A stepfamily, also known as a blended family or reconstituted family, is a family in which one or both members of the couple have children from a previous relationship. The member of the couple to whom the child is not biologically related is the stepparent, specifically the stepmother or stepfather.[1]

The traditional and strictest definition of a "stepfamily" is a married couple where one or both members of the couple have pre-existing children who live with them.[2] More recently, the definition is often expanded to include all cohabiting couples, whether married or not.[3] Some people also apply the term to non-custodial relationships, where "stepparent" can refer to the partner of a parent with whom the child does not live.[4] The term is not generally used (but can be in individual cases) to refer to the relationship with an adult child who never lived in the home with the parent's new partner.

A stepfamily can be "simple," in which only one member of the couple has a prior child or children, or it can be "complex" or "blended." In a blended stepfamily, both members of the couple may have had pre-existing children, or the couple may have additional children together. If both members of the couple have prior children, the children are stepbrothers and stepsisters to one another. Any subsequent child born to the couple becomes the half-sister or half-brother of the prior children from previous relations.

If a stepparent legally adopts the partner's child or children, he or she becomes their legal parent. In such cases they may stop using the terms "stepparent" and "stepchild" and simply refer to the child as their son or daughter. However, some of the emotional and psychological issues common to stepfamilies may still persist.

In many cases, a family member is just as bonded with his/her stepfamily as with the biological family.


Statistics in the United States are difficult to come by, because the U.S. Census Bureau has discontinued providing estimates of marriage, divorce, and remarriage except for those that are available from the 1990 and earlier censuses.[4]

  • The most common form of blended family is a mother and stepfather arrangement, since mothers often maintain custody of the children.[2]
  • One-third of all children entering stepfamilies were born to an unmarried mother; the other two-thirds of cases involve divorce or the death of one parent.[5]
  • Of the 60 million American children under the age of 13, half are currently living with one biological parent and that parent's current partner.[6]
  • The 1990 U.S. census estimated that by the year 2000 there would be more stepfamilies than original families.[6]
  • If only children residing in legally married stepfamilies are included, 23% of U.S. children would be designated as living in a stepfamily; when children are included who live with a cohabiting parent, the figure rises to 30%.[7]


The earliest recorded use of the prefix step-, in the form steop-, is from an 8th century glossary of Latin-Old English words. Steopsunu is given for the Latin word filiaster and steopmoder for nouerca. Similar words recorded later in Old English include stepbairn, stepchild and stepfather. The words are used to denote a connection resulting from the remarriage of a widowed parent and are related to the word ástíeped meaning bereaved, with stepbairn and stepchild occasionally used simply as synonyms for orphan. Words such as stepbrother, stepniece and stepparent appeared much later and do not have any particular connotation of bereavement. Corresponding words in other Germanic languages include: Old High German stiuf- and Old Norse stjúp-.[8]

Legal status

Although, historically, stepfamilies are built through the institution of marriage, and are legally recognized, it is currently unclear if a stepfamily can be both established and recognized by less formal arrangements, such as when a man or woman with children cohabits with another man or woman outside of marriage. This relationship is becoming more common in all Western countries.

Historically and to this day, there appear to be many cultures in which these families are recognized socially as de facto families. However, in modern Western culture it is often unclear as to what, if any, social status and protection they enjoy in law.

The stepparent is a "legal stranger" in most of the U.S. and has no legal right to the minor child no matter how involved in the child's life they are. The biological parents (and, where applicable, adoptive parents) hold that privilege and responsibility. So if the biological parent doesn't give up his or her parental rights and custody of the child, the other parent's subsequent marriage cannot create a parental relationship without the biological parent's written consent before a "child" reaches adulthood. In most cases, the stepparent can not be ordered to pay child support.

With regard to unmarried couples, one can easily imagine such social and legal recognition, most notably in the case of common law marriage. Unmarried couples today may also find social recognition locally through community consensus.

Still, it is not at all clear what formal parenting roles, rights, responsibilities and social etiquette should exist between "stepparents" and their "stepchildren." This often leaves the parents in unexpected conflicts with each other, their former spouses and the children.

