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Stepping Together for Stepfamilies
Francesca Adler-Baeder, PhD, CFLE

Charles Jackson

They may call themselves blended families, combined families, complex families, stepfamilies – or simply families – but half of all marriages in a year are remarriages for one or both partners. Most of these involve children from previous relationships. Additionally, particularly in low-resource communities, many first marriages form stepfamilies. Current estimates are that one-half of all Americans will be in a step relationship in their lifetime. The estimates are higher for low-resource families and for African American families. Never has there been a greater need to offer a program in your community that provides information and skills necessary for healthy stepfamily functioning. If stepfamilies are served with programming designed for first families, educators run the risk of leaving out important information that is key to healthy couples, healthy families, and healthy children.


What is Smart Steps?
Smart Steps: for Adults and Children in Stepfamilies is a research-based program initially developed through a collaboration between the former Stepfamily Association of America and Cornell Cooperative Extension in NY. It is currently provided by the National Stepfamily Resource Center at Auburn University in Alabama.  Research from Healthy Marriage programs indicates immediate and sustained benefit for individuals, couples, and families who participate in the Smart Steps program.  The curriculum provides a comprehensive educational base that recognizes the complexities and the interdependent nature of relationships within stepfamilies. The 12 hour program is designed to involve parents and children ages 6-16 living in stepfamilies. Separate sessions are held concurrently. Lessons are interactive and involve media, discussion and hands-on activities and exercises.  The curriculum can be offered as a family life education program; the couples program can be offered separately; the children’s program can be offered separately; and/or curriculum information can be integrated into other family life and marriage education programs.


Who should take this training?
This two-day training institute is for anyone involved in meeting the needs of stepfamily couples in marriage and family life education: Family life educators, military family services personnel, mental health professionals, religious family service providers. The curriculum has been used primarily with low-income families and with large numbers of Latino and African American couples. You will receive everything you need to implement the program.


Institute participants will receive:
- Leader's guides for both the adult and children sessions
- CD rom with PowerPoint presentations for adult sessions
- Masters of participant hand-outs
- DVD with stepfamily vignettes to use for discussion starters
- DVD of the movie, "Stepmom" (clips are used in the program).


Why should you offer this program in your community?
Here’s what we know from research:

1. Stepfamilies are more complex than first families and can operate differently in many ways.

2. Healthy models of stepfamilies are rare in the larger media, and sociocultural norms do not exist regarding stepfamily roles; therefore, work is necessary in each newly-formed stepfamily to jointly establish roles and rules that work for that family.

3. Few formal institutional supports exist regarding stepfamilies and the stepparent-stepchild relationships. Informal institutional supports for stepfamilies are rare as well. Stepfamily members require awareness of these conditions and suggestions for advocating for stepfamily support.

4. The marital relationship in a stepfamily is the newest and most vulnerable relationship in the family, requiring special attention and skill development. Indications are that spillover of conflict in other family relationships (ex. stepparent-stepchild; coparenting) may negatively affect the couple relationship in blended families.

5. Most children in stepfamilies have a parent in another home. Many parents have multiple coparents. These inter-household relationships impact the couple relationship.

6. Empathy is a learned behavior and an important element in healthy relationships and is especially important in stepfamilies where individuals have different backgrounds and family histories.

7. Many stepparents are not biological parents and have comparatively less child
development and parenting skills knowledge and would benefit from this information in a marriage education program.

8. Successful stepparenting is often not intuitive and develops differently than successful parenting.

9. Stepfamilies are potentially more stressful environments that first families due to complexities and unique stressors.

10.  There are some variations in stepfamily development and dynamics based on ethnicity.


Based on a thorough review of the research literature on stepfamilies, with an eye to elements of healthy stepfamily relationships, themes were gleaned and used to build the topics in the program for the adults and the children: Most of these topics are not included in "general" marriage and family life education. Importantly, specific information regarding serving ethnic minority stepfamilies also will be offered in the training institute.

In this institute you’ll learn how to teach the course. Your program participants will:

- Strengthen their marital relationship
- Be validated in their experiences as a stepfamily.
- Enhance their skills for adjusting to change
- Improve their knowledge of legal and financial issues in stepfamilies
- Better define family roles
- Improve their knowledge of child development and positive parenting skills
- Understand and be able to use empathy and the concept of shared meaning
- Enhance their communication skills in the family and in coparenting relationships
- Understand and be able to use conflict management skills
- Practice healthy and respectful behaviors towards others in their family




Participant Evaluations for Stepping Together: for Adults and Children in Stepfamilies:

"It was really helpful to feel ‘normal’ in our struggles…we learned some important skills and changed our expectations about a lot of things in our family…that was really helpful!"


One child reported:
"…I love going to ‘Step’ class…I wish it wouldn’t end..I think I helped some other kids think about their stepparent in a different way and I liked talking to them about my family."


A new stepparent reported that class helped him:
"…understand that work has to be done to nurture all the relationships in the stepfamily since they all affect our marriage - and our marriage makes the family."

For additional information, contact Dr. Francesca Adler-Baeder, instructor and program developer at or visit

This institute is part of the week-long Smart Marriages conference.


Register for the Institute and the Conference: Click for Information on Conference Details, to download a conference brochure, REGISTER ONLINE, hotel & travel information & discounts, etc.

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