Step-families are fundamentally different from other family types. These differences are not generally acknowledged because new step-families want to look like they are traditional-styled families. Yet to step-parent like a biological parent causes problems.
Currently, many parents are cross-over parents. They are unlikely to have been step-parented but are very likely to be step-parents. Children born since 2010 are more likely to be step-parented than not before they reach adulthood. Step-families are becoming the most common family type, yet most step-parents have had no experience of step-family life.
We know step-family life can be rewarding, fun and special. We know that step-families can be challenging and conflicted. There are ways to help in a step-family, and ways to hinder. To help enables the family to flourish. To hinder means the family flounders. Be StepWise helps step-families help themselves so they can get it right so it doesn’t go wrong.
Step-families form as a result of a loss. Becoming a step-family means change and adjustment for family members. Children do not ask for and usually do not want changes.
The child in a step-family is biologically the child of one parent, not both. The attachment between a parent and their child can bring about unwieldly three-way relationships. Unwieldly three way relationships can lead to feelings of injustice, jealousy and guilt.
As step-families form, everyone involved can be making different assumptions about everyone else. What does the step-parent think their role is? What does the biological parent assume and expect from the child or his or her partner? What are the expectations of the child and the other family members, including ex-spouses?
In step-families the children exist before the step-parenting couple forms. The new couple’s relationship frequently comes under strain as they grapple with parenting issues. Older children hear and understand the disagreements. The other members of the new extended family are often critical. The couple move very quickly out of their ‘honeymoon period’.
There are many ways a step-family can experience lifecycle mix-ups.
The challenges can be practical ones, for example:
The challenges can be mental: “I used to be Daddy’s Girl. Will he love me now he has a new baby?”
Every household lives differently. They have their own ways of doing things. By the time the step-family has formed the step-children have already lived some of their life as part of another family. The old family will have had different values and beliefs. A step-parent may find they have little in common with the children who are not ‘theirs’. Bonding takes time and requires the development of respect and trust as well as the formation of new cultures and traditions. Step-parents often do not love their partner’s children. After all, why should they? Until recently they were strangers. For step-parents it can be difficult to even feel ‘at home’ in their own home with their step-children. Meanwhile the biological parent can’t understand the step-parent’s problem.
When both parents bring children to the family it can add other layers of difficulty. It can mean tussling with two or more sets of needs, desires, timetables and idiosyncrasies, not to mention food, bedtimes, rituals and discipline. All of this has to be sorted out within a relatively short time scale to get the whole family functioning.
The difficulties can be further complicated by some children only residing with a family part of the time or for holidays. Their other biological parent’s home arrangements and expectations will be different and probably changing at the same time too.
Children living in two families are in a complex situation. A step-family can have 8 sets of grand-parents and many more relatives.
Often less money is available which makes difficulties. Different sides of a step-family can have different amounts of money available. For example, one set of children receiving private education and the other not.
House size and bedroom arrangements become more complex. Compatibility between children matters more as they need to share space.
Time becomes scarcer as it can be spent travelling between homes. The family can feel like several families under one roof each competing for attention.
Once two people have a child together, they remain co-parents even if they divorce. Co-parenting until the child is grown-up means communicating, organising and co-operating with someone they have chosen to be separate from.
In best case scenarios divorced parents get on amicably with their ex-partners. New partners are accepted and the step-family can have very positive relationships. For those lucky ones, the step-parent can be an additional resource and things can go fine.
Where this is not the case it can be difficult. The step-parent often wants to help their new partner, and is involved with childcare and so becomes part of the system. But all sorts of things can go wrong:
Becoming a step parent involves not only taking on someone else’s children but also someone else’s family and extended family, and even neighbours. This can mean becoming part of a large family. In step-families the extended family can feel they have the right to interfere in your relationship. They feel they have this right ‘because of the children’. Interference can be in
When members of the extended family have not come to terms with the changes that have taken place in the family, they can project their feelings onto the new-comer – the new step-parent. It can be much easier to ‘hate’ a new step-parent than to deal with uncomfortable feelings. Step-parents often cannot understand why they are being blamed.
The pivotal parent is the biological parent of the child, and the partner of the step-parent. If both parents have children from previous relationships, then both parents are pivotal parents. Instead of working as a couple, pivotal parents sometimes support their child against their partner or support their partner more than their child. Either way there is an imbalance. This can leave either the step-parent feeling ganged-up against, or the child in rebellious mode.
One of the reasons why the pivotal parent may indulge the child is that they feel guilty for what has happened before. As a result, the parent may not discipline the child appropriately.