For all the confusion which stepparents may feel, it is often even less clear to the stepchildren what the interpersonal relationships are, or should be, between themselves and their stepsiblings; between themselves and their stepparent; and even between themselves and their birth parents. These relationships can be extremely complex, especially in circumstances where each "stepspouse" may bring children of their own to the home or in households where children are expected to actively participate in each of the newly created families of both birth parents.

Although most stepfamilies can agree on what they do not want to be for one another, they are often hard pressed to agree upon what they do want to be for one another. This makes it difficult for everyone in the family to learn their roles. It is especially difficult for the children, because the roles and expectations of them change as they move between the homes and families of both of their birth parents.

Stepparent adoption

Stepparents can become legal parents to their stepchildren through the process of stepparent adoption. Both biological parents, if living, must consent or agree to the adoption. When a stepparent adopts a stepchild, either the non-custodial parent of the child willingly gives up his or her parental rights to the child, or the court terminates the parental rights of a biological parent if there is evidence of abuse or neglect to the child. If a parent is not involved in the child's life, the court can terminate that biological parent's rights on the grounds of abandonment. Grounds for abandonment in most states are no contact between the parent and child for at least one year.

It is important to check with local laws when looking to complete a stepparent adoption. While having the non-custodial parent consent to the adoption is the easiest way to complete a stepparent adoption, it is still possible to have one completed when they either do not consent, or cannot be located.

If the biological parent who is not involved in the child's life cannot be found, a stepparent adoption can still occur. Typically, a public notice must be published in the newspaper for 30–45 days, stating the intention to have the biological parent's rights terminated, and the intent for the stepparent to adopt the child. If the biological parent does not respond to the notice, then the stepparent adoption will continue as though the absent parent consented to the adoption.[citation needed]

Stepparent adoption also can occur if the other biological parent is deceased.

In research

In her book, Becoming a Stepfamily, Patricia Papernow (1993) suggests that each stepfamily goes through seven distinct stages of development, which can be divided into the Early, Middle, and Late stages. The Early stages consist of the Fantasy, Immersion, and Awareness stages. In the Fantasy stage, both children and parents are typically "stuck" in their fantasies or wishes for what their family could be like. The developmental task for this stage is for each member to articulate their wants and needs. In the Immersion stage, the family is typically struggling to live out the fantasy of a "perfect" blended family. In this stage, it is critical for the "insider spouse" (i.e. the biological parent who typically forms the emotional hub of the family) to understand that the feelings of the "outsider spouse" and children are real. The task of this stage is to persist in the struggle to become aware of the various experiences. This stage is followed by the Awareness stage, in which the family gathers information about what the new family looks like (e.g., roles, traditions, "family culture") and how each member feels about it. The tasks of this stage are twofold: individual and joint. The individual task is for each member to begin to put words to the feelings they are experiencing, and to voice their needs to other family members. The joint task is for family members to begin to transcend the "experiential gaps" and to try to form an understanding of other members' roles and experiences.[9]

The Middle stages consist of the Mobilization and Action stages. In the Mobilization stage, the stepparent can begin to step forward to address the family's process and structure. The tasks of this stage are to confront differences in each member's perception of the new family, as well as to influence one another before shaming or blaming begins to take action to reorganize the family structure. The goal here is to make joint decisions about new stepfamily rituals, rules, and roles. The focus in this stage is on the stepfamily's unique "middle ground" (i.e. the "areas of shared experience, shared values, and easy cooperative functioning created over time," p. 39), and on balancing this new middle ground with honoring of past and other relationships.[10]

The Later stages consist of the Contact and Resolution stages. In the Contact stage, the couple is working well together, the boundaries between households are clear, and stepparents have definite roles with stepchildren as "intimate outsiders." The task for this stage is in solidifying the stepparent's role, and in continuing the process of awareness. Finally, in the Resolution stage, the stepfamily's identity has become secure. The family accepts itself for who it is, there is a strong sense of the stepfamily's middle ground, and children feel secure in both households. The task for this stage is to nourish the depth and maturity gained through this process, and to rework any issues that might arise at family "nodal events" (e.g., weddings, funerals, graduations, etc.).[11]

  • Children in a one parent family often feel threatened when their parent is dating as the parent is looking for a prospective spouse. The prospective spouse can often feel threatened as the children become part of the package within the relationship. Stepfamilies can sometimes find it difficult to feel like a family as the spouse may not feel equal to the children due to the fact that a biological parent and their biological child have a stronger bond which is separate from the marriage. [12]

In fiction


Illustration of Schneewittchen (Snow White) by Franz Jüttner: the evil stepmother realizes her stepdaughter has escaped her magic.

