Lesson 7 of 7 - evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily

Resolve Stepfamily
Name and Title Conflicts

What shall we call each other? 

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Experts Council

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The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/sf/names.htm

Updated  05-22-2015

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      This is one of a series of lesson-7 articles on how to evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily. The "/" in re/marriage and re/divorce notes that it may be a stepparent's first union. "Co-parents" means both bioparents, or any of the three or more stepparents and bioparents co-managing a multi-home nuclear stepfamily.  

      This article assumes you're familiar with...

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

  • self-improvement lessons 1 thru 7 

  • perspective on new-stepfamily formation

  • how to master three common family stressors

      One of many alien tasks in forming a new stepfamily is adults and kids negotiating what names and titles to call each other. Depending on several factors, this can become a source of major confusion and conflict. This article offers perspective on potential stepfamily name and title problems, and suggests practical solutions to them.


      In all ages and cultures, tribes, clans, families, and nations have used names to identify individual members and groups from each other. They have also evolved titles to identify the responsibilities, functions (roles), and status of individual members of a social group - e.g. shaman, slave, midwife, and healer. Names and titles also help to define "Who AM I?" (personal identity).

Stepfamily Name Problems

      In normal biofamilies, confusion over names and role-titles (like daughter, uncle, and son-in-law) is relatively rare. If adults and kids have the same first name, usually they evolve nicknames or initials to differentiate who's who - e.g. Bob and Bobbie, or Jeannie and "J.P." 

      When single parents commit to a new partner - specially if s/he has kids too -

  • the new mate may have the same first name as a stepchild or as a first spouse; ("Do you mean my first husband, my current husband, or my son?")

  • s/he may choose a mate's or a hyphenated last name which is different than his or her biokids' last name. One child may accept this and a sibling may not. Relatives may or may not approve of this name choice;

  • new stepsiblings and/or new relatives may have the same first name ("We both have a cousin named Marty."); 

  • stepparents can legally adopt a stepchild and change their last name, if both bioparents agree;

      There are many variations on who may be stressed by these problems, why, and how stepfamily members react to the stress.

Role-title Problems

      A social role is a set of responsibilities and common traits - e.g. a "mother" is (assumed to be) responsible for nurturing children she has conceived, and is expected to be a "loving" person.

      In "traditional" cultures, there are 15 common biofamily role-titles, like cousin, uncle, grandmother, sister, father, brother-in-law, etc. Divorced biofamilies add the role-titles of ex mate / wife / husband / spouse and former in-law. There is relatively little family or social confusion about what a person with each title is responsible for in a family, and how they're "supposed to" relate to other family members.

.       Typical stepfamilies are formed by the complex merger of three or more multi-generational biofamilies. The merger adds up to 15 additional role-titles  to the traditional labels - e.g. stepchild / son / daughter; stepparent / father / mother; step cousin / aunt / uncle / grandparent / father / mother; and so on.

      If members ignore or deny their identity as a stepfamily, they won't use these titles. If they accept their identity, they may be confused about or disagree on what these alien new roles mean - e.g. how "should" step-people behave with each other? 

      If your kids or adults have significant trouble resolving problems over family names or role-titles, what can you do? 


      Start by checking to see if any conflicted adults are unaware of or denying significant psychological wounds and what they mean. If they are, that will cause clusters of stepfamily problems and hinder effective problem-solving. Lesson 1  explains how to assess for wounds and reduce them over time .

      Conflicts over family names are usually a combination of values and loyalty conflicts. These can be amplified if family adults complain, argue, criticize, and fight instead of doing win-win problem solving as teammates. So - adults should...

  • discuss and apply these options for improving their communication effectiveness, and then...

  • evolve an effective strategy to handle these three common relationship stressors together and teach the strategy to their kids and supporters.

    This YouTube video focuses on one of them: values conflicts. The video mentions eight lessons in this self-improvement We4b site: I've reduced that to seven.

      Confusion and conflict over stepfamily role-titles can be reduced by:

  • everyone accepting their stepfamily identity and what it means;

  • resolving any uncertainty or disputes over stepfamily membership;

  • committing to reduce significant adult relationship barriers for the good of everyone - specially the kids;

  • working together to learn and accept stepfamily realities;

  • patiently experimenting with different role-titles that everyone can live with (vs. demanding or insisting); and...

  • negotiating meaningful ''job (role) descriptions'' over time.

      Conflicts can erupt if a young stepchild wants to call a stepparent "Mom/my" or "Dad/dy" and the stepparent and/or either of the child's bioparents or a grandparent objects. Awkwardness can arise between siblings over "my Mom," "your Mom," "our Mom," and "my (or your) stepmother." Many stepfamilies choose to have kids call a stepparent by their first name, or use a compromise like "Pop" and "Dad," or "Daddy Fred" and (step)Daddy Lou". 

      Conflict also arises if a custodial stepparent (or bioparent) demands that their stepchild call them "Mom" or "Dad" when they don't want to. This may indicate that the stepparent doesn't want to admit (a) their stepfamily identity and/or (b) their alien (and "inferior"?) step role. If they're childless, a stepparent may long to feel like a "real" (i.e. biological) parent with a son or daughter.

      Each of these cases can cause clusters of values and loyalty conflicts. If adults are minimally wounded, well-informed, and choose the options above to negotiate creative compromises, they can identify and manage these problems successfully.  

      If any adults won't cooperate on doing steps like those above, it's very likely they are Grown Wounded Children (GWCs). If so, see these options.


      This article offers perspective on - and suggestions on how to manage - significant stepfamily confusion or conflict over names and role-titles.

Keep studying Lesson 7

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