Lesson 7 of 7 - evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily

The Pros and Cons of
 Adopting a Stepchild

A Complex Family Decision

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

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      This is one of a series of  Lesson-7 Web articles on how to grow a high-nurturance stepfamily. "Co-parents" means all bioparents and stepparents in a multi-home nuclear stepfamily. The "/" in re/marriage and re/divorce notes that it may be a stepparent's first union.

      In a minority of American stepfamilies, a stepparent legally adopts one or more stepchildren. This complex decision can strengthen or stress their relationships and their multi-home family system. The odds of long-term satisfaction with stepchild adoption go way up if all co-parents want to first discuss thoroughly and honestly who needs to adopt, why, and how this decision will affect their stepfamily's nurturance level.

      This article...

defines a "successful stepchild adoption;"

proposes requisites for a successful adoption;

hilights typical reasons for stepchild adoption, and why some may bring unforeseen trouble; and this article...

suggests four key evaluation-questions to discuss together

      The article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit site and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 7

  • 5 common family hazards, and the typical problems they cause; and...

  • Q&A about stepkids and stepparenting

      For perspective, this brief YouTube video outlines some special needs of typical minor kids who's parents split up. The video mentions eight lessons in this self-improvement Web site: I've reduced that to seven.

      This adoption deliberation is far more complex in typical multi-home stepfamilies than in intact biofamilies because...

  • more people, roles, homes, and relationships are affected,

  • there are more personal and family-merger tasks to balance, and...

  • average stepkids need informed, cooperative adult guidance on special needs that intact-biofamily youngsters don't have. 

      To start this complex evaluation, first define...

What's a Successful Adoption?

      To answer this, some years must pass after adoption, and each co-parent must agree that their nuclear-stepfamily's nurturance level stayed steady or improved. In other words, all members of the nuclear stepfamily must agree that the adoption improved (or didn't harm)...

each primary adult relationship (e.g. re/marriage) in the stepfamily; and...

the personal happiness and well-being of all members of the stepfamily, not just several; and...

the relationships between the adopted child/ren and each co-parent and (step)sibling; and...

the wholistic health and security of each adopted stepchild.

      Another way to gauge adoption success is for co-parents to assess whether it created any significant unresolved conflicts over membership, values, loyalties, and associated relationship triangles. "Significant" is a subjective judgment. Note that most of these criteria focus is the whole stepfamily, not on one person, a dyad, or one home.

       With this definition in mind, let's look at...

Requisites for Deciding

      Premise - over half of typical American stepfamilies eventually divorce psychologically or legally because the widespread [wounds + unawareness] cycle causes five interactive hazards. To prepare to evaluate the pros and cons of stepchild adoption realistically, all stepfamily adults need to: 

__  accept that each adult shares responsibility for guarding the next generation from inheriting the [wounds + unawareness] cycle;

__  assess themselves for significant psychological wounds, and commit to reducing them as needed (Lesson 1);

__  replace unawareness and ignorance with accurate knowledge by studying and discussing this online self-improvement course or equivalent;

__  _ learn stepfamily basics and realities, _ accept their identity as a normal stepfamily, and _ agree on what that identity means (Lesson 7);

And to make wise adoption decisions, step-adults need to...

__  confirm that each re/married couple in the stepfamily made wise commitment decisions; and...

__  learn how to resolve these common stepfamily problems together as teammates; and...

__  remove any of these common relationship barriers - specially between co-parenting ex mates; and also adults must want to...

__  learn the special needs of typical stepkids, and assess each child's status with these needs; and...

__  agree on a stepfamily mission statement  and co-parent job descriptions (responsibilities).

      In 36 years as a stepfamily therapist and educator, I've found that fewer than 5% of average stepfamily adults and clinicians can name these adoption requisites, let alone meet them. If the requisites look like a lot of work - they ARE. Implication: deciding to adopt a stepchild soon after re/marriage and/or cohabiting is usually unwise because the adults haven't had enough time to learn and meet these challenging requirements.

      Even if all nuclear-stepfamily adults meet them, co-parents may have unwise reasons for adopting. Let's explore...

Who Needs to Adopt - and Why?

      People "behave" in order to fill primary needs - i.e. to increase their current comfort. To make a successful long-term adoption decision, co-parents need to be clear (a) who needs this family change, (b) what their primary needs are, and (c) whether the affected adults' true Selves are free to guide their debate and decision.

Who Needs to Adopt? 