The notion of the word stepmother being descriptive of an intrinsically unkind parent is suggested by peculiar wording in John Gamble's "An Irish Wake" (1826). He writes of a woman soon to die, who instructs her successor to "be kind to my children." Gamble writes that the injunction was forgotten and that she "proved a very step-mother."

Fairy tales

In fiction, stepmothers are often portrayed as being wicked and evil.[13] The character of the wicked stepmother features heavily in fairy tales; the most famous examples are Cinderella, Snow White, and Hansel and Gretel. Stepdaughters are her most common victim, and then stepdaughter/stepson pairs, but stepsons also are victims as in The Juniper Tree[14]—sometime, as in East of the Sun and West of the Moon, because he refused to marry his stepsister as she wished,[15] or, indeed, they may make their stepdaughters-in-law their victims, as in The Boys with the Golden Stars.[16] In some fairy tales, such as Giambattista Basile's La Gatta Cennerentola or the Danish Green Knight, the stepmother wins the marriage by ingratiating herself with the stepdaughter, and once she obtains it, becomes cruel.[17]

In some fairy tales, the stepdaughter's escape by marrying does not free her from her stepmother. After the birth of the stepdaughter's first child, the stepmother may attempt to murder the new mother and replace her with her own daughter—thus making her the stepmother to the next generation. Such a replacement occurs in The Wonderful Birch, Brother and Sister, and The Three Little Men in the Wood; only by foiling the stepmother's plot (and usually executing her), is the story brought to a happy ending.[18] In the Korean Folktale Janghwa Hongreyon, the stepmother kills her own stepdaughters.

Fairy tales can have variants where one tale has an evil mother and the other an evil stepmother: in The Six Swans, the heroine is persecuted by her husband's mother, and in The Twelve Wild Ducks, by his stepmother. Sometimes this appears to be a deliberate switch: The Brothers Grimm, having put in their first editions versions of Snow White and Hansel and Gretel where the villain was the mother, altered it to a stepmother in later editions, perhaps to mitigate the story's violence.[19] The Icelandic fairy tale The Horse Gullfaxi and the Sword Gunnfoder features a good stepmother, who indeed aids the prince like a fairy godmother, but this figure is very rare in fairy tales.

The stepmother may be identified with other evils the characters meet. For instance, both the stepmother and the witch in Hansel and Gretel are deeply concerned with food, the stepmother to avoid hunger, the witch with her house built of food and her desire to eat the children, and when the children kill the witch and return home, their stepmother has mysteriously died.[20]

"Awake Groa Awake Mother" by John Bauer, a son at his mother's grave seeking aid against his stepmother.

In many stories with evil stepmothers, the hostility between the stepmother and the stepchild is underscored by having the child succeed through aid from the dead mother.[21] This motif occurs from Norse mythology, where Svipdagr rouses his mother Gróa from the grave so as to learn from her how to accomplish a task his stepmother set, to fairy tales such as the Brothers Grimm version of Cinderella, where Aschenputtel receives her clothing from a tree growing on her mother's grave, the Russian Vasilissa the Beautiful, where Vasilissa is aided by a doll her mother gave, and her mother's blessing, and the Malay Bawang Putih Bawang Merah, where the heroine's mother comes back as fish to protect her.

This hostility from the stepmother and tenderness from the true mother has been interpreted in varying ways. A psychological interpretation, by Bruno Bettelheim, describes it as "splitting" the actual mother in an ideal mother and a false mother that contains what the child dislikes in the actual mother.[22] However, historically, many women died in childbirth, their husbands remarried, and the new stepmothers competed with the children of the first marriage for resources; the tales can be interpreted as factual conflicts from history.[23] In some fairy tales, such as The Juniper Tree, the stepmother's hostility is overtly the desire to secure the inheritance of her children.[14]

Chinese literature

Stepmothers also make many appearances in Chinese tales of family.

