There is no set prescription for a “normal” family and really, there never has been. Each family is unique and a sum of all the individuals who are part of it. Though it’s fair to say that parents, whether biological or step, generally share the same hopes and dreams; to raise happy, well adjusted kids who eventually go on to lead full and productive adult lives.
Step families constitute an increasingly large proportion of Australian life. In 2007 there were around 120,000 children who were living in a step family and within the same year, another 100,000 living in a blended family.
What helps to be a successful step parent?
- Be patient when building a relationship with your step child. Without doubt, this seems to be the number one tip when it comes to success. Valuing the child’s history and not trying too hard and too fast really seems to make a difference. Avoid being impatient – trust and respect can take years to develop.
- Respect the relationship the child has with their biological parents. Many times, children feel a sense of loyalty and betrayal to their absent parent if they become close to their step parent. With time, they can learn that its possible to have an emotional connection with more than two parents.
- Listen to what the child is saying. Don’t be so keen to put your own point of view across that you dismiss the child’s perspective. They have feelings and opinions as well, even if you don’t always agree with them.
- Don’t use the children as a means of relaying information or getting “back at” the other parent. This is never a success. Keep adult conversations between the adults and be respectful of the child’s emotional maturity.
- Not termiting the relationship the child has with the other parent. Some psychologists believe that if you criticise the parent you inadvertently criticise the child. In a young child’s mind, there can be no separation between themselves and their parent. Where you can, speak positively about their other parent and keep criticisms and judgments to yourself.
- Not equating money with good times. Throwing money at a relationship doesn’t guarantee a good outcome. Sometimes the simplest family activities are the best. They are also more sustainable long term than expensive ones.
- Avoid feeling you need to be right all the time. Sometimes it’s important for kids to have “a win” and to feel they own the upper hand. There is much to be said for occasionally keeping quiet and learning the old fashioned art of “holding your counsel”.
- Avoid letting anger seep into every aspect of your family life. Harbouring resentment for the absent partner is rarely productive. Be mindful that there are always two sides to every story and you’re probably only hearing one of them. In many ways, the relationship your partner has with their ex has nothing to do with you.
- Look after yourself and your relationships. Simple things like eating well, having regular exercise, taking time to relax, being mindful and appreciating all the good things you have will really make a difference to your outlook.
- Generally, discipline is easier in step families where the children were young when the new relationship was formed. Older children can become very resentful when they are disciplined by a non-biological parent. Be realistic about this and avoid thinking it’s just your family where this is happening.
- Be mindful that just because you have a relationship with their parent, this automatically extends to the children as well. Being sensitive and kind to your partner’s children will go a long way towards building trust with them. In the early stages, don’t try to be another parent to them.
- Be mindful about the timing of sleepovers. The first time your step children meet you should not be in the hallway or bathroom of their home. Exercising some tact and diplomacy won’t go astray no matter how young they are.
- Avoid making their parent feel they need to choose between caring for their child and looking after you. The primary relationship of any parent needs to be between themselves and their child. Getting in the way of this or not respecting it sets the course for an unhealthy relationship. Dependency is essential in childhood; in adults it is very unattractive.
- Young children, e.g. preschool age and younger, will often exhibit their feelings through behaviour. Emotional meltdowns, tantrums, crying, eating and sleeping changes are often their way of showing disapproval with their parent’s new relationship. Older children have the skills to verbalise their feelings and may actually direct their thoughts your way. Saying “I don’t like you, I don’t want you here” are common statements.
- Understanding that the child’s responses are the best way they know of making their feelings known. Step children can feel as if the new parent is taking priority with their parent; that they are being pushed aside and are no longer number one in their parent’s life. Feeling frightened, threatened, unimportant or betrayed are common emotions.
- If there is more than one child, try to spend one on one time with each of them. Seeing them as unique little people rather than as a group or “the children”, will help to satisfy their sense of value and self worth.
What can we do?
- Be a team with your new partner but be respectful that the biological parents need to have the ultimate say over matters relating to the children’s welfare. This includes health, education, childcare and discipline.
- Avoid being seen as the disciplinarian, this will only reinforce expectations of “the wicked step parent”. Make mutual decisions which are fair, reasonable and predictable, though remember that it is ultimately their parent who need to carry the discipline through.
- If possible, have a conversation with the absent parent and reassure them that your intention is not to replace them in their children’s lives. Be respectful and carry through with what you arrange in terms of drop offs, pickups and child care arrangements.
- Establish ground rules for family and home life. When everyone knows what’s expected, then life is generally calmer. Rules help children to feel safe and secure – they also free up valuable energy because less time is spent on negotiation.
- Think about starting new traditions. Rituals help to bind families and give a sense of importance and purpose. Ask the kids what they would like to do which would help to “glue” their new family together and bond.
- Manage all the children fairly. If they perceive there is favouritisim going on, there’s likely to be unrest. Even if you find it more difficult to connect with your partner’s children, they still deserve your respect. You are the adult and as such, capable of deeper understanding and empathy than they are.
- Act as a facilitator between the child/ren and the biological parent who is not present. Intercepting their relationship or making it difficult for them to maintain a physical and emotional closeness will only make life harder. Even if you don’t agree with what’s going on, respect their individual choices in making decisions for their children.
- Be a positive role model. If you are the opposite gender to your step children your influence is very powerful. Nothing is wasted on children and their brains work like sponges, absorbing and watching all the time.
- Treat your partner with respect; don’t make the children feel as if they need to protect her/him from you.
- Where you can, aim for a simple life. Sharing households, finances, changing schools and child care all add tension to family life. Adding to existing stress will just put everyone under more pressure; quarantine aspects of your life to just be. This often takes conscious effort and planning, it doesn’t just happen.
Myths about step families
- Everyone needs to get along all the time.
- You have to hate the absent parent. There are all sorts of reasons for separation and unless you were there at the time, it’s impossible to have a full understanding for the cause of the break up.
- All problems can be overcome. Sometimes no amount of effort improves the way individuals in a step family relate to each other.
- Part-time step families get on better than those who live together full time.
- Hand over is always stressful and an excuse for a fight. Aiming for a civil handover makes it much easier for everyone.
- Unless you are biologically related to the child you cannot love them fully.
- If it’s meant to be, then being a step family is easier.
- The Brady Bunch is not the template for all step families.
- A step family is created instantly.
- You must love all the children equally. Some children are just easier to manage than others. Depending on their temperament, personality, birth order and what else is going on in their lives; some kids are just more challenging.
- Giving up is OK. Relationships take time, energy and passion.
- You have to be a brilliant step parent all of the time. You are far better off being an ordinary parent for a long period of time than you are to be fabulous in short bursts.
Step parenting can be one of the greatest challenges in family life. But it’s always worthwhile putting in the effort and time – the rewards are considerable.