Stepfamilies and how to survive them

While adults may see the creation of a stepfamily as something positive, their children may see it as the final nail in the coffin for their parents ever getting back together. With these very different agendas, how can you make sure your stepfamily works as well as it possibly can?

It’s a function of a stepfamily that something happened to ensure its creation – and that something is likely to have been tragic. “Stepfamilies are founded on a death, as such,” says Suzie Hayman, author of Stepfamilies: Surviving and Thriving in a New Family. “A relationship, or a person, died to make it happen.”

Here are the Supernanny team’s tips to try and ensure some household harmony for your new stepfamily.

Take your time

For the children involved, a stepfamily can be a real negative – an end to the family they lived in before. Many will feel they’ve “lost” a parent, and won’t welcome someone new. It takes time to change those feelings, so don’t rush it.

You can’t make your children like your new partner,” says Suzie. “But the really important thing is to explain that this new adult is not a substitute for one of their parents – it’s someone extra. They are a stepparent, not a substitute parent.

Ensure your children keep in contact with both parents if possible

It’s important for adults to behave like adults, even if they no longer get on.

“You need to separate your own feelings about the relationship which failed, from what’s best for the children,” says Suzie. “Children will probably be missing the parent who’s no longer living with them, and you need to be conscious of that.”

Make contact with their other birth-parent easy for your children – by text and email if not face to face. Your ex-partner may have done you wrong, but that doesn’t mean he or she is an awful parent.

Don’t badmouth your ex

“Never, ever criticise or discuss the other parent in front of your children,” says Suzie Hayman. “Often children are playing up because they are unhappy at not seeing both parents. Being rude about the other one in his or her absence will just make things worse.”

Make sure your children know that none of this is their fault

Otherwise they may blame themselves for Mummy and Daddy splitting up.

Make time for your children

It’s obviously important for the new family to spend time together, but it’s also vital that your own children don’t feel pushed away.

If your new partner brings children to your relationship, that can make it all the more difficult for your offspring. They may be especially conscious of losing time with you, so help combat this by specifically spending time with them and letting them know how special they are to you.

Make time for yourselves

Sometimes life in a stepfamily can become so overwhelming that you don’t spend any time with your partner. This can be dangerous. There were reasons you got together, don’t forget them because life gets in the way. And don’t spend all your time talking about the kids!

Enjoy a new baby – but be aware of potential problems.

A new baby can create a blood link between step-parents and all the children, and show everyone how committed you and your new partner are. This can pull a stepfamily together, but it can also introduce new undercurrents of jealousy. Even though a new baby is hard work, you mustn’t ignore your older children. They don’t want to feel pushed out by a new half-brother or sister.

Having a new baby may stir up anxieties,” says Relate counsellor Paula Hall. “A child may worry that a new baby is going to replace him – as a new adult replaced his Mum or Dad.

What’s vital is that you talk about it all. Make sure you tell the older children that a new baby is on the way, and that they don’t hear about it from anyone else first. And reassure them that they are still as loved as they ever were.

It’s also important not to make the baby too much of a symbol for your new union. This can put untold – if unconscious – pressure on your new child, and can create future problems of its own.

Present a united front

Make sure all the children in the house know that there are house rules and that you follow them. Try and let the birth parent discipline his or her own children, but if that’s not possible, back each other up.

Remember: it may be hard work, but a stepfamily can be a second chance for you, and your children.

“The children will have more adults caring for them and go through different experiences,” says Suzie Hayman. “They may have the opportunity for siblings and the chance to live in a happy family.”

Related links

Discipline for Stepfamilies: Discipline can be a huge issue in stepfamilies. After all, the very fact that a stepfamily exists suggests that some tragedy – a death, divorce or separation – has happened, and that is sure to affect children’s behaviour. But what can you do to try and prevent matters getting out of hand? The Supernanny team offers their advice.

Being a Step-dad: There are millions of stepfamilies in the UK, but because of the tendency of children to stay with their mother after a relationship breaks up, over 80 percent of them consist of a natural mother and a stepfather. Kelvin Wright is one of those Step-dads. He talks about life with stepchildren Alex and Olivia, and his fiancé, Caroline

Divorce - helping the kids to cope: Around 300,000 children each year are affected by their parents splitting up. So what can be done to help them to cope?

Tips for Step-parents: Forming a bond with a stepchild can be tough. Supernanny member Claire Thomas has this useful advice - learnt through personal experience!

Divorce: Don’t forget the children: The estranged parents of Hollywood star Lindsay Lohan have been told "not to make disparaging comments" about each other in the presence of their children. It’s a comment which will be recognised by warring parents worldwide. When you’ve fallen out, just how do you try and remain civil for the children?

Divorce and discipline - how to stop matters getting out of hand: If their Mum and Dad are having relationship problems or going through a divorce it can bumpstart bad behaviour in children of all ages – but you can head off tantrums, aggression and backchat if you work as a team and reach a compromise when it comes to discipline.

Find out more

In Stepfamilies: Surviving and Thriving in a New Family by Suzie Hayman, she uses real-life examples to help the reader through any problems and suggests a variety of exercises and techniques to bring the new family together.

Parentline Plus is a national charity that works for, and with, parents.

Get expert advice from FamilyTherapyOnline

Relate offers advice, relationship counselling, sex therapy, workshops, mediation, consultations and support face-to-face, by phone and through their website.

Paula Hall's book, Help your child cope with your divorce offers a wealth of useful advice.

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