Adult stepchildren and ‘late-in-life’ relationships

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.

late-in-life wedding

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.

Memories


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.


Finances

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.

9 thoughts on “Adult stepchildren and ‘late-in-life’ relationships

  1. Shawn Simon

    This is important information for stepfamilies to have. My stepkids were of the typical age (6 and 10), but when I interviewed stepmoms for my upcoming book, Stepping into a New Role, Stories from Stepmoms, I discovered that even when the “kids” are grown, challenges still exist. Because of this revelation, I added a chapter to my book called “Fully Grown, Not at home, and Still a Problem.” The stories I heard really surprised me. One of the stepmoms assumed she’d be avoiding problems by marrying a man with a fully grown daughter. She discovered how wrong she was — different from what I encountered, but problems nonetheless. Really fascinating the issues stepfamilies of all kinds deal with. :/

  2. Annmarie

    I’ve been a stepmom for 16 years. I met the girls when they were 9, 5, and 3. While the kids were younger there were the usual issues, which I let my husband handle with his ex-wife. My husband’s divorce was not an amicable divorce, there was hostility and verbal abuse. The verbal abuse was usually over the phone within ear shot of the kids. My husband was given joint custody while the girls lived with their mom. In the midst of the negotiations i met my husband. A year after the divorce was finalized we were engaged and married approximately 16 months later.
    As the girls got older and busier their free time and our weekends together got fewer as they gravitated toward their friends, and their social lives. We continued toattend their school events, soccer games, and celebrated birthdays and holidays together. Approximately 9 years ago their Mom died and the oldest daughter and their mom’s sister sued their father for custody of the 2 younger children. Due to the ages of the 2 younger girls, the judge decided to give my husband shared custody with the aunt so the kids could remain in their home and stay in their school. Our relationship with them was severely strained but over the years we have managed to build a relationship with them again. Now for my current issue, one of my stepdaughters is getting married and I assumed that we would have one bridal shower both families. I was told that the bridal party will be hosting a bridal shower for their deceased Mom’s family and their sister’s future in-laws. My husband’s side of the family was not invited and maybe they would do a Lucie on for the other side. i was crushed and thought we had put a lot of the animosity behind us. I was wrong, so I’m trying to find out from other stepmoms/blended families if this usual. I’m still very hurt but this whole thing and can only wonder what will happen at the actual wedding. Anyone who can add anything, or help me understand please respond. Sorry this is so longer TY, Annmarie

  3. R & T

    Hi Annemarie

    Special occasions can be a minefield for stepfamily relationships. It is not uncommon for children who experienced conflict between their homes whilst growing up to decide as adults to keep both sides of their family as separate as possible for significant events – even when past conflicts have been resolved. There are a great deal of emotions involved and the adult children may take steps to reduce tensions or conflict that they are worried will happen even if that is not the current reality for the parents/stepparents/extended family members. We hope that the wedding was a day that you, your partner and your stepchildren were able to enjoy and create fond memories.

    Thanks for posting,
    R & T

  4. Kelly

    What do you do when it is your husband who is the problem. I want to see his children once or twice a year. I would like to stay far on the periphery of his family. My man is 16 years older than me and when he passes i will be sending a card or text once a year

  5. Jo Tambur

    I am reading a lot of articles on this topic, and the toxic problems adult children bring to a new material can be incredibly destructive
    I am in a 13 year relationship with a man who has 3 grown children. When I met him, he had been in a 7 year relationship with an abusive woman who treated his children badly. The ex wife your ask? Chronic alcoholic, abusive and wound up dying a few years ago from cancer
    Of the 3 children, the last daughter is angry, venomous, can’t hold down a boyfriend ( she did get married a few years ago for 10 months but married an alcoholic just like her mother), and the mother’s death sent this 34 year old woman into the angriest talespin I’ve ever seen in my life. She is now announcing to me that with certain things that have happened over 13 years that she’s now in charge of her dad’s happiness and she is pulling her siblings together to decide whether I stay or go. I have had it out with her when I try and speak to her she lies through her teeth so I now whenever I’m with her bring up microphone and tape our conversations, and I do believe she is an adult child of an alcoholic, she herself is an alcoholic, and things are going from bad to worse. Why do I bother? The father is a very kind sweet person who just lost his brother and a good friend another alcoholic oh, and the mother is in hospice getting ready to go. I have a great support network of people I love and care about love and care about me but we’re all stumped as to how to figure out the best course of action in dealing with this extremely temperamental looking like 34 year old acting like 7 year old. We did a little counseling but the father is highly protective of these children as he has had bad luck in relationships and not with me. With me he gets the world. So I guess I’m asking what others have done when there is such hatred from one child to a stepparent, and believe me I have taken this daughter out for dinner I paid $1,000 towards her wedding because she ran out of funds or poor father didn’t have the money so I made that gesture never got a thank you.
    believe me I read all the books I am now in therapy trying to figure out what I want to do, I have made suggestions on fixing this, but the father is so scared to death of this child that he won’t speak up against her.

  6. Tracy

    Jo, your husband needs to go to therapy with you, and he needs to defend you. His children are adults, he is married to you, not them.
    My husbands daughter (mid 20s) asked her father to choose her or me ( and my 19 year old daughter). He chose us….she is manipulative and spoiled and it threw her completely for a loop. She has very low self esteem (extremely obese and a college drop out), manipulative, and extremely immature. She’s very intimidated by our happy marriage and lifestyle so she claims she no longer wants us in her life. Thank goodness my husband and I went to therapy together and the counselor told him that his daughters (he has 3) are attempting to destroy our marriage using exclusion/passive-aggressive bullying, and he realized it is the truth. Good luck to you. I have never had to deal with such manipulative, dishonest young women in my life. Obviously they get it from their alcoholic mother who abandoned them, not the man I married who is an amazing step father to my daughter.

