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  • Negative conflict, when processed and resolved and the relationship reconciled, can become a positive turning point for stepparents and stepchildren. Tweet This
  • Considered together, quality time and “prosocial actions” were the top two positive turning point responses (out of thirteen), which accounted for one-third of the positive change moments reported by now adult stepchildren.  Tweet This

The difficulties between stepparents and stepchildren make for sensational headlines, funny movies, and intriguing children’s literature. But helping both parents and children discover love when life hands them Plan B should be at the top of the agenda for family educators, ministry leaders, policy makers, and therapists. And, given the prevalence of blended families in America today (from local communities to the Whitehouse), these same influencers should study what helps stepfamilies turn the corner toward health.

Building on previous research, researchers asked adult stepchildren with a positive relationship with their stepparent to look back over time and examine what moved their relationship toward positivity and health.1 Instead of asking adults or children in the throes of merging their families what made them happy or felt good, they asked young adult children, who had the advantage of hindsight and years in their blended family, what made a difference in their relationship, then categorized the responses and analyzed them. Family professionals can consider these “turning points,” as the researchers called them, prescriptions for building healthier blended families.

Beyond Expectations

Never underestimate kindness. What the researchers called “prosocial actions” included behaviors like giving gifts, engaging in acts of kindness, and communicating positive messages to the child. When stepparents repeatedly engaged in these actions, adult stepchildren reported that ultimately, they were transformative for the relationship, especially when stepparents went above and beyond what the child expected or anticipated from them. 

As we suggest in our book Building Love Together in Blended Families (by Gary Chapman and Ron Deal), the full impact of these behaviors won’t necessarily be immediate. It may take years before either the stepparent or stepchild can look back and say that any given action was a “turning point” in their relationship. But ultimately, such steps can result in great gains for blended families.

The study, also, found that the element of surprise made a difference. When the stepparent did something unexpected for the child, she or he felt loved, cared for, supported.2 For example, one specific positive turning point uncovered in the research occurred when a stepparent talked about or to the child as if they were “my own.” It showed the child their worth to the stepparent. Over time, positive emotional experiences like this can relax the heart of the recipient, in this case a child, and open them to deeper trust and connection.

It is worth noting that children did not always immediately relate to this language, nor did they reciprocate and speak of their stepparent as “their own.” Nevertheless, the research suggests they internalized the stepparent’s desire for them, which seems eventually to have softened and opened their heart. 

Quality Time

Spending quality time with someone communicates that you value them and gives you a chance to build memories together that help give definition and shape to your relationship. This was supported by the research. Examples of positive quality time turning points included having fun together in a family group or one-on-one activity, making meals together, traveling, and engaging in side by side mentoring moments (like teaching a child to drive). Helpful conversations about life and relationships sometimes made a child feel supported, especially when they included words of encouragement from the stepparent. Even the first blended family vacation resulted in a 30 percent increase in positivity with the stepparent.3

Stepparents should enter the parental role of disciplinarian slowly and cautiously.

But here’s an important insight. The researchers discovered that quality time rarely occurred early in the family journey because of conflict, which is common during that phase. Who wants to spend intimate time with someone you don’t like, or at least, don’t know what to do with? Quality time, especially meaningful one-on-one time, becomes more likely as children age into late adolescence or adulthood when the relationship has had time to solidify and become more positive in general. 

Considered together, quality time and what the researchers called “prosocial actions” were the top two positive turning point responses (out of thirteen). They accounted for one-third of the positive change moments reported by now adult stepchildren in their stepparent relationship. 

The impact was especially true when stepchildren felt uncertain about their relationship with their stepparent. That is, when they felt distant from the stepparent, but the stepparent went out of their way to surprise them with a gift or stand up for them in a social setting, the action made a significant difference in the relationship. One takeaway for stepparents then is this: leading with love, even when uncertain about the relationship or it seems out of balance, has the power of being a turning point for good.

The study identified many other less common and less impactful, though still important, turning points that contributed positive changes for the relationship such as moving into a new house, developing holiday traditions that held meaning for the family, and surviving a crisis together. Even stepparent-stepchild conflict was found to be helpful when resolved (that is, when reconciliation occurred after a conflict).4 But actions that clearly expressed love to the child were the highest reported and over time seemed to hold the most positive impact. 

We should mention that not all well-intended behaviors produced a positive change in the relationship. Some occurrences had a neutral impact, according to the adult stepchildren, while a very small percentage actually had a negative impact. The reminder here is that not every stepparent effort will bring about positive change. The vast majority will—eventually. A few will not. Encourage stepparents to love anyway, because over time they build undeniable evidence of their heart and desire for connection. The cumulative positive impact far outweighs everything else. 

Key Takeaways to Share with Stepparents

Based on these research insights, we can encourage stepparents with the following list of “best practices”: 

•  Loving extravagantly and faithfully over time ultimately moves steprelationships in a positive direction. These behaviors require little time, skill, money, or effort, but have significant impact. 

•  Unexpected, surprising actions speak loudly and are hard to miss.

•  Quality time is tough to orchestrate early on in blended families because the tension surrounding family integration makes it uncomfortable. Be measured in the beginning of your family journey and increase your quality time efforts as relationships prove ready for it.

•  The positive impact of speaking someone’s love language is not usually felt immediately but becomes more evident over time. Even after experiencing a positive shift in their feelings toward a stepparent, a child may not reciprocate their love until sometime later.

•  Stepparents should enter the parental role of disciplinarian slowly and cautiously. Focus first on building friendship, trust, and love, then move into boundary setting and setting rules.

•  Negative conflict, when processed and resolved and the relationship reconciled, can become a positive turning point for stepparents and stepchildren. It builds resilience and a perceived sense of value to the other.

•  Taken as a whole, everything from simple, everyday behaviors to “above and beyond” actions powerfully communicate authentic love to a child and have strength to improve the quality of the relationship.

Editor's NoteAdapted from Building Love Together in Blended Families: The 5 Love Languages® and Becoming Stepfamily Smart by Gary Chapman and Ron L. Deal, Northfield Publishers (2020). Used with permission. All rights to this material are reserved.

1. Dawn O. Braithwaite et al., “‘Feeling Warmth and Close to Her’: Communication and Resilience Reflected in Turning Points in Positive Adult Stepchild–Stepparent Relationships,” Journal of Family Communication 18, no. 2 (January 2018): 92–109.

2. Ibid., 97–98.

3. Ibid., 98–99.

4. Ibid., 99–100. Though “reconciliation/problem solving” was less common as a reported turning point, it had a positive effect. Taking the time to resolve conflict moves hearts toward emotional safety.