No-one talks about step-parenting. Parents rarely admit they are a step-parent, it’s one of societies secrets. I was at a drinks gathering talking to a man about what I did. I run this step-parenting company and I saw his eyes glaze over. I asked him if he had any association with a step-family and he shook his head. Shortly afterwards he drifted off and his wife couldn’t wait to fill me in. He actually had been married before and had two children, she was finding being a step-mother very difficult. The same happened in my own family when a friend of my step-daughters’ offered their condolences on the death of my mother, but it was my step-daughters grand-mother who had died. It seems everyone including me carries on as though you are a traditional family when in fact you’re not.
Yet anyone who is on a step-family knows step-families are very different.
Married couples have become a minority 51%-47% Census results 2011. 47.2% of all children born in 2011 were to unmarried mothers ONS statistics bulletin. 47% of these are living as co-habiting couple and 52% as single parents. Centre for social justice 2012. By 2010 more children than not will have been step-parented. By the age of 11 only half of children have still married parents. – Millennium co-hort study.Step-families are becoming the most common family type.
So, what are the problems with being a step-family?
A traditional step-family is two parents and one child who accepts their two parents as in charge.
A child of divorce has two parents and the child then quite usually is placed between them so the child can play one off against the other, split them, keep secrets, have more power to influence. Children can experience significant loss of the way things were before.
Introducing a step-mother means another adult arrives in their life but they are not biologically their parent. The child arrives in the relationship earlier later than the step-parent did which also changes the power dynamic.
Grand-parents, neighbours and friends in your step-child’s life have more authority than you do. They feel they have the child’s best interests at heart better than you do, after all you came on the scene lately.
The step-parent may have ex-partners, and children from previous relationships. The step-parent and the child’s biological parent may have more children together. You end up with children of different ages which can affect the life-cycles of families. Suddenly teenage children have siblings who are babies. All fine until you try and combine a holiday that suits both teenagers and babies.
Resources change, so time, money and space can all become more problematic. Time spent travelling on the motorway at week-ends, time spent meeting their different needs whether they are old or young. Money may mean that children have to change schools, splitting the family home may mean less space for all, which may mean sharing bedrooms for example.
The child has to learn to live one way in one household and another in their other household. Sometimes these do not fit compatibly together. A child thinks they are able to behave in one house in a particular way and it can be more difficult to enforce rules that are different in another house.
But despite all this people will say to a step-parent, “Well, you knew what you were getting into”. Yet a step-parent doesn’t, this is all such a surprise.
A couple of further problems
In the extreme one parent can be an alienating parent. A parent who alienates their child from their other parent with no just cause. They can fabricate stories such as abuse, and then the other parent isn’t allowed to see their children until the claim has been investigated. They can insist that their children only love them. The children have no choice as they have to ensure they are cared for by someone. A very difficult situation, especially as the phenomenon isn’t understood well by the courts.
Mental Health problems
Children who go through great change, grief or trauma can sometimes develop anxiety disorders, or maybe they become bullies, or are bullied, or develop some other defencive protective behaviour. Many children regress after a divorce so an eight your old may eat everything with a small spoon, or a child may start bed-wetting again. In a step-family it helps to be sensitive to these problems. The children are not as though they had come out of a traditional marriage, they have often been through a lot more.
All of these problems means that for the two adults in the relationship things can be extra difficult. 33% of all marriages end in divorce, 66% of second marriages end in divorce, and the reason given is usually – ‘because of the children’. Getting step-parenting right is important for people in the parental roles and the children.
What to do to make step-parenting a success.
These problems exist in one form or another in all step-families. So what can we do to manage them?
They need to be contained. Firstly, know there are common problems associated with being a step-family. Decide to take helpful perspectives to contain them. In step-families there are very definitely different perspectives, those from the ex-partner, those from the children and those for the grand-parents and friends of the family and the step-parents perspective. Problems can come from miss-understandings from these perspectives. For example: A step-daughter may want time alone with her father to know her father like she always used to – the step mother could resent this or they could appreciate that this concession gives her some quality time with her dad and use the time they spend together for something else for themselves and not feel threatened by it or resent it.
Role: A step-parent is not actually the parent – even if the real other parent is deceased, and people like your partner think you should be able to step into that role and become Mum or Dad. But step-parents are not a parent. They could adopt the role of parent, but what does everyone else expect or want? Perhaps ask the child what would be helpful for them, or the ex-partner. You may decide yourself that you definitely do not want to be a mother or father figure. Making this kind of thing clear helps.
