The challenges and joys of step families

When some of us think about step families, one of the first images that comes to mind is the wicked stepmother! Disney films and fairytales are full of tales of the ‘horrors’ of a new stepparent, but a stepfamily, or a ‘blended family’ (as it is now starting to become known) is no longer the unusual arrangement many of us where presented with – it is now a norm.

According to the latest census data, 21% of children aged between 0 to 17 years had a natural parent living elsewhere. Of these children, 75% lived in one parent families, 10% in step families and 12% in blended families[1].

As these ‘blended families’ and non-traditional family units become more common, more of us are dealing with the inbuilt challenges this presents.  Joining a family as a new partner, or welcoming a new partner into your existing family unit can be quite stressful, in particular during the first year of marriage or living together. This change means that each member of the new family needs to find where and how they fit in to the new dynamic.

Role ambiguity and confusion

It’s not easy to form an immediate bond with someone else’s children when you haven’t had the benefit of history or the day to day interaction that strong relationships tend to be built on. There is an expectation that you feel a wave of love but for many people, your step children may feel like strangers at first.

Parenting is the most difficult aspect of stepfamily life. It takes time to work out what your role is in this new family dynamic. Identifying “who am I” and “how am I supposed to behave” in relation to your step children can be difficult to work out and will vary depending on the age and sex of the stepchild.

But there are ways to build this bond. The key is building trust with each child by listening, being sensitive, showing you care, and letting them know you are there to support them rather than trying to replace their parent. Over time and with patience, a special relationship can form.

Preparation

Before launching into this new world, start by preparing yourself. Educate yourself on the realities of the role by talking to your friends, counsellors, support groups or reading books. It is important to know you are not alone and many people have trodden this path before you. This will help you better manage the many adjustments you are going to have to make. Like most things in life, you will never really know what is like until you are living it, but being armed with some information can help you feel at least somewhat prepared.

Remembering you are not the child’s parent is critical to your relationship with the child. Forming a relationship based on mutual respect and trust before adopting a parenting role is key. When conflict or bad behavior arises, let your partner or the biological parent play the disciplinarian, at least for the first little while.

Don’t rush the process of trying to be a family by spending all your time together. It is necessary for the children to have some quality one on one time with their biological parent.

Equally important is taking time out as a couple to nurture your relationship. Taking on a family dynamic can cause new stresses on a relationship so take some time to support each other’s needs.

If you are having a lot of difficulty, please reach out sooner than later and speak to a counsellor to help you develop the necessary tools and techniques to help you cope.

Hope for step families

Whilst a new partner can never be (or should want to be) a replacement for a biological parent, you can aim to form a different kind of relationship – more like a mentor, a confidant, a friend and a protector.  Being older (and possibly wiser), yet not a traditional parental authority figure may mean that with the right type of bond, you can join the children’s circle of trust in ways that may prove difficult for a biological parent.

Remember, you can still be a role model for your stepkids and still play a central role in their lives. You can be someone they can depend on.  Spend some time trying to find common ground and establish new traditions – go for a bike ride, attend their sports events or introduce your own new spin on special occasions.

Most importantly the role you can play is to be a relationship role model.  As the early sting of parental separation wears off, you can play an important role in your new family’s life by being a great partner.  When the kids see that you are helping your partner lead a happier life, acceptance will come easier.

There are several other advantages to being in a blended family for children, that it may help to bear in mind:

  • More people who care for them, including your extended family. They now have a bigger ‘cheer squad’ that can support them through life’s ups and downs.
  • More presents on special occasions! Be careful though that you are not trying to buy their love – a thoughtful and relevant gift is always better than simply splurging on them.
  • The chance for a new start. Many children of separated parents will have lived through tumultuous times with their parents fighting. Your arrival is a chance for a new beginning in a harmonious family unit

 

If you need someone to talk to, you can call our MensLine Australia counsellors on 1300 78 99 78, or register for online chat.

[1]Australian Bureau of Statistics 2015c

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