one):

  • They take negative reactions from kids less personally and aren’t offended when their spouse occasionally speaks up for the children.
  • They are less reactive and respond from a position of confidence instead of a fragile need for acceptance or approval. This is because they are more relaxed instead of constantly evaluating their place in the home.
  • They have less internal guilt over “how things are” versus “how they should be.”
  • They don’t compete against the ideal of being a “real” family.
  • They experience the freedom to be themselves with others in the home.
  • They are infrequently threatened when their spouse spends exclusive time with the children.
  • They rest in a connected relationship with a stepchild that is independent of the biological parent’s presence or involvement. They have their own place in the child’s heart.
  • They notice that the biological parent: a) feels less paralyzing guilt and pity regarding their children, b) is less defensive about their children, and c) is not over reactive to the stepparent’s constructive criticism of the children.

When you witness a strong stepfamily dynamic, encourage the parent and stepparent to respond to each other and their children out of confidence instead of fear. Help them move to deeper levels of family trust when it is evident that they are doing well as a family. However, when conflict is evident within a home, help couples adopt a more appropriate model of parenting. Refer them to for guidance.

© 2011 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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