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Step-families: a survival guide

The traditional family is now transformed into a variety of complex arrangements, each bringing its own set of challenges…

step families


With the number of children growing up in step-families in Britain increasing every day, there’s now a range of complicated emotions that members of the family have to deal with. Some of these include jealousy, resentment, false expectations, clashes of temperaments, rejection, feelings of failure, and guilt. However, it isn’t the divorce, separation or living in a step-family that causes complications, it is the manner in which it is managed. Remember that it takes up to three years for a step-family to be thoroughly integrated as a unit.

The step-by-step approach to integrating step-families

  1. The initial introduction should ideally take place over neutral territory – such as an informal restaurant for a pizza or a burger. The new parent should show warmth and interest without bombarding the child with too many questions.
  2. Several more relaxed outings spaced over a couple of months will give the step‐parent a chance to win some degree of liking and respect.
  3. Opt for places the children like, such as theme parks or bowling.  Beware of shopping precincts and of trying to buy their affection.
  4. Once you’re all feeling comfortable about this, you could arrange a mass outing or trip with the children from both families, but one that won’t last too long.
  5. Next, assuming that all parties agree, you might start with a joint weekend away. Getting together on neutral territory will ensure that neither side will feel their space is being invaded until they’re used to each other.
  6. Gradually spend time together as a family.

What the children need to know

  • The role that the new parent is going to take
  • Who’s who in the extended family, in particular about any other stepchildren involved in the merging of the families
  • Reassurance that the parent’s new marriage does not mean they won’t be loved any more
  • Practical details such as where they will live, school, holidays and contact with the absent parent

Merging families: some dos…

  • Go Slow: blending families becomes easier if you take one step at a time. Go very slowly and cautiously in the way you introduce your child to what you hope will become his/her step-family. It is vital to prepare children for the change in their lives by giving them an idea of what to expect.
  • Ask their opinion: ask children what they think of your new partner – take their prejudices seriously and discuss it with them, treating them as you would an adult. Rather than talking ‘to’, try having a conversation ‘with’ them.
  • Their point of view: respecting the children’s point of view may mean putting things on hold at least for some time. It may even mean re-evaluating your decision.
  • Offer reassurance: understanding that fear is what underlies the feelings of blame and hostility, will help you to be more supportive. There is an underlying fear that if you are going to replace their father or mother with a new partner, you will find replacements for them as well.
  • Consulting: you could ask all the children if blending the two families is what they want and how you can overcome the difficulties. Everyone should get their turn to be heard.  Allow everyone to feel valued so they’ll feel safer about coming together.
  • Making rules: parents can help themselves by agreeing the family rules in advance. This will help to minimise bickering and power struggles. Away from the children you and your partner can agree on how you will handle discipline, conflict and the division of roles. In the beginning, it’s best if the children are disciplined by their natural parent rather than the step‐parent, as this will cause resentment.
  • Realism: recognise that there is bound to be a sense of loss that separation brings and try to be sensitive and realistic in your expectations. Also, be aware of what you are bringing to the new relationship.  If there is any lingering guilt, anger, regret or sadness that hasn’t been dealt with, it is likely to affect the step-family.
  • Private space: even if the step‐children will not be living with you, create a space in your home for them.  If you are short on space give them a corner where they can keep some of their personal stuff.
  • Communicate: if you have serious concerns as a step-parent, these should be discussed with your partner as soon as possible. Bring it up as a matter that requires resolution, rather than a complaint.
  • Starting over: consider moving into a new home altogether, so that everyone starts off in an unfamiliar place and you’re all in the same position. Or consider redecorating with a colour scheme that everyone has agreed. This lets newcomers feel that this is their home and the resident family feels that it’s a new beginning.
  • New family traditions: either your own family traditions or create new ones ‐ they can help give a sense of continuity by making new members feel more security, involved and connected. Make a point of eating things together as a family: your evening meal around a table, play board games, go out together for a walk in the park or do the weekly shop together.
  • Make time: you have a new relationship to build and firmly establish as well as a new step-family. Ensure that you make time for yourselves as a couple.

And some don’ts

  • Names: insisting on being called ‘mum’ or ‘dad’ will bring up feelings of loyalty to their absent parent. Simply calling the new adult by their first name is less likely to lead to conflict than insisting on ‘dad’ and ‘mom’ which will test their loyalties.
  • Physical displays: being insensitive to the fact that children are usually disgusted to discover their parents are sexual beings. Too much display of the physical aspect of your relationship is likely to deepen any feelings of resentment.
  • Control issues: believing you have to ‘control’ stepchildren in order to be an acceptable step‐parent and partner. Along with your partner, establish rules and boundaries early on but don’t obsess about it.
  • Behind their back: don’t demonise your ex‐partner in order to justify yourself or to make the new partner feel special. By using  ‘blame’ tactics, talking negatively or revealing unpleasant truths about the non‐resident parent, you are not unfairly expecting the child to take sides, making them a pawn in your revenge game.
  • Jealousy: when considering taking a child into a new family, the past family life must not be forgotten. Don’t engender jealousy with comments like ‘I’ve found a wonderful new father, sister and brother for you’. Also, avoid being jealous of the time your new partner spends with his or her children.
  • No access: denying your children access to the absent parent increases feelings of hostility.
  • ‘Clean slate’ approach: as most children equate the security of their childhood attachments with their original nuclear family and probably wish Mum and Dad could get back together, there might be hostility to this approach.
  • Over‐compensation: the non‐resident parent compensating for not being there all the time by bringing lavish gifts for their child is likely to make the other step children feel left out and causes resentment.
  • Territorial: moving a child out of his or her room for a step-brother or step-sister is likely to raise feelings of insecurity and a fear that their place in the parent’s affection is being usurped.
  • Handling anger: if the step-child is angry with the new step-parent, it’s best not to over‐react. Condemn the angry words and the actions, rather than the child (but make sure your child doesn’t have a genuine complaint). Be calmly assertive and don’t take it personally.
  • Competition: don’t be tempted to compete with your partner’s ex, whether it is to show that you are more affectionate or that you are a better parent than them.

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