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Ron L. Deal

May is graduation month. High school and college students and their families experience the reward of hard work and dedication. In addition to the celebration, graduations create an important transition to life at the next level. Culturally and psychologically graduations move people to the next phase of development and thereby keep us moving forward.

I’ve often wondered, when is it time for stepfamilies and stepparents to graduate to the next level?

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. Smart Stepfamilies tries to illuminate those key differences in our publications, training, and resources. Stepparents, for example, cannot claim the same level of authority that biological parents do just because they are adults in the home; respect and authority must be earned and developed over time (see our articles on stepparenting). 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?

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 life 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 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, but 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 is 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 confidence and anticipation of how the Lord will bless them next.

Ron L. Deal is Founder & President of Smart Stepfamilies™ and Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®. He is a bestselling author, highly sought-after speaker, and therapist specializing in marriage enrichment and blended family education. Learn more here.