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.”

  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?
  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.

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For couples, here are 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.