      Several possibilities are...

  • A stepparent is the prime mover; or...

  • a bioparent-stepparent couple is; or...

  • either or both of the stepchild's bioparents; or...

  • a vocal (needy) stepchild, sibling, or relative; or...

  • some combination of all these people.

Each person may have unique reasons (needs) for wanting or opposing legal adoption. Some family members may be indifferent.

Typical Reasons for Adopting Stepchildren

      Premise - adults and kids have surface needs and underlying primary needs (motivations). Let's review common surface reasons for adopting a stepchild and possible underlying reasons.

      1) One or more stepfamily members believe that adoption will help them feel more like a "normal" (bio)family. That may work, but it will not change the ~70 differences between their stepfamily and an intact biofamily. This reason may indicate that the members haven't really accepted their stepfamily identity, and/or they feel ashamed of it.

      2)  A co-parent hopes that stepparental adoption will motivate relatives to finally accept their divorce, their re/marriage, and/or to accept the stepparent and their kin as full members of the merging biofamilies. This is unlikely, because lack of acceptance is usually due to psychological wounds and incomplete grief. Stepchild adoption won't affect either of these..

      Another common surface reason for stepchild adoption is...

      3) The stepparent wants to feel more legitimate about saying and feeling "I'm your Mom / Dad now, and you're my son / daughter," rather than feeling inauthentic as a "stepparent." This feeling can cause ambivalence and discomfort about disciplining "someone else's child," and stepkids' balking and saying" I don't have to obey you - you're not my (bio)parent."

      Legal stepchild adoption will not fully fill this need. The lack of shared ancestry, history, child-conception and birth, and genes will always combine to promote a stepparent feeling "different" than a bioparent, and a stepchild feeling "I am not of you." Even if adoption helps the stepparent feel more "legitimate" and "normal" in their caregiving role, it may not strengthen the child's relation with the adult - specially if the youngster is ambivalent about or indifferent to the adoption, or hasn't been respectfully consulted.

      4) Someone hopes that adoption will reduce stressful loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles involving the stepparent and stepchild. For example, someone thinks that by legal stepchild adoption, the re/married biomom or biodad will no longer feel emotionally trapped in the middle of stepparent-stepchild conflicts, the stepparent won't feel so guilty, and the stepchild won't feel so confused.

      A special case of this is one or both co-parents wanting to reduce discomfort from favoring an "ours" child over one or more stepkids. Adoption may or may not help with this, because of the primal (instinctual) preference for one's own off-spring and other factors.

      Gaining legal status as adoptive stepparent will rarely diffuse major loyalty conflicts. Typical loyalty conflicts are complex psychological struggles, not logical ones. Stepchild adoption may increase existing internal and interpersonal loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles, and foster new ones - specially if one or more relatives oppose an adoption.

      Changing a stepchild's legal status and perhaps their last name will not change her/his personality, nor adults' emotional bonds with and preferences for (loyalty to) one child over another. If anything, adoption may increase any guilt about not valuing a stepchild over a stepparent's biological child (if any). 

      More common surface reasons for stepchild adoption...

      5) Re/married mates may want the stepparent to gain legal parental rights in interactions with medical facilities and the child's school. Many schools will not release kids' records to a stepparent, and some hospitals and clinics don't recognize a stepparent's authority in admitting a minor child for treatment. Legal adoption usually can fill these needs

      6)  A stepfamily couple may hope that stepchild adoption will "somehow" repair a wobbly re/marriage. A variation is one mate believing that a legal adoption will make it harder for their mate to divorce them. Adoption cannot correct unwise courtship choices or heal remarital frustrations - and may increase them. Working patiently at these self-improvement Lessons together is a better long-term marital strategy than stepchild adoption.

      7) One or both re/married co-parents may see adoption as a way of gaining an advantage in relations with the stepchild's other bioparent and/or relatives - e.g. a legal advantage in court fights, or an emotional power boost to legitimize the stepparent's rights, opinions, and needs in inter-home co-parenting conflicts. The core reasons for intra-family conflict is usually some mix of these nine related barriers. Stepchild adoption will not reduce any of them

      8) Someone thinks that stepchild adoption will resolve the youngster's "illogical" longing to have their divorced bioparents and biofamily reunite. A symptom of that longing is often galling indifference to or caustic rejection of a stepparent, stepsiblings, and/or step-kin.