Wicked stepmothers are common.[24] In Classic of Filial Piety, Guo Jujing told the story of Min Ziqian, who had lost his mother at a young age. His stepmother had two more sons and saw to it that they were warmly dressed in winter but neglected her stepson. When her husband discovered this, he decided to divorce her. His son interceded, on the ground that she neglected only him, but when they had no mother, all three sons would be neglected. His father relented, and the stepmother henceforth took care of all three children. For this, he was held up as a model of filial piety.

Conversely, the exemplary stepmother prefers the stepson to her own child, in recognition that his seniority makes him superior.[25] The "righteous stepmother of Qi," faced with her son and stepson having been found by a murdered man, and both having confessed to shield the other, argues for her son's execution because her husband had ordered her to look after her stepson, and her son is the junior brother; the king pardoned them both for her devotion to duty.[25]

Modern fiction

The ubiquity of the wicked stepmother has made it a frequent theme of revisionist fairy tale fantasy. This can range from Tanith Lee's Red as Blood, where the stepmother queen is desperately trying to protect the land from her evil stepdaughter's magic, to Diana Wynne Jones's Howl's Moving Castle, where, although it is known that stepmothers are evil, the actual stepmother is guilty of nothing more than some carelessness, to Erma Bombeck's retelling where Cinderella is lazy and a liar. More subtly, Piers Anthony depicted the Princess Threnody as being cursed by her stepmother in Crewel Lye: A Caustic Yarn: if she ever entered Castle Roogna, it would fall down. But Threnody explains that her presence at the castle caused her father to dote on her and neglect his duties to the destruction of the kingdom; her stepmother had merely made her destructive potential literal, and forced her to confront what she was doing.

Despite many examples of evil or cruel stepmothers, loving stepmothers also exist in fiction. In Kevin and Kell, Kell is portrayed as loving her stepdaughter Lindesfarne, whom her husband Kevin had adopted during his previous marriage. Likewise, Lindesfarne considers Kell her mother, and has a considerably more favorable view of her than Angelique, Kevin's ex-wife and her adoptive mother, due to feeling neglected by Angelique during her childhood. The Disney film Enchanted also makes references to the "evil stepmother" belief, as the villainess is a stepmother, but her wickedness comes from her selfishness and power hungriness rather than the simple fact she is a stepmother. When a little girl tells the heroine Giselle that all stepmothers are evil, Giselle reminds her that she personally knows some wonderful women who were good stepmothers, and the fact a woman is a stepmother does not suddenly change her personality. This is shown later on when Giselle gets married to that girl's father, who had her from a previous marriage, thus becoming a stepmother herself. As Giselle is a sweet and caring woman, she makes a good wife and stepmother. However, it is notable that during much of that film, Giselle was more of an older sister figure than a maternal figure to that little girl.

In the movie Nanny McPhee a group of children worry that their father will remarry, believing from their fairy tales that all stepmothers are an "evil breed." Although they help their father marry again to help keep the family together, their soon-to-be stepmother is very cruel, as they suspected. When the wedding to her is called off, the father decides to marry the much kinder scullery maid, causing one child to comment that the evil stepmother personification does not apply to her.

Stepmother relationships are often examined in soap operas. An example of this is the longrunning rivalry between Victoria Lord Banks and stepmother Dorian Lord on the American soap opera One Life to Live.

In contrast to many other Disney-related media, the cartoon show Phineas and Ferb features a stepfamily in which both parents get along well with their three children (avoiding the normal tropes of evil step-parents).[26]

Drake and Josh also features a stepfamily in which both parents usually get along well with their three children.


Though rarer, there are also cases of evil stepfathers, such as in the fairy tales The Gold-bearded Man (in a plot usually featuring a cruel father) and The Little Bull-Calf. One type of such tale features a defeated villain who insists on marrying the hero's mother and makes her help him trick the hero and so defeat him. Such tales include The Prince and the Princess in the Forest and The Blue Belt, although the tales of this type can also feature a different female relation, such as the stepsister in The Three Princes and their Beasts.

