Understanding Your Adult Stepchildren

The day Bernard and I became empty nesters was a pivotal moment in our stepfamily life. We were excited to start our new adventure as a couple now that our children and stepchildren were responsible adults. We soon came to realize that stepparenting challenges are never completely over. Just like so many stepmoms I’ve worked with, one of our major goals is in having a harmonious stepfamily life, seeing our adult stepchildren become productive and contributing members of society and create their own happy family.

An area of stepfamily life advice that isn’t discussed much is parenting adult stepchildren. After years of personal experience and working with stepmoms of adult stepchildren, I want to share what I’ve learned.

Stepfamily life has wonderful and rewarding moments just like challenging ones, not just when the stepchildren are young but all throughout the lifetime of the couple’s relationship together. Here are some examples of issues that stepmoms can face with adult stepchildren:

  • Adult stepchildren fearing losing their inheritance
  • Ongoing loyalty binds issues with the mom
  • Not being accepted or respected by the stepchildren
  • Stepmoms feeling like a guest in their own home
  • Feelings of competition with the stepchildren – even as adults
  • Viewed as “Dad’s wife/girlfriend” and not part of the family
  • Being excluded from conversations around family discussions

The conflicts stepmoms of adult stepchildren face are different from those of stepmoms of younger stepchildren. Issues around homework, chores, curfews, legal battles or support payments are no longer an issue (unless they still live in your home). For most stepparents, it’s a welcome relief. One opposition that never goes away is the ex-wife. Although she may not be directly involved with your family, she’s still in the picture, as in attending graduations and weddings, sharing grandchildren and being a sounding board for her kids. Loyalty issues for the stepchildren never seem to go away, even as adults.

Stepmoms with older stepchildren feel more challenged because many stepchildren don’t feel a strong connection with a stepparent who’s come in late in their lives. The bond isn’t as strong, making it trying for the stepmom to feel she’s a part of her partner’s family rather than the outsider. Stepmoms come to me, noticing issues with their grown stepchild, such as acting out in their home in inappropriate ways. Feeling trapped, she believes there’s not much she can do. She’s not feeling the support or understanding of her partner when it comes to his adult stepchildren. Dad’s seeking peace in his home and life, wanting to avoid conflict or issues his partner sees. He becomes defensive whenever his wife criticizes his kids. He interprets his partner’s points of view as an attack for not doing a good job and failing as a father. This can be a blow to his ego.

My advice as a coach and what I’ve done with my husband is for the stepmom to talk with her partner about what she sees and why she’s concerned about her adult stepchild, focusing on the health and wellbeing of that stepchild. This can be tricky if your partner tends to feel flooded with emotions every time you approach the subject.  This is where getting coached around effective communication skills comes in handy.

Dealing with Adult Stepchildren as a Stepmom

At this stage in your stepfamily life, focus on the relationship with your partner rather than putting all your energy on your adult stepchildren. Here’s why:

  • If you weren’t part of their formative years, your stepchildren won’t appreciate you telling them what to do.
  • Many adult stepchildren shared with me how they wished I had been around to help their stepmoms not try so hard to be “a mom” but rather focus on being a wife to their dad. Their thought was that they’d gotten this far without her help, let them continue.

That doesn’t mean you can’t be a part of their lives. On the contrary. Show curiosity in what they’re doing, without giving advice. Show that you’re interested in them as individuals and that you’d like to be included in some of the things they do. Offer help with an event, take the grandkids for a day, do activities you both enjoy. Offer but don’t pressure. This is a long and slow process. Work to create a partnership with your spouse, one that is centered around your relationship and includes his children. Seek to understand what your stepchildren want from you in this family. Don’t expect your adult stepchildren to immediately include you in everything they do. It’s a process. One that is worth investing in. Take your time.