      Adoption probably won't reduce this common "reunion fantasy," because the underlying problem is usually incomplete grief. Adoption may or may not bring the child closer to admitting their fantasy, and accepting the permanence of their losses (broken bonds) from biofamily break-up and parental re/marriage. See Lesson 3 for perspective and options.

      Four more possible surface reasons for adopting a stepchild...

      9) Someone sees a child-support and/or tax advantage to adoption. Adoption may reduce some stepfamily financial conflicts, but risks creating new values and loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles in their place. And/or...

      10) Someone thinks that some or all stepfamily members will "feel better and closer" if a child legally adopts their stepfather's last name - specially if...

  • their biomom uses it and/or...

  • she has conceived an "ours" child with the stepfather, and/or...

  • the stepparent has biokids of their own.

Adoption may ease this surface problem, but will often cause new resentments, hurts, and stressful relationship triangles. See reason 1 above.


      11) Someone thinks that a stepchild's confusion and anxiety over their personal and family identity and role will be relieved by being legally adopted by their stepparent. The odds are against this, because the roots of role and identity confusion are psychological wounds + unawareness + ignorance or rejection of stepfamily identity and realities + incomplete grief + unresolved barriers among stepfamily adults.

      A final adoption-decision scenario:

      12) After deep reflection and much honest discussion of all the factors above, all affected stepfamily adults and kids feel clearly that legal stepchild adoption will strengthen the bonding and nurturance level (functioning) in and among their many related homes. 

      This is the best case. It illustrates that carefully-researched and deliberated stepchild adoption really can bring significant new strength, warmth, and unity to everyone in their three or more merging biofamilies.

      We've just reviewed 12 common surface reasons typical co-parents to seek legal adoption of one or more stepkids. Note these themes... 

Typical stepchild adoption is a complex decision with many emotional, relationship, and perhaps financial impacts. Hastily or impulsively made, this decision has a high chance of increasing re/marital and stepfamily stress, because it affects many people and family-adjustment tasks, fundamentally alters the stepfamily system, and usually does not reduce primary stressors. And...

Stepchild adoption can be successful, long-term, truly raising the whole family's nurturance level. This can happen if all affected co-parents, minor and grown kids, and genetic and legal relatives are clear on...

  • their identity a normal multi-home stepfamily and what that identity means;  

  • what they're doing (resolving a stream of conflicts from a complex multi-year biofamily merger),

  • their primary reasons (needs) for adoption, and if all adults...

  • have realistic expectations of what it will and won't provide.

      How can co-parents raise their long-term odds for a successful stepchild adoption?

Improve Your Odds for Deciding Wisely

      Though every stepfamily is unique, some adoption-criteria apply to most of them. The goal is your co-parents helping each other make an informed, wide-angle, long-range adoption decision. The real questions are:

  • Who needs to adopt, and why?

  • What problems may legal adoption cause, if any?

  • What is the right time to consider adoption?, and...

  • What are the right reasons to adopt a stepchild?

Who Needs to Adopt?

      Get very clear on (a) which family members are promoting stepchild adoption, and (b) whether all adults' true Selves are evaluating the decision (Lesson 1). If not, stepchild adoption risks...

  • acting on unrealistic adoption expectations and being disappointed and frustrated;

  • lowering your stepfamily's nurturance level,

  • escalating stepfamily stress and possible re/divorce, and...

  • unintentionally passing on psychological wounds to your descendents.

      Include your stepchild's other bioparent, if alive and accessible, as a full partner in your evaluation process. Try to see him or her as a resource, vs. an opponent or non-participant. If you really accept that you're a stepfamily, you'll accept the necessity of including this co-parent. Doing this honestly leads to confronting any significant barriers to co-parenting teamwork in and between your several homes. Best case: reduce these before evaluating stepchild adoption.    

      Review your co-parental priorities. As a foundation for making important family decisions like stepchild adoption, I suggest consistently putting (a) your individual integrity and wholistic health first, (b) your primary relationships second, and (c) all else third, except in emergencies. If any co-parent balks at this, s/he's probably a Grown Wounded Child (GWC).

      Get clear on the scope of your decision. If your co-parents see stepchild adoption as a family-wide change rather than just a affecting one or more kids or one home, then go ahead. If any of you disagree, yellow light!

Why Adopt?

      After doing these things, then identify and discuss the primary needs you're trying to fill by step-child adoption. The examples above illustrate some seductive surface reasons to adopt a stepchild. Most aim to reduce significant personal or relationship tensions. A better option is identifying and resolving unmet primary needs one at a time, and then using adoption to strengthen your stabilized stepfamily. 