In literature, evil stepfathers include Claudius in Hamlet (though his role as uncle is more emphasized), Murdstone in Charles Dickens's David Copperfield, the classic Twilight Zone episode "Living Doll," the King from the movie Radio Flyer, and Gozaburo Kaiba (who adopted Seto and Mokuba Kaiba) from Yu-Gi-Oh!, as well as The Stepfather, films. The film, Sucker Punch fetures a sexually abusive stepfather.

In his opera La Cenerentola, Gioacchino Rossini inverted the tale of Cinderella to have her oppressed by her stepfather. His motive is made explicit, in that providing a dowry to Cenerentola would cut into what he can give to his own daughters.[27] An analogous male figure may also appear as a wicked uncle; like the stepmother, the father's brother may covet the child's inheritance for his own children, and so maltreat his nephews or nieces. Modern films, however, seem to cast stepfathers in a somewhat kinder light, implying honorable men who marry divorced women or single mothers make good stepfathers.

Step- and half-siblings

In fairy tales, stepsiblings and half-siblings can but need not take after their mother. In Cinderella, the ugly sisters are the main character's stepsisters. Mother Hulda also features wicked stepsisters and The Wonderful Birch a wicked half-sister, but The Rose-Tree and The Juniper Tree feature loving half-siblings, and Kate Crackernuts loving stepsisters.[28]

Many romance novels feature heroes who are the stepbrother of the heroine. The step-relationship generally stems from a marriage when the hero and heroine are at least in their adolescence.


Some family films and television sitcoms feature a stepfamily as the center premise. In many cases, the stepfamily is large and full of children causing situations such as sibling rivalry, rooming, falling in love, and getting along amongst the children as popular plotlines. The stepfamily premise dates back as far as the 1968 film Yours, Mine and Ours. This film gave way to a classic family television sitcom about a blended family known as The Brady Bunch. Some contemporary family sitcoms have made the blended family sitcom more popular with the TGIF show Step by Step bringing about other shows such as Aliens in the Family, Life with Derek, Drake & Josh, and the short lived NBC family sitcom Something So Right. The Life of Riley is a 2009 British comedy television series, shown on BBC One & BBC HD. It focuses on the lives of a blended family. Kevin and Kell is a comic strip that focuses on a blended family. The Disney Channel animated series Phineas and Ferb also prominently features a blended family, chosen by co-creator Jeff "Swampy" Marsh in part due to its underuse in children's programming, and his personal experiences growing up in such a family.[29]

Stepfamily education

The prevalence of stepfamilies has increased over the past century with the increase of divorce and remarriage. These families are unique in their experiences facing many challenges which first-married families do not. For example role ambiguity, dealing with stepchildren, and ex-spouses are only a few of the issues which are unique to these families. In response to these families' desire for assistance, stepfamily education has become an increasingly common topic among scholars and educators. Although still a relatively new facet within the marriage education realm, stepfamily education provides important information which may not be addressed in traditional marriage or relationship education curriculum. As discussed by Adler-Baeder and Higginbotham (2004)[30] a number of curricula are currently available to stepfamilies and family life educators; however, further research is needed in order to determine best-practices for the field. One way in which this gap is being filled is through the current implementation of Healthy Marriage Demonstration Grants[31] in the U.S. As part of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, grants for healthy marriage and responsible fatherhood, which include at-risk and diverse populations such as stepfamilies, are providing important information on the evaluation of stepfamily programs and their effectiveness in servicing stepfamilies.