The pivotal parent may expect the new step-parent to love his or her children as their own. Once the pivotal parent has introduced the step-parent into the family they sometimes think everything is ‘back to normal’ and they don’t have to make a special effort. A common example of this is when the step-parent is frequently left at home to mind a step-child while the pivotal parent goes out. A pivotal parent feels their child should be able to ‘drop-round’ unannounced and make themselves at home, or that the child should always sit in the front passenger seat of the car on journeys.
Step-parents are often told, “you knew what you were getting into”, but a step-parent rarely does.
In the beginning, a potential step-parent can think everything is fine. Children behave as though their parent’s new friend is welcome until something makes the step-child see the future step-parent as a threat to their relationship with their parent. This can happen quite suddenly. The threat they perceive comes from their future step-parent’s ‘togetherness’ with their parent. They see they may lose their parent due to the influence of this new outsider. This is a real threat. A step-parent and their new partner can and do make decisions together that will affect the step-child’s life as they set up home. A step-child will resist this. There is nothing that can be done to prevent this happening. It signals the beginning of step-family life, but it’s not usually what step-parents expect.
Step-parents find that living with children that are genetically connected to them is entirely different from living with children who are not. Step-children are never the children of step-parents. Step-children have two other parents even if they are not together or if one hass died. Step-parents can therefore find themselves in a parental role but being taken for granted. They manage the day-to-day grind of family life with little appreciation. When it comes to inclusion in things like family events, celebrations, graduations or birthdays they can find they are left out. Step-parents can then feel bitterly resentful.
A step-child can display all sorts of challenging behaviour. They can be rude, lie, steal, spy, talk back or refuse to co-operate. They can build a special relationship with the pivotal parent behind the back of the step-parent. A step-child can develop behavioural problems such as anxiety, anger, school refusal, obsessive-compulsive disorders, depression or many other mental health conditions. A step-child may regress to a previous developmental stage. They may start bed-wetting, or insisting on eating with baby spoons or talking in childish ways.
A step-child may have trouble accepting a step-parent because their other parent may not be coping. The step-child may see their other parent unhappy and alone and feel sorry for them. They may blame their other parent, the step-parents partner, for this. They may feel disloyal when away from their other parent. They may be asked for information by one parent after visiting the other. The other parent may be over-confiding in the step-child, or may want them to be sad when away from them. The other parent may want to punish their ex-partner by withholding the children from them, so the step-child feels guilty. A step-child may refuse to meet or see the step-parent.
Adult step-children can be just as difficult to manage as they have their independence, yet are influential.
Sometimes one or other parent has a temperament that means they become easily aggrieved. This aggrieved alienating parent tends not to share responsibility for what happened but blame others. The child becomes drawn in to trying to help them and becomes emotionally enmeshed with this alienating parent. The child thinks that their other parent was wrong or at fault for what happened in the original family. The mother or the father can become the alienating parent. The child can be persuaded by the alienating parent that the ‘other’ parent has done something that deserves their child’s rejection. This then becomes the alienated parent. The child refuses to see their alienated parent and talks ill of them. This is called ‘parent alienation’. This is serious, as it can lead to the child losing contact with one of their parents completely, often until adulthood or beyond. To deal with this, the alienated parent needs to get a proper diagnosis and then deal with it, often through the courts.
FREE – 3 email exchanges to answer any step-family question. If you put your question in writing to our contact box, we can usually reply within 48 hours.
Email Client August 2015
“First of all thank you so much for your last email. It really is such a help to receive an empathetic response. It's really interesting that you can genuinely see both sides of the situation having been a step-child and now a step-parent. I appreciate your insights and I will revisit these exchanges over the coming weeks to help with my situation.”
Email correspondent, July 2016:
“Your email was invaluable. It helped me clarify my own thoughts. I have been able to discuss the matter again with my partner and he has agreed …… Thank you for the time and thought you put into your advice. I really appreciate it. I'm so pleased I came across Be StepWise. It offers a much more relevant perspective than most Family/Parenting websites.”
We meet with the individual step-parent, or the step-parent and their partner or entire families or family sub-sets.
Sometimes a single session is all that is wanted. At other times sessions are arranged at monthly intervals, or as required.
Please contact Be StepWise via the contact box to set up the sessions. The best way forward is agreed. Sometimes this means a planning session with one or both of the parents in advance.
We can use telephone or Skype if convenient.