      Get clear on the pros and cons of stepchild adoption in your unique stepfamily. If all your co-parents agree that adoption will probably yield more pros than cons long term, then go ahead. Option: have each co-parent and any active co-grandparents read this article and then discuss how it applies to all your adults and kids. Disinterest or resistance to this suggests psychological wounds and/or unawareness. 

What Problems May Adoption Cause?

      Though every stepfamily is unique, unwise or premature legal stepchild-adoption decisions may cause cascades of significant membership, values, and loyalty conflicts; and/or divisive relationship triangles. They may also amplify significant relationship barriers between some family members.

      Common problems to watch for are...

  • the stepchild's other bioparent fearing that the adopting stepparent is trying to displace him or her, and/or to prove s/he is a "better parent." A related fear is that their child will love the stepparent more than themselves. This may be caused by insecurity and/or the illusion that "love" is a limited resource.  

  • the stepchild feeling anxiety and guilt that s/he must now "love" the adoptive stepparent and/or stepsiblings though s/he doesn't feel love;

  • the stepparent's own child/ren resenting that their mom or dad is treating a stepsibling as an equal to them and feeling somehow demoted and/or less secure;

  • names and titles: a stepparent may have been called by their first name before adoption, and now asks or demands to be called Mom or Dad. There may be new family confusion about whether the adopting adult is still "my stepparent" or "my parent." These are values conflicts;

  • a grandparent blaming their adult child for allowing "a stranger?" to adopt their grandchild - specially if they disapprove of the stepparent and/or her or his parenting values or style;

  • someone resenting changes to a stepparent's estate plan giving equal bequests to an adopted  stepchild; and...

  • the stepchild (or someone) resenting that s/he must change her/his last name to their stepfather's name, and/or that the stepparent now refers to them as "my son or daughter." The later is specially common if the other bioparent objects to this title or the stepparent demanding to be called "Mom" or "Dad."  

Aware co-parents guided by their true Selves can avoid or resolve these and similar problems using the resources in this site's nonprofit self-improvement course.

What are the Right Reasons to Adopt?

      See the examples above. In summary, the best reasons are those which clearly...

  • strengthen all your stepfamily relationships, bonding, and unity;

  • do not cause significant loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles, or amplify any relationship barriers in and between your homes; and adoption clearly...

  • will increase your stepfamily's long-term nurturance level.

      Because evaluating these criteria is complex and emotional, consider using informed peer and professional counsel to help you decide. A great resource is other stable (vs. new) stepfamilies who have gone through this evaluation process. Though their circumstances and structure will differ from yours, the core pros and cons are probably similar.

      Is there a co-parent support group near you? If not, explore some of the many co-parent support and chat groups on the Web. Also, use several Web search programs like lycos.comyahoo.com, google.com, bing.com, and ask.com and see what "adoption," "child adoption," and "stepchild adoption" bring you.

      Even if you have healthy reasons to adopt, you may do so at the wrong time.

When Is the Right Time to Adopt?

      The best answer is "when we all agree we have all the requisites above." Stepfamily commentators generally agree it takes four or more years after re/wedding and cohabiting to stabilize the complex merger of three or more multi-generational biofamilies.

      The further along you all are with your set of concurrent merger-adjustment tasks and these vital Lessons, the more likely it is you all can make a wise long-term adoption decision. Option: adapt this "Right Time" courtship worksheet to help you all answer this key adoption question.

      Take your time! Because this decision will affect many kids and adults in many ways, help each other to be patient at learning each affected adult's and child's feelings, needs, and opinions. A stepchild-adoption decision is at least as complex as buying or building a house. If any co-parent is confused or unsure about adoption, resolve that first!


      This Lesson-7 article exists because a significant minority of American stepparents legally adopt one or more stepkids. This complex family-wide decision can benefit or stress a typical multi-home stepfamily over time. It deserves thoughtful deliberation by all affected adults, and respectful consultation with all affected kids.

      This article defines "successful stepchild adoption," proposes requisites for making a wise adoption decision, and reviews 12 common adoption motives. Most of them aim to fill alluring surface needs, and often don't turn out the way co-parents hope, long term. The article closes with four key adoption questions step-adults need to discuss together.

Resource: "Stepparent Adoption, a Resource Book, by Tim O'Hanlon, PhD; Adoption Shop; 2004

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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