Pivotal parent: This is the biological parent of the step-child and the partner of the step-parent. Often unwittingly they contribute to the problem through guilt from the divorce and what happened before. If they favour the child over their partner it is not good for the child, as the child becomes full of a false confidence that does not serve them well. Children need to be children. If this is happening the step-parent may well be feeling second best or left out. Use consequences to show the negative impact of favouritism or giving a child too much power can be helpful for the parent to see that children should be allowed to be children and not treated like little precious demi-gods.
Co-parenting plan can cover everything from contact arrangements to communication. Good to have one. Know your limitations with the ex-family. The child only needs good enough parenting and you can’t change the family arrangements – you may need to settle for less, being in a step-family can feel like flat-share sometimes as there needs to be more compromise.
Boundaries: A way of setting out expectations in a positive light. Better than telling a child off. If you see behaviour you want to change, change it by explaining before it happens again and not after it happened last time. This enables you to say well done instead of “don’t do that”. Boundaries are best agreed between you and your partner, so the child knows the father thinks this too. It needs to be house rules not step-mum’s rules.
Formal communication: In original families you have formal ways of communication but you just don’t realise it, then when the family breaks up they disintegrate. These need to purposefully put into place. One to one’s mean the child has some quality time to build a relationship with a step-parent, and then separately with their parent. Family meetings enable expectations to be talked about and things agreed. They can feel involves and consulted on family matters if they are included. Children basically want to please. Tap into this, by setting up rules they can conform to for which you give them plenty of praise..
Think end in mind: These things are difficult to do now as they involve compromise, and money, and time. All given to people you may have no affinity with – worse than flat-share. However stick with it and nurture yourself so you can cope and the benefits will be reaped at a later date.
Turning an oil tanker round. Being in a step-family can feel like the family sets off in a particular direction and slowly proceeds with no means of turning it round. You turn an oil tanker round incrementally. You are bringing together two cultures, this takes time and is important. When you and your partner get together you find new ways of doing things together, and the ways you do everything from celebrate Christmas to what you eat for breakfast on Sunday, it’s part of building a family. When children come from a different home they will resist your new ways and want things done like they were in the past. Let life make changes for you, the start of a new school, or academic yea, a child’s birthday, natural changes all provide opportunities to change something. Take the opportunities when they come. It takes patience. However gradually you realise things have really changed.
Nurture yourself: You will not be able to keep going at this, you will explode if you do not nurture yourself sufficiently so you can keep going. There will be no gratitude from the children for doing all you are. Make sure you reward yourself so it equals the score and you feel like you can carry on. You are not doing anyone any favours if you carry on until you burn out. Understand about how you can nurture yourself and do it – out with friends? A sport? An interest? Anything – but do it.
Is always a hot topic in step-families. Discipline in a step-family is difficult because criticism can ruin a relationship very quickly. You have a relationship to build with a step-child, so you need to use praise not criticism.
Start by making a list of everything that you would like to change or annoys you. Aim to solve the biggest problem, or one of the biggest problems. This will make the biggest difference to your life.
When thinking about the behaviour or problem you are going to solve think through what would be the best solution for you, on your own, so you know what you are aiming for. Speak to your partner about it, explain the problem and your solution, Agree on a solution and set a consequence, (a small one – for non-conformity, and a reward for compliance- also small).
Hold a meeting, even if your partner does not attend, and make it positive and fun.
You can use the meeting to discuss diary arrangements as well etc, and then get to the ‘magic question’ Ask the children, “what should I stop doing….. start doing….. and continue to do…..?” Ask each question separately of each child and get their answers before moving on. Then aske them if you can answer the same questions for them. What would you like them to start…stop…and continue to do. Have your answers prepared and talk about the thing you want to change under one of these questions. Introduce the new rule and agree consequences and reward, as agreed with your partner.
Aim to praise and give rewards be lenient with rule breaking but have consequence there for you if the rule is being flagrantly disregarded. Better to be curious the first time a rule is broken – “did you forget?”, “is there a problem?” rather than wade in with the consequence. Your aim is to set up a system to carry the load. Children want to please, and you get more of the behaviour you pay attention to – so catching them doing it right is more productive than pointing out when it is wrong. Meetings can be set up regularly – the start of every school holiday?