See also

Selected bibliography

  • LeBey, Barbara (2004). Remarried with Children: Ten Secrets for Successfully Blending and Extending Your Family. New York: Bantam.
  • Papernow, Patricia L. (1993). Becoming a Stepfamily: Patterns of Development in Remarried Families. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


  1. ^ "Merriam-Webster dictionary". 2007-04-25. Retrieved 2010-08-11. 
  2. ^ a b "Selfhelp Magazine". Retrieved 2010-08-11. 
  3. ^ "". Retrieved 2010-08-11. 
  4. ^ a b National Stepfamily Resource Center[dead link]
  5. ^ ", quoting the National Survey of Families and Households". Retrieved 2010-08-11. 
  6. ^ a b ", quoting the U.S. Bureau of Census". Retrieved 2010-08-11. 
  7. ^ National Stepfamily Resource Center, quoting Bumpass, Raley, and Sweet, 1995, The changing character of stepfamilies: Implications of cohabitation and nonmarital childbearing,[dead link] Demography 32, 425–436.
  8. ^ "step-" The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 4 April 2000 <Registration required, retrieved 15 December 2006.>
  9. ^ Papernow, Patricia L. (1993). "Becoming a Stepfamily: Patterns of Development in Remarried Families". San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  10. ^ Papernow, 1993.
  11. ^ Paernow, 1993.
  12. ^ Fine, Mark A., U Missouri, Dept of Human Development & Family Studies, Columbia, US Kurdek, Lawrence A,, June, 1995 ’Relation between marital quality and (step)parent-child relationship quality for parents and stepparents in stepfamilies’, Journal of Family Psychology, Vol 9(2),. pp. 216-223, 19/05/2011,
  13. ^ The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales, p. 141
  14. ^ a b The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, p. 161
  15. ^ The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, p. 193
  16. ^ Warner, p. 221
  17. ^ Warner, pp. 205–6
  18. ^ The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales, pp. 147–8
  19. ^ The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales, p. 36
  20. ^ The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, p. 57
  21. ^ The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales, p. 151
  22. ^ Warner, p. 212
  23. ^ Warner, p. 213
  24. ^ Mark Edward Lewis The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han p 157 ISBN 978-0-674-02477-9
  25. ^ a b Mark Edward Lewis The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han p. 158 ISBN 978-0-674-02477-9
  26. ^
  27. ^ Warner, pp. 213–4
  28. ^ The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, p. 230
  29. ^ Bond, Paul (7 June 2009). "Q&A: Dan Povenmire". Hollywood Reporter. Archived from the original on 2009-07-31. Retrieved 2009-08-26. 
  30. ^ Adler-Baeder,F. & Higginbotham, B. (2004). Implications of remarriage and stepfamily formation for marriage education. Family Relations, 53, 448–458.
  31. ^ "ACF Healthy Marriage Initiative: Funding Opportunities". Retrieved 2010-08-11. 


External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • stepfamily — [step′fam΄ə lē, step′fam΄lē] n. a family having a stepparent …   English World dictionary

  • stepfamily — UK [ˈstepˌfæm(ə)lɪ] / US noun [countable] Word forms stepfamily : singular stepfamily plural stepfamilies a family that has at least one stepparent …   English dictionary

  • stepfamily — noun Date: 1873 a family in which there is a stepparent …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • stepfamily — /step fam euh lee, fam lee/, n., pl. stepfamilies. a family composed of a parent, a stepparent, and a child or children by a previous marriage. [STEP + FAMILY] * * * …   Universalium

  • stepfamily — noun a) Any family having one or more stepchildren or stepparents. b) The family of ones stepfather or stepmother; those immediate family members not related by blood …   Wiktionary

  • stepfamily — step|fam|i|ly [ step,fæmli ] noun count a family that has at least one STEPPARENT …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • stepfamily — n. family made up of a couple and their children from previous marriages, blended family, family made up of a parent and a stepparent and at least one stepchild …   English contemporary dictionary

  • stepfamily — noun (plural stepfamilies) a family that is formed on the remarriage of a divorced or widowed person and that includes a child or children …   English new terms dictionary

  • stepfamily — step•fam•i•ly [[t]ˈstɛpˌfæm ə li, ˌfæm li[/t]] n. pl. lies cvb a family composed of a parent, a stepparent, and a child or children by a previous marriage • Etymology: 1965–70 …   From formal English to slang

  • stepfamily — /ˈstɛpfæməli/ (say stepfamuhlee) noun 1. the family of one s step parent. 2. a family in which at least one of the parents has had children with a previous partner. {step + family} …   Australian-English dictionary

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