Wicked stepmothers, trouble-making step-children, and cold and distant stepfathers are common stereotypes of stepfamilies portrayed in stories (e.g., Cinderella; The Parent Trap; Yours, Mine, and Ours). These depictions can lead to false views of stepfamilies and can affect the relationships among those entering one. The myth that all stepmothers are wicked or evil is just that, a myth. Here are a few other common myths about stepfamilies that need debunking:
MYTH: Stepparents and stepchildren will never learn to love each other.
REALITY: Buying into this idea leads to negative expectations of a relationship that hasn’t even had the chance to form yet. Stepparents and stepchildren are very capable of developing close and loving relationships. Of course, it can be a complicated process, and quality stepfamily relationships are built over time.
MYTH: Stepparents should love their stepchildren immediately.
REALITY: Instant love or true affection is not realistic. Again, building strong stepfamily relationships takes time. Experts recommend approaching relationships with new stepchildren with open minds and hearts, and minimal specific expectations about how the stepparent/stepchild relationship will develop. New stepparents should expect to put work into their relationships with stepchildren and muster as much patience and acceptance during the process as they can. A good relationship with an awesome stepchild is worth the effort!
MTYH: Stepmothers are wicked or evil OR stepparents don’t like or want to like their stepchildren.
REALITY: This myth, commonly found in fairytales, does not give credit to the stepmothers who want to have good relationships with their stepchildren and do their part as a mother. Stepmothers tend to find themselves in a very challenging role and pulled in two different directions. On one hand, in the role of a stepparent they are expected to be somewhat ‘hands off’ and allow the biological parent to do the heavy lifting. On the other hand, women in families are often expected to take the lead when it comes to managing children’s daily lives and providing most of the emotional support in the family. These expectations are in conflict with one another. Many stepmothers wish that they could play a more nurturing and active role with their stepchildren, but they may be concerned about crossing boundaries, feel like they don’t have enough power in the family, or they experience pushback from their partners and stepchildren when they try. Stepfamilies can talk more openly about their expectations about how stepparents can best play their role to help avoid some of the conflict that adds to this ‘wicked stepmother’ myth.
MYTH: Adjusting to stepfamily life is quick.
REALITY: Stepfamilies take time to grow because family members need to get to know one another, form bonds and relationships, and create family history and shared meaning. Just as in non-stepfamilies, a strong sense of family identity, closeness, and bonding takes years to
develop. Also as in non-stepfamilies, as family members grow and have changing developmental needs, stepfamilies should expect that they will need to continuously adapt and readjust to their constantly changing realities.
MYTH: Children of divorce and remarriage are “damaged.”
REALITY: Children may have a hard time adjusting to their new life after a challenging transition, but most children do recover and are emotionally found to be no different than before the transition. There can be positive benefits through these experiences as well. Children can do better following parental divorce when conflict was very intense between parents during their marriage. New stepparents and stepsiblings can also create opportunities for forming satisfying relationships with new family members.
These myths and stereotypes impact how society views stepfamilies, and they can also affect how stepfamily members feel and interact with one another. No matter how positive (instant love) or negative (“damaged” children) these myths may seem, they still lead to unrealistic expectations in stepfamilies. These false expectations could make the transition into a new stepfamily and the resulting work of building relationships even harder. False expectations get in the way by biasing our beliefs about how family members should behave and/or how certain relationships should look. Letting go of these specific expectations, and remembering that forming a family and new relationships takes time and effort, can help the process of stepfamily formation go a bit more smoothly for everyone.
Jones, A. C. (2003). Reconstructing the stepfamily: Old myths, new stories. Social Work, 48(2), 228-236.
Ganong, L., & Coleman, M. (2017). Stepfamily relationships: Development, dynamics, and interventions (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Springer Science+Business Media LLC
Visher, E., & Visher, J. (1996). Therapy with stepfamilies. New York, NY: Brunner/Mazel Inc.
Adler-Baeder, F. (2007). Smart steps. National Stepfamily Resource Center.