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A Child's Guide To Step-Families

Updated on April 17, 2014

Second Time Around


Starting a Step-Family

For children today belonging to a step-family is a very common experience, but that doesn’t mean it’s not as laced with pitfalls and laden with difficulties as it ever was. Couples embark on their new relationship full of optimism, confident that they have left the dark times behind and hopeful that a new chapter in their lives is starting. But if there are children they are starting more than one relationship, a complex, inter-related network of connections emerges as two families meld.

Unchartered Waters

As an experienced step-parent myself I can tell you that this is the point at which you all head into unchartered waters. One of three things will happen:

  • You feel your way forward, taking what you hope is the right approach, everyone seems okay and it becomes apparent that the outlook is cautiously optimistic.
  • You feel your way forward, taking what you hope is the right approach, and it becomes apparent that some people are not coping and are, in fact, on the road to downright miserable.

The third, and most difficult scenario is:

  • you feel your way forward, taking what you hope is the right approach, everyone seems okay but at some point in the future a list of grudges and complaints is produced which you could have put right if you’d known earlier.

It’s fair to say that the combination of personalities, complications and life in general means your experience is almost certainly unique to you and your particular reconstituted family. Something we could do that might generate useful pointers is to ask children of step-families what worked for them. Given that these conversations can be awkward and embarrassing I have done some of the leg-work on this and a rough guide, based on the answers I received from children of step-families, comes up with four key essentials.

Changing Times For You and Your Children

Everyone Will Need Time To Adjust
Everyone Will Need Time To Adjust | Source

A Case Study In Non-Confrontational Problem-Solving

You come down from a relaxing bath after a hard day at work to an ‘atmosphere’. It becomes apparent to you that your partner is annoyed about something, you can tell this from their body language and expression. You don’t know what has caused this, having missed some crucial interaction, although the context does give clues, for instance if your teenager has been using the kitchen for a snack-making activity.

Your objective here is to let them get on with learning to live together without you being constantly in the middle like an exhausted and snappy referee.

Most of the time the teenager doesn't notice anything, being far too thick-skinned to detect atmospheres, but occasionally will say 'what's up with him?' You have decided this isn’t worth going into battle over and your general policy towards atmospheres is to ignore them so you reply 'I don't know' and change the subject.

After a while your partner heads for his default hiding place, the garage is good, or maybe to the supermarket.
By the time he gets back one of the teenager’s friends has almost always phoned and they have gone out. Calm reigns once more.

Divorce Rates Across The World

Marriages Ending in Divorce

Source: Wikipedia

The Rules

Be honest

  • "Asking rather than just doing it and explaining what it might mean, that I might need to share my bedroom."
  • "They talked to us all individually and told us their plans, they said they were hoping to have another baby so we knew from the start."
  • "There is nothing worse than if the parents, or even one of them, doesn't communicate."

It’s important to get this right early on. It brought to mind a line from a film along the lines of ‘just because I’m a kid doesn't mean I’m stupid!’. Being consulted and kept informed, even if they might not like the message, was appreciated and laid the foundations for mutual respect:

"We have a very non-confrontational relationship because we respect each other".

Don’t try to be a parent

  • "At no point did he try to act like my dad, which I appreciated."
  • "She never told me what to do."

This is a difficult one because you may be in loco parentis. You and your partner may need to devise a strategy in advance for certain situations, but treading the fine line between being the responsible adult and not behaving like a parent is an essential skill. This can be particularly difficult if your partner and their offspring are engaged in a full-scale row – the temptation to weigh in and support your loved-one can be overwhelming but resisting and giving them space to sort it out will pay dividends:

"I don’t think we’ve ever raise a voice in anger to each other".

Find Common Interests

  • "Programs we all liked, like South Park. First of all nobody knew what to say but when we all laughed together it broke the tension."
  • "There was an argument about football and it made things more normal."

In an abnormal situation it was the normal stuff that created connections and these humdrum moments still stood out in sharp definition after a number of years. They don’t have to be filled with fancy activities, just an investment of time:

"Just spending time with him first helped."

Remember I belong to two families

  • "Even if the parent has a right to moan about the other parent and the child can understand it still leaves the children feeling guilty and responsible."
  • "I knew he deserved to be shouted at but I didn’t want to hear it or hear about it."

Life has become complicated and, even if the children are very young, they have to acclimatise to two different family cultures and habits. The now departed partner is still their parent and finding themselves in the middle of grown-up emotional fallout makes a difficult situation worse. Despite a wish for a bit more restraint from parents at times the benefits to wider, more varied family connections were recognised:

"A bigger family creates more diversity, you are exposed to a different family culture and learn to share which helps in later life."

A New Family

Investing In Some Fun Experiences Everyone Can Share
Investing In Some Fun Experiences Everyone Can Share | Source

Its All About Love

So if you are about to take the plunge for second time around, bear in mind these collected wise words. Remember, this is all about love:

  • "You both have to make an effort for the person you have in common."

Also don’t underestimate the children in the mix, they may appreciate and respect the fact that you are bringing something positive, even if they don’t say so at the time:

  • "He treated her properly and was all romantic and loving which is what she deserved."


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