Step-Parents Find Support

Local group helps spouses work through blended-family issues

By Kelly L. Martinez
Deseret Morning News

Published: March 28, 2005 12:00 am

Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News


Jonathan Sherman, a licensed marriage and family therapist, will guide the stepparent support group SPOT. The need for the group, he says, is growing as Utah's divorce rate quickly catches up to the national rate.

Related Link: SPOT meets April 26 in Pl. Grove

PLEASANT GROVE — The small group sits in a semicircle while members introduce themselves one by one.

It was a tough decision for some of them to come to the meeting, but their need for help overshadowed any trepidation they may have felt about coming to a support group.

What ails this group is a growing phenomenon in America — and one that is on the rise in Utah, as well.

"Hello," says a woman in gray sweat pants and a worn T-shirt. "I'm a stepparent, and I need help."

There are many types of support groups — alcoholic, cancer, drug addiction, overeaters and sex addiction, to name just a few. Until recently, though, stepparents in Utah Valley didn't have a place to turn for support.

Brenda Smith, founder of Stepparents of Tots/Teens, or SPOT, a support group for stepparents, has been a stepparent for 12 years and knows the challenges faced by what is clinically referred to as a "blended family."

When her then 12-year-old stepdaughter moved in with her and her husband four years ago, Smith began looking for help in stepparenting.

"I tried finding support groups for stepparents to get help and ideas but couldn't find any," she said.

Therapists were willing to offer counseling services for a fee, but that wasn't what she was looking for. She wanted something that would put her in contact with others who were going through what she was going through.

She began talking to other stepparents and bounced around the idea of forming a support group in Utah Valley. Four years later, SPOT was born.

SPOT will be guided from behind the scenes by Jonathan Sherman, a licensed marriage and family therapist.

Sherman, who runs Bardos Relationship Consulting, a private practice in Saratoga Springs, believes there is a definite need for a group like SPOT, noting the Utah divorce rate is not as far behind the national level, as it once was.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the national average for divorce during 2003 was 3.8 divorces per thousand people, while in Utah the figure was 3.76 per thousand people. Preliminary numbers for 2004 show a slight decrease in each of these categories.

In addition, divorce involved more than 1.1 million children under the age of 18 during 2003. Statistics also show that more than 75 percent of those who divorce will remarry within five years.

Add these figures and it makes sense that, as the Stepfamily Foundation Inc. has reported, more than 1,300 stepfamilies are formed each day in the United States.

"There are plenty of support groups for traditional family parenting, but there have, in the past, been none for stepparenting," Sherman said.

Stepparenting teenagers can be especially difficult, he said.

"Younger stepchildren are more accepting and are very willing to have another person love them. As they mature, however, the rebelliousness that naturally accompanies adolescence can be shifted and focused on a stepparent," he said. "Having a stepparent is a constant reminder to a child that the divorced parents are not going to get back together."

Stepparenting and blending families come with inherent sets of potential problems.

Issues such as conflicting family values, vindictiveness by the parents, a perception that the noncustodial parent is the "fun" parent and difficulty accepting the authority of another parental figure are a few of those problems.

SPOT aims to help stepparents meet these challenges by providing contact with others who are going through — or have been through — similar problems.

One of Smith's biggest fears is that stepparents who need help with parenting are afraid to admit they need help and will not come to a support group.

She hopes stepparents who are experiencing problems will realize that it's OK to ask for help and that there are many others experiencing similar problems.

A key to making blended families work is to approach the situation with realistic expectations, including how long it takes for a blending to take place, experts say.

"Common belief is that blended families fully blend in about a year or two," Sherman said. "In truth, the time frame is more like two to five years."

Despite common misperceptions, stepfamilies can be happy and can help heal the scars of divorce.

"Families need to seek help before there are major problems. A group like SPOT is a good resource for stepparents," he said. Because of the sensitivity of the issues, children are not invited to the meetings.

Support groups are sometimes thought of as a place to gripe, complain or even criticize the perceived causes of a problem.

Smith's hope is that SPOT will create a different reality.

"Griping has its place and value in dealing with problems," she said, "but I hope that (SPOT) will be more of a networking group that will provide valuable resources and insight for stepparents."

While the meetings are geared towards stepparents, Smith and Sherman believe both the stepparent and the spouse can benefit by attending the meetings together, since they need to work together to successfully blend a family.

Ultimately, it is cooperation between the parents — birth and step — that determines how well the stepfamily will function.

One stepparent who attended a recent SPOT meeting reported a drastic change in the way she and her stepdaughter got along because of an attitude change by her and the girl's birth mother.

As the two parents tried to put the welfare of the daughter ahead of their own feuding, an unexpected friendship formed, and the two parents — previously bitter enemies — are now good friends.

With this friendship in place, the stepparent reported, the relationship with her stepdaughter has improved as well.

By sharing examples and experiences about stepparenting, Sherman and Smith believe, stepparents and stepfamilies can only improve. This, after all, is the core aim of SPOT.


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