Ellie and Steve (2014)
Ellie had taken on a family of three teenage step-children when she moved in with her new partner Steve four years ago. Ellie had assumed that if she was herself, a naturally kind and well intentioned person, then she would have no problem befriending Steve’s kids. Things were fine at first, but soon turned out not to be fine at all. The children became rude and excluding. What made the situation worse was that Steve didn’t back her up. He avoided confrontation when he could, and sometimes backed the children against her. Ellie was stressed and distressed, and, before contacting us, was on the point of leaving Steve. She attended individual sessions with Be StepWise and then a workshop. This helped her to see things from a different perspective. She was then able to negotiate new arrangements for herself and the family.
Up to ten participants per workshop.
One day. 9.30am – 4.30pm
Refreshments and lunch included.
Central London location.
4 x per year.
Run by two facilitators who are both step-parents and who are a psychotherapist and a family practitioner. The workshops are fun, provide support, information and a shared experience.
The workshops make sense of what step-families experience and teach parental strategies and skills.
Step-parent workshop agenda:
Expectations and reality
Unspeakable truths and challenges
ABC Perspective model
Circle of responsibility
Strategies and skills matrix
Problem solving session
For further details and costs please use the contact us email response box.
Workshop participants say
“I know so many others for whom this would be so useful. I will definitely recommend it”
“I would never have expected that so many positive changes could result from just one day on the step-parenting programme. The simple techniques I learnt on the course have really improved my relationship with my family while being easy to set in motion.”
“I think what you do is incredible. You have helped me so much”.
Be StepWise delivers seminars at businesses, networks and events. Below is an example of a one-hour event.
The Be StepWise Step-Parent seminar will take a closer look at step-parenting. We look at why a step-family is different and what this means. We correct the misconceptions about step-family life. We put into context the challenges step-parents face. We share strategies for enabling step-parents and their families to achieve a sustainable future together. As far as possible, we address any individual questions step-parents bring to the session. If the session is likely to be heavily attended, then we ask for questions to be submitted in advance.
Be StepWise works in schools. The OFSTED framework highlights specific standards that schools are measured by in relation to parents. These include: 1) The effectiveness of the school’s engagement with parents and carers. 2) The effectiveness of this engagement in promoting learning and well-being and 3) the effectiveness with which the school promotes community cohesion. Nowadays parental support is very likely to mean step-parenting support. We can negotiate the scale and the type of service to be delivered. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Be StepWise works with businesses. Organisations understand that stress and problems at home cause time off work, loss of productivity and a demotivated workforce. We contract with firms to provide support for their staff. We also provide talks and seminars for organisations in lunch-time and evening groups. “Very interesting.” “All very informative.” “The talk had clearly been geared to us and that was impressive.
Be StepWise is proud to be a resource for media companies. We think that more people should know about step-parenting dilemmas and how it affects society. Be StepWise have worked on TV with: The Kirsty Allsopp and Phil Spencer show, The Danielle Lineker ‘My new step-family’ TV production, CPL productions, Channel 5 and Betty Productions Ltd. And Radio stations: London radio, Jnet Radio, Radio Nottingham.
We are a team of qualified, experienced professionals who have great empathy with step-parenting and step-family life. We will meet your specific requirements carefully and sensitively.
In a step-family there are differing perspectives on everything. There can be a lot of hurt feelings due to the amount of change step-families go through. These can drive disruptive and upsetting behavior. We are able to put challenging behavior into context. Once things are contained, new ways of being and thinking become possible.
Be StepWise are here mainly to help step-parents and in so doing help the whole family.
Maybe run the workshop over 2 days. So much to talk about although I do feel armed to deal with my situation now.
I would never have expected that so many positive changes could result from just one day on the step-parenting programme. The simple techniques I learnt on the course have really improved my relationship with my family.
I always wanted a big family, and now I’ve got one. Getting us all to work as a family was not easy but in the end we made it.
There is so little helpful information about step parenting on the net, until now that is. Thank you be stepwise.
Alison O’Mahony- Author of First Steps
Embarking on a new relationship with the children of your new partner can be daunting. As you become more involved with your partner and his or her children, the children (even adult ones!) can pull away. Alison explains how to read the tell-tale signs that show us that our step-children realise we have arrived, and gives us guidance on what to do about it. This book addresses this little-talked-about topic deftly and succinctly, giving us a wealth of valuable information and practical advice.
Alison O’Mahony- Author of ‘Let’s Talk’
Is an imaginative book that inspires us to manage our step-families proactively. It encourages us to develop systems around family life so we can get on with living and enjoying home. “Let the system carry the load” is a mantra that allows those difficult things about living with others to be spoken about instead of being left unsaid. The book is bursting with useful strategies. An essential read for any step-family.Buy these booklets