Coming together as a stepfamily can be complicated
Take things slowly: everyone needs time to adjust
Coming together as a stepfamily can be complicated. It might be a time of hope – an opportunity to start again and be a happy and contented family. But a stepfamily is formed when a parent takes on a new partner following a divorce, separation or bereavement. This means children may still be dealing with the absence of a parent, and so it may be a long time before a stepfamily feels safe and secure. The best start for a stepfamily is to be aware of some of the challenges ahead. Take things slowly: everyone needs time to adjust.
Introducing a new partner
To your child, a new partner is a stranger. They’ll need time to get to know him or her and to trust them. Introduce them gradually and try not to push your child into giving your new partner affection. Remember that a new partner can never replace a parent but can be an extra support for your children. New partners can help you all to focus on what might work best for the children. As you move together with your relationship, take time to involve your children in changes in living arrangements and hopes for the future.
In a stepfamily finances can be very complicated. Try to work out with your new partner how you are going to manage the family budget. Think about using an online income and expenditure form and work out what is fair and agreeable for both of you.
Within a stepfamily there will be established relationships between biological parents and their children and new relationships forming between children, stepparents and stepsiblings. Children may feel that some family members are favoured above others, while the parent and stepparent struggle with feelings of guilt and not knowing how to spread their affections. Siblings and stepsiblings may argue initially. However, over time, research suggests that stepsiblings can get on and give each other support and friendship.
New way of doing things
Before coming together as a stepfamily, it may be worth working out each other’s attitude to raising children. It may be that you need to work out new routines and ways of doing things that are unique to this new family. You will all be learning to share time and space with each other:
- your child may have to learn how to share you and your ex-partner with others, like stepsisters or stepbrothers
- sometimes they may feel that they’re not being treated fairly
- your child may also have to share their house and possessions with others
There will be a period of adjustment, and it is important to give each family member the time and space to do this. Everyone is different and will cope with the changes in their way. If one child takes longer than another, this is ok, try not to put pressure on them as this may cause negative feelings.
How to tackle behaviour that upsets the family is really tricky. It helps if both of you agree on how to handle situations and be consistent in your approach. If you are not the biological parent, it is best to invest time in getting to know the children and gaining their trust and respect, before attempting to get involved with discipline. Research suggests that how stepdads cope with initial hostility towards them is key to how the relationship develops.
The ex and their relationship with your children
Working out how children stay in contact with your ex-partner can bring additional stress to the stepfamily. Children may react differently to the new relationship, some may welcome the stepparent, and others will feel hostile to them. Some may even reject the biological parent who is absent from their home for the stepparent.
In most stepfamilies children will be feeling hurt and angry, especially if the breakup is recent. Try to make arrangements with your ex for your children to see them and with as little conflict between you as possible. Don’t get children involved in taking sides. They need to know they are still loved by both their parents. Not to be made to feel guilty that you’ve split up.
The good stuff
There are very real plus points about stepfamilies. Children and adults can flourish – evidence suggests that living between two households can make a real difference to children’s sociability, flexibility, independence and resilience. For parents, sharing the care of their children can provide welcome breaks and a sense of shared responsibility.
Stepfamilies also bring with them new relationships – step-grandparents and step (or half) brothers and sisters. This means children have more people around who can give them support and guidance.
Family Lives top tips on being a stepfamily
- Give children their own space. When you set up home again with a new partner it is important that all the children have some privacy and a space they can claim as their own.
- Be patient – your children will need time to get to know and trust your new partner and their children.
- Keep a fair approach to all the children – there will be arguments but try not to side with your children rather than your partner.
- Keep talking – with families joining together it is important to make time to listen to everyone’s views and see if there are new ways of doing things that will keep most people happy.
- Allow children to be unhappy sometimes – it may be a new life for you and your new partner but for the children involved it will signal an end. Allow them time to grieve for the old way.
- Involve older children in decisions around sharing two households; take their views into consideration when making future arrangements.
- Listen to your children even if the things they say are negative, it is important that they feel heard. Seek support for yourself if you find it hard to hear the things they say.
- Try to spend time alone with your child to reassure them your love for them has not changed.
- Be prepared – sometimes it may seem that young children have adapted easily to the change in their family, but things may come up again when they hit their teens!
Being a stepparent
It takes time to build a new family – for new relationships to develop and existing ones to feel secure again. But children often have a greater capacity to adapt to new lifestyles and with time and effort it’s possible for the new living arrangements to feel completely natural to them.
Top tips on being a stepparent
- Remember that if the children aren’t welcoming towards you, it might just be because your presence suggests to them that their original family is never going to get back together again.
- Learn from past mistakes. Remind everyone that relationships need to be worked at and a key ingredient is to value those around you.
- Teenagers can be difficult, especially when it comes to discipline, so don’t always assume that the problems arise from your role as a stepparent.
- Family obligations like caring for elderly or frail relatives can be particularly complicated for stepfamilies. Make time to plan what you have to do and what you can share out with others.
- If you’re getting married, try to find a role for the children in the wedding arrangements. This will make them feel included in the changes to their family.
- A death in a stepfamily can act as a reminder of the different relationships in the extended family. Try not to resent it if you’re excluded from any events that you can’t reasonably be a part of.
- Remind your stepchildren that they could gain additional friendship and support through your friends and family.
- Make time for yourself. Time is needed for you both to be alone to strengthen your relationship – the key to the stepfamily’s success.
Organisations offering further support
- Happy Steps (support and advice for stepfamilies)
- The Centre for Separated Families
- National Family Mediation (helping families in conflict)
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Bounty is proud to bring you this information in partnership with www.familylives.org.uk. Family Lives is a charity with over three decades’ experience helping parents to deal with the changes that are a constant part of family life.
Comments on this article are monitored but NOT answered. However, Family Lives has extensive advice on their website, live chat services, and information about befriending services and parenting/relationship support groups. There is also a helpline and an online community forum offering a safe space for families to share dilemmas, experiences and issues with others who understand the ups and downs of family life. https://www.familylives.org.uk/how-we-can-help/forum-community/