“Dad broke my rule,” my stepson Seth confessed, half smiling. “I told him he couldn’t marry anyone with kids younger than me. I wasn’t happy when he told me about you.”
Seth was 14 when I brought Ben, 5, and Katherine, 3, into his life. He immediately went from being the baby—10 years younger than his brother—to being the oldest by far.
He didn’t seem like a baby to me, however. I couldn’t understand why he had no chores, no responsibilities, and no life skills. (He claimed he didn’t know how to boil spaghetti or make toast.) And it bothered me that I was expected to do as much for him as my 5-year-old.
My husband, Robbie, on the other hand, couldn’t figure out why my kindergartener had so much say in the choices we made for dinner, television, and activities. Who did he think he was?! After Ben’s father died, he became the “man of the house.” Even as young as he was, he felt the weight of that responsibility.
But in our new family, Ben was the middle child and one of three males. The expression of his masculinity was no longer essential, and he competed with Robbie to be the alpha male—the one mom loves most.
Redefining roles in a blended family
Maybe your family feels the same sense of bewilderment. Redefining roles is a complicated process for stepfamilies. Roles in traditional homes grow with the family, but stepfamilies are plunged together like survivors on an island. It’s not clear how everything should work. Who leads? Who does what chore? Who gets a voice in decisions?
Thankfully, there is hope in the chaos. As our family transformed, we used these three guidelines to help transition our kids to their new identities.
1. Allow time for grief and confusion.
A person’s place in the family is a part of how he defines himself. There is some pride being the first born, middle, or youngest child. And a change in status is usually uncomfortable and unwelcome.
New roles mean new expectations, and children may not know how to interact, causing misunderstandings and offenses. What you allowed in your single-parent home may be considered obstinate or disrespectful in your new family.
But we need to live with each other in an understanding way. As Paul exhorted, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). Expect sorrow when “the way things were” passes away, and let grace be your standard for interaction.
2. The biological parent should help the child understand his or her new role.
Each night, I sat on my son’s bed and discussed the day’s battles he had with his new dad. I listened. I assured him of our love. But I took the time to set him straight and reiterate that his new dad was his authority and that God ordained sons to respect their fathers.
In addition, Robbie encouraged Seth to grow up. As Seth matured, Robbie pressured him to get a job, learn to drive, and take care of school matters. Seth resisted, strongly on occasion, but it was time he took on responsibility and faced manhood.
3. Teach children that their true identity is in Christ.
That is something that will never change, no matter how many transitions they endure.
My children weren’t convinced of Robbie’s love at first. But rather than force that relationship, I kept telling them that no matter how they felt about their stepdad, God loved them far greater than any earthly father possibly could. I taught them their identity was not in their birth order, last name, or their mother or father’s affection, but in Christ alone.
By taking the focus from Robbie’s love, which they perceived to rise and fall, and putting it on God, stability was brought back into their lives, which equipped them to build their new lives on a firm foundation. Jesus said when you build your house upon God’s word, when the rains fall, and the floods come, and the winds blow and beat on your house, it will not fall (Matthew 7:24-25).
Stepfamilies are fragile. You’ve just cut two families in half and sewn them together. They need time for mending. They need stability. They need the Healer. They need time to feel like family. So have patience and keep Christ at the center of your home, and everyone will find the place where they belong.
Copyright © 2023 by Sabrina McDonald. All rights reserved.
Sabrina McDonald has a master’s degree in marriage and family counseling from Liberty University. She is the author of six books, including her newest, A Home Build From Love and Loss.