Stepfamily life doesn’t always end when the kids turn 18. sometimes it’s just beginning.
When we think of stepfamilies, we generally picture a couple with one or more primary school children and perhaps a teenager thrown into the mix for good measure. It’s rare both in the research and in the currently available stepfamily supports to find much of anything that focusses directly on adult stepchildren.
But, ‘late in life’ marriages/partnerships are on the rise.
We are living longer. We are more socially connected. We are more likely to be working until 65 and beyond. And that means, we are seeing an increase in older people ending and forming new relationships – and may of those involve and impact on grown children. In fact, there are some family demographers who believe counting stepfamilies with adult children would double the number of stepfamilies in the USA.
We are also having fewer children, so relationships between adult children and their parents are increasingly important. Stepfamilies require big adjustments for children no matter if they are 4, 14 or 44 years old at the time. Patricia Papernow, author of Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn’t, notes that stepfamily dynamics can be just as complicated and stressful in stepfamilies with grown children as for stepfamilies with younger children.
Some challenges in stepfamilies look similar for both grown and younger children.
A child, no matter what their age, is likely to experience the following to some extent when a parent enters a new relationship:
- Feelings of grief and loss
- Feeling uncomfortable, rejected or betrayed by a parent’s decision to remarry
- Feeling angry at their parent and/or stepparent
- Disliking their parent showing overt signs of affection such as embracing or flirting with a new partner, and
- Problems coping with parental pressure to develop a close relationship with a stepparent.
BUT, There are some stepfamily challenges that look very unique from the adult stepchild’s perspective:
While the burden is on the stepparent and parent/s alone to help a younger child adjust to stepfamily life, an adult child is capable of, and can rightfully be expected to, significantly contribute to working out relationships. It is true that an adult child has more control over the parent-child relationship than younger more dependent children. However, relationships need to be reciprocal. Biological parents and stepparents of adult stepchildren have significant roles to play in maintaining and/or building positive relationships with the children.
Shift in parental focus
Older parents who are re-partnering need to invest time and energy into their couple relationship. Depending on how this is managed and the amount of time the parent previously spent with his/her children and grandchildren, this can result in the parent spending less time with their children and grandchildren.
Parents with adult children in the midst of a new courtship/relationship may overlook that their adult children still have developmental milestones to achieve – i.e. further studies, employment promotions, home ownership, travels, new relationships and children of their own, etc.
Adult children do need their parents to remain interested and supportive of their activities (and those of their children) and celebrate their achievements even if they are no longer living together or seeing each other daily. Given their children are adults, a parent may give less regard to their achievements and spend more time and effort on their own couple relationships. A woman completing her master’s thesis provided Dr Papernow the following example:
“I have accomplished a lot. But it’s like there’s no place to take it to! My dad’s acting like a teenager in love and my mom is going nuts. They’re both too self-absorbed to notice.”
TIPS: It’s important for parents/stepparents to continue to acknowledge and be involved in the important milestones in their children and grandchildren’s lives.
If an adult child is feeling neglected, it’s appropriate to let their biological parents know – without blame or finger pointing.
Stepparents who are unable to have a relationship with their adult stepchildren (for whatever reason) can support their partner by encouraging him/her to continue their relationships with their biological children and attend and celebrate the children’s important milestones even if they choose not to be involved themselves (for whatever reason).
Stepfamily formation following loss of a parent
Grief and loss of a loved one can play out in unexpected ways – particularly when mixing in with stepfamily dynamics.
Generally speaking and depending on the timing of the new relationship, adult children are often pleased that their parent has found companionship. The ongoing care and support of aging parents can be a significant concern for adult children. However, the new relationship and how it is managed can also bring with it renewed grieving.
From an adult child’s perspective, stepfamily formation following (or during) the death of a parent is likely to result in difficult and unexpected interactions and situations. There can be painful feelings, for example, if the family home is sold because a parent is moving in with their new partner. Adult children may find it challenging to watch their mum or dad’s new partner share what was once their family home. Furniture, family photos and other keepsakes being replaced can also trigger feelings of significant loss. Aging parents may give away items without thinking of the effect on their adult children. For the adult child, those objects may represent pieces of themselves or special memories lost.
