When Bad Things Happen to Good (Step) Families

Gabe and I have gone to bed exhausted and worn through for the last three months. It’s all we can do to put one foot in front of another, and some days, just accomplishing that feels like a miracle. We’re overwhelmed and worried and facing something we don’t yet understand.

Jack has turned green.

Okay, not really. But for the sake of this conversation, let’s all pretend Jack has turned green. I’m not ready to share what is actually happening, and the child in question may or may not be Jack. But I am ready to talk about how we’ve learned to face the green together as a blended family.

Jack turning green has all the same markers as what we are facing. It is serious, but not life threatening. It’s unexpected and lifelong and a different outcome for Jack than we expected. We don’t know how to help a green child, and Jack doesn’t know how to be a green child. Turning green is big and worrisome and heavy, and it’s a burden we’re shouldering together in these early days.

We face stepfamily challenges differently than we might if we were a first family.

As it has been when our other children faced challenges and took on their own rainbow hues, shouldering it together doesn’t mean we’re shouldering it equally. Roles and boundaries, important in all blended families, take on heightened significance during stressful times.

Here are my top five tips for managing when bad things happen to your blended family.

Consider who is experiencing this crisis

We all are, of course. I love Jack dearly, and as his stepmother I have an important role in Jack’s life. That role is central to his day to day life, and one I love dearly. But I am not his mom or dad.

The truth is, in our tribe, I am, at most, person #4 on the crisis experience totem pole. Jack, Gabe, and Jack’s mom rank above me. It may not be popular to say that, and it certainly may not be the case for all blended families. In our house, my stepparent role is not equal to that of his father or mother. It just isn’t.

I work to remember that crisis isn’t the time to jockey for position or insist on being recognized for my contributions. I am both secure in the importance of my role as Jack’s epic stepmom, and know Jack and his parents carry this load heaviest.

Gabe supports me by remembering that I love Jack too. He includes me on updates with green specialists, and solicits my opinion on treatment. He thanks me for my help, and acknowledges that a green stepson wasn’t in my plans either.

Remember the ring theory

Susan Silk and Barry Goldman’s ring theory provides a simple framework for managing stress in crisis.

Here’s how it works: grab a piece of paper and draw the person’s name experiencing the crisis smack dab in the middle of it. Then, draw a circle around it, and write the names of the people closest to that person. Then draw a circle around those names, and outside of it, write in the names of the people next closest to the person at the center.

For our family, facing the Green Jack crisis, this is what our diagram might look like:

The Ring theory suggests that support should flow in to the center of the circle, and venting or requests for help should flow out. In our family, that means I support Gabe and Jack, and I share my late night worries and requests for help with my sister.

Not all blended family diagrams will look like ours, of course. Stepfamilies are all unique. I share ours simply as a starting point for others as they face their own challenges. The central concept is that support flows in, and worries or kvetching flow out.

Increase support

I am blurring some of our stepparent boundaries in the name of supporting our family. I make sure I am home and ready to love on Jack’s siblings on Gabe’s nights, who, because they aren’t green, are getting less attention than usual. I’m ready to help with activity drop offs and pick ups and taking the lead on green research.

I’m more vocal of my support for Gabe and his partner’s coparenting efforts. I encourage Gabe to speak to Jack’s mom first when considering green treatment. I remind him gently that he has a committed ally in this journey who doesn’t live in our house.

I care for Gabe so he can care for Jack. Sometimes that means talking late into the night about his options as a green dad, and sometimes that means encouraging him to book time at the golf course.

Take self-care seriously

A green boy in our house is a new experience for everyone. That stress layers on top of the regular day-to-day stress in our blended family, and is difficult for everyone in our tribe.  Because I am a central part of our crisis-support team, I have to stay healthy.

I’ve doubled down on my meditation, cleaned up my diet, and made sure to keep moving my body. I’m spending time with friends who are not affected by our green situation. When being home with a green guy is too stressful, I take a break. Keeping myself healthy and balanced is a gift to Gabe and our children, especially Jack.

Create a new definition for winning

Right now, winning in our family means that the adults have the energy and time to cope with Jack’s green-ness and not forget themselves or the other children in the process.

Winning is not getting the laundry done or cooking nutritious meals every night or carefully planning family outings. Winning sometimes looks a lot like pizza and a kid movie night. Winning looks like getting through a day without a green flare up.

It won’t always be this way. These are the early days of green. We’ll return to our regularly scheduled programming once we’ve adjusted. But for now, for the sake of moving forward, we have to lower our expectations.

We remember that we’ve faced crises before, and managed them successfully. We remember that our family is forged in fire, just like steel. We remember that this too shall pass.  And for now, that’s winning.

Grief | Blended Family | Stress | Coping with Crisis | How to Cope | Coparenting | Stepfamily | Illness
By | 2017-08-29T12:37:12+00:00 August 29th, 2017|Blended Family Tips, Coparenting, Our Life Together, Stepparenting|


  1. Kathy Miller August 29, 2017 at 11:47 am - Reply

    Kate–thank you for sharing. It’s hard to be the step-parent when a child is “greening” and hard to be the parent as well. Your post today resonates personally with me for many reasons and came at a very good time. I truly hope that you, Gabe, and “Jack” have the support that you all need to get through this with the least amount of family stress possible. The things you share are so helpful for so many. Thank you–again.

  2. Shannon Thompson September 4, 2017 at 8:39 am - Reply

    This was very pertinent for me. Discussing these challenges helps me have a more thoughtful plan. And I needed a reminder of how necessary self-care/encouraging my partner to self-care is at this time. We are exhausted as the adrenaline from the initial shock has worn off. THANK YOU!!

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