Most people are very surprised to learn that adult stepfamilies, that is, those that are formed in the second-half of life and include adult stepchildren, have just as many transitions as stepfamilies with younger children. Some of the transitional issues are different, but many are the same.

Lorain, a reader of my monthly E-Magazine for stepfamilies, wrote asking how she might strengthen her relationship with her 19, 24, and 26 year-old stepchildren. “I was 49 when I married for the first time; my husband was 55. His first wife died a couple years before we met. My husband kept his children up to date about our relationship and things were pretty civil until we married. His oldest daughter cried loudly through the entire wedding ceremony. A few months later one of the children asked how my husband’s will was structured implying that I shouldn’t get anything. From there things have continued to go downhill at a rapid pace.”

Lorain’s experience is not uncommon, nor is her idealistic assumption that a marriage with adult children who no longer live in the home will not be impacted by the dynamics of loss and loyalty. Thankfully, adult children and stepparents do not have the same power battles that younger stepfamilies experience because the stepparent is not trying to get the children to pick up their socks or choose better friends. But adult stepchildren and older stepparents still have many emotional issues to work through, feel threatened by each other, and struggle with how the new marriage will impact familiar family relationships. Finding peace takes effort on both sides.

The New Couple

When Daniel’s 35 year-old son told him that he “just wanted him to be happy” the widower assumed his son was giving him permission to remarry. He wasn’t. What the son meant was, “I would hope that mom’s memory will keep you happy enough.” Daniel assumed he had his son’s blessing and got married. His son’s withdraw from contact alerted him to the problem at hand.

As an older parent and stepparent you must realize that adult stepchildren—despite their age—frequently feel:

  • fearful of being abandoned or isolated from their only remaining parent. Unfortunately, they have already tasted grief in a very real way; your marriage may renew or intensify this sadness.
  • loyal to their original family. Maintaining a strong family identity is important for adult children. Accepting a stepparent means the established family ties and special family holidays and celebrations must stretch to make room for newcomers. This isn't easy and frankly it hurts. Please don't take this personally—it’s not really about you. It's about home no longer feeling like home.
  • disloyal toward the divorced or deceased parent and guilty about letting the stepparent in.
  • jealous and replaced by their parent’s new partner. They may have been the "apple of their parent's eye" but now the stepparent holds the key to the parent’s heart (and time and energy).
  • concerned about the family finances. Money issues are common and must be addressed. Adult stepchildren have a right to know how their family inheritance is going to be managed (this is not “greed”) and you should be proactive in addressing these matters with the children so their fears can be put to rest.
  • resentful that their children, the grandchildren, may not receive as much time and energy from their parent as anticipated. Especially when one parent has died adult children may invest heavily in wanting their children to spend time with the grandparent. Your marriage threatens this and creates another loss for everyone.

As a new couple you must apply patience and understanding to these strong emotions. Do not be offended by them. When confronted with difficult responses from adult children, assume a humble position and listen to their fears and concerns. Accept them where they are and try to be responsive to their needs for information (especially about financial matters), emotional contact, and time as they adjust to yet another family transition they didn’t seek out.