Tip: It’s key to remember that everyone grieves at their own time and space.
Remembrance is important. It helps if everyone can work together to find appropriate ways of honouring the parent and remember his/her significance – no matter how awkward it may feel.
Biological parents participating in remembrance rituals with their children and grandchildren without their partner present can be very important for adult stepchildren. It’s important for stepparents of adult stepchildren not to take this personally or as a reflection of their relationship with their partner’s adult children.
If the children are not accepting of the stepparent or vice versa, it is still important for the biological parent to initiate/accept connections and participate in rituals with their adult children and grandchildren to remember important dates such as the deceased parent’s birth and death dates.
Uncertainty about stepfamily roles
All stepparents and stepkids grapple with some role ambiguity at the beginning of their relationship. They may find themselves wondering: How am I supposed to be with this person? What’s expected of me? Who am I to him/her?
With adult stepchildren and their stepparents, the questions can be more pressing – and puzzling. It’s easy to slip into a pseudo-parental role with a six-year-old stepchild who skinned her knee. But what happens when the child is 36 or 46-years old?
Adult children don’t need (and may not want) another parent in their world. Particularly if the stepparent is the same age or younger than the stepchild.
Grown stepchildren can feel more comfortable relating to a new stepparent initially as their dad or mum’s new partner/spouse. This provides an opportunity for stepparents of adult stepchildren that is not typically available to stepparents of younger children – i.e. not being burdened with an expectation or requirement to be ‘parental’.
Adult children and stepparents have the ability to develop a relationship that suits who they are as individual people, rather than something dictated by child-caring responsibilities.
TIP: Give adult children the time and space to determine the kind of relationships they want with both their parent’s new partner as an individual and their parent’s new relationship as a couple.
In other words, it assists to let the adult children define the quality and extent of the relationships, including with the grandchildren.
Financial issues in stepfamilies are emotionally laden at the best of times. Financial issues for late in life stepfamilies can be a source of emotional turmoil for all involved for obvious reasons – more wealth has been accumulated, wills have been written (and perhaps re-written), and decisions about inheritances need to be made.
A late-life marriage with adult children can bring about changes in income and death benefits, which may cause stress and uncertainty for the children. Adult children are sure to have questions about what the future arrangements will look like, such as – Will the family home end up going to the new partner? Will the previous decisions/discussions around inheritance be changed?
Some older couples may feel dividing assets ‘equally’ among all of their children seems fair, but each parent’s biological children are unlikely to agree. Older children whose parents re-partner or start a second family that includes younger children and/or new biological children can often feel cut off financially.
TIP: Experts who work with couples with adult step/children often advise having frank discussions and even consultation with a trust and/or estates lawyer to consider different options and lessen the likelihood of confusion, dashed expectations or anger over inheritance issues.
Less support all around
Research on European couples conducted by De Jong Gievald & Peters (2003) indicates that re-partnering may hurt the biological parent-child relationship resulting in less family support for both biological parents and their adult children.
There is also some evidence that stepcouples with adult stepchildren live further away from their children geographically, see their children less often and have lower-quality relationships than biological parents. This can mean that adult children whose parents re-partner find themselves transitioning through adulthood receiving and providing less parental support.
Older stepparents have been found to give less advice and household help, provide less companionship to adult stepchildren and receive less support from them. Ganong & Coleman (2006) also found that adult stepchildren are perceived to have fewer obligations to their stepparents than to their biological parents, which may impact on the level of support provided and received.
TIP: Social and family connections are important for wellbeing – both for aging parents, stepparents and adult children.
Parents and adult children should work to maintain the same level of interaction that occurred prior to the parent’s forming a new relationship. New stepparents can help by supporting and encouraging these connections.
We’d love to hear your experiences and any tips/strategies you have for managing relationships in stepfamilies with adult children in the comments below.