  7. Lynn

    My story is a little different. My fiancé’s adult son, and future stepson (34 yrs old) was still living with him when we me over 5 years ago. It made sense at the time, since his dad’s job took him out of the country 6 months out of the year. We got engaged 3 years ago, but decided we would not get married until he retired. I didn’t want to live only with his grown son while he was gone. He retired over a year ago, and it was understood that his son would need to get a place of his own. My fiancé could not bring himself to ask his son to move out, and instead asked me for the engagement ring back to avoid that. He realized he had made a mistake later, and then asked his son to move out. Two months later we started seeing each other again, even though I told him I wasn’t ready to take the engagement ring back. That lasted for 3 months, then came the pressure to marry him since his son was out. Please keep in mind that his 34 year old son is very financially secure. I’m not sure what the problem was with moving out, but now he can not stand me. If I’m at the house, he won’t even come in. He wants nothing to do with me. It can’t be because he’s worried I will inherit his Dads house. I’m the one who suggested we get a prenup to avoid any such concern. Needless to say, it’s been 4 months since the son moved out, and my ex fiancé is tired of waiting for me to agree to marry him. We broke up a few days ago, with him saying he wants a wife and is moving on. He said he asked his son to move out for nothing. I know I’m stubborn, but I’m not the bad person his son made me out to be. Was I wrong in expecting he and I to start off a marriage without his grown son living with us?

  8. Eden Cherry

    The whole thread is so upsetting as we are all going through something similar yet, different. I am at my wit’s end and we are in counseling as of a week ago. I am at the point where I want them to move out. In July of 2018 my significant other (we are not married but have lived and been together for 8 yrs) sprung on me one Saturday night that his 20 yr old son had been kicked out of the military and was basically homeless. Cliff note back story = lots of baggage…the son was basically the result of a one night stand when my SO was 20. He and the mother tried to live and work things out but when the son was a baby they split up and he had not seen him since. Mother was incarcerated most of the sons life and he was adopted and raised by his maternal grandparents when he was 7. Part of the adoption was that my SO not have anything to do with his son until he was 18. This has been very painful for my SO who has carried a lot of guilt and shame about this for 20 yrs.
    Anyway, I have known about the son since before we were a couple. I have always wanted them to reconnect and have a relationship, that has not changed. Despite my anger.
    So, suddenly in July with 72 hrs notice, the son was coming to live with us. I was nervous excited etc. my SO and I spent the better part of 72 hrs discussing how we were going to handle this and what OUR expectations were etc. Needless to say that has ALL gone out the window. In almost 7 mths, this 20 yr has done virtually nothing and his Father does not see fit to change any of that. What he cannot see that I can very clearly is that he is being manipulated, lied to and we are both being disrespected. This all came about bc one of the requirements was he either needed to be in school or have a full time job. After 5 mths and me absolutely losing it bc he is NOT my kid and as I have been told I have no responsibility for him, yet I am the one providing for him. I am the one ferrying him here and there, I am the one paying for his clothes, food, rent etc. only to have his Dad take his side 100% of the time, at my expense. Needless to say 20 yr old worked for about 35 days before he was fired for insubordination. This was almost 3 weeks ago. Since I am really good at accountability I discussed with his Father how we should handle, and then I executed it. Only for the 20 yr old to defy me and his Father and now he is holed up in his room……for WEEKS now. I have not laid eyes on him, he is avoiding me like the plague and to top it all off, somehow this is all my fault and his Dad thinks he just needs time. So, we are in counseling, bc the very next option is for them to move out. Vascillating between being livid with both of them and heartbroken that my life has been upended by a 20 yr old who is dictating the rules of the house and a Father that cannot and will not stand up to him out of guilt.

  9. Ibe Smith

    My wife and I married a year and a half ago, but had been living together for four years previous to getting married. She and her ex have two daughters, 28 and 31. One daughter lives with us, the other daughter lives with her father.

    For the past three years my wife and I have gone away for 4-6 weeks in the winter. For the first two years the daughter who lives with us came to visit for two weeks. Her sister didn’t join us because she couldn’t afford the time away from work.

    This year the other daughter was able to join us for a week, but insisted her father come as well. She is very protective of her father and felt it would be unfair to leave him behind on his own. I didn’t want her to feel left out of the vacation and so agreed. It ended up with me being the one feeling left out because as soon as mom, dad and the two kids were together, their family dynamic took over and I felt like a total outsider.

    I tried to avoid spending time with them, but my wife got very angry with me and said I was making them feel unwelcome by not spending time with them in the pool or playing cards. But whenever I did join them, their dynamic made me feel like an outsider, which of course I am when it comes to their shared history.

    I explained my feelings to my wife, and I do understand how she felt pulled between me and her original ‘family unit’, but when I told her I didn’t want her ex joining us again next year she went ballistic. She said the daughter who lives with us would understand, but the daughter who lives with her ex would never forgive me and it would forever damage our relationship. I offered to stay at home and join her once her ex had left so they could enjoy family time without her feeling guilty about my feelings, but she won’t except that. She expects me to just suck it up for her sake so as not to create conflict in the family. I feel that she’s totally neglecting my feelings of discomfort and the feeling of being an outsider when their old family dynamics kick in.

    I should mention that I’m on very good terms with her ex, and he is still a huge part of our lives and the lives of my wife’s family.

    Can you recommend how I can either adjust my attitude so as to influence my feelings in a more positive direction, or find a way to get my wife to understand things from my perspective so we can come to an arrangement that doesn’t feel like I’m selling myself short? This feeling of isolation and the current cold shoulder she’s giving me is making me wonder if I’ll ever feel like an insider in my marriage.

    Thanks for any insight you can provide.

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