Updated: May 7, 2021
Step-parents (and especially stepmothers) get a bad press – and it’s pretty much unfair on the many women (and men) who are doing their very best to help their partner’s children adjust to a new stage in their lives. This blog offer advice on how to be a 'bonus mum' and not a 'wicked step-mother'.
In one of my recent mediations, both parents reported to me that their daughters were finding it difficult to get on with father’s new partner and were reluctant to stay over with them. Yet mother was quite clear that she regarded the new partner as ‘a good woman’ and plainly was not opposed to her daughters forming a relationship with the new partner. Both parents wanted father’s new family unit to succeed.
Being the new lady in Dad’s life - or the new man in Mum’s - is always going to be a challenge. The children have probably already been through one upheaval, when Mum and Dad split. So a new upheaval – possibly moving home, possibly changing school, and quite probably getting used to step brothers and sisters is almost guaranteed to cause upset. Quite possibly youngsters who had their own rooms find themselves sharing, and resent the loss of privacy and of having their own space.
Then there are the problems of blending two lots of family traditions and house-rules – often around mealtimes. So, right from the start, you are likely to be facing an uphill task.
So how do you make it work? Here are a few suggestions:
Take account of the fact that everyone in the family – including you - will have suffered some losses during the process that brought you together
Remember that ‘step-families’ have a different structures and emotional challenges to first families, and that members of the family may have feelings of insecurity in their new setting.
Recognise the pressures upon children that come from being members of two households with different boundaries and ways of doing things – and allow them time to get used to your routines and expectations.
Understand that children may feel that they are being disloyal to a parent if they allow themselves to form a bond with you, and take care to avoid saying critical things about their parent which might make them feel that they have to make a choice.
Decide which rules really matter, and which can be relaxed to take account the of children’s way of doing things with the other parent. Then be clear about the rules that you do expect a child to comply with, so that they know your boundaries. At the same time do not criticize the other parent’s ways.
Perhaps most importantly, validate children’s feelings. This means listening to them and telling them that they are allowed to feel as they do. Jollying a child out of sadness tells them that they are wrong to feel sad. But if you allow a child to talk about her feelings and show them understanding, you will find that their trust in you will grow and they will, in turn, be much happier to listen to you.
Want to know more?
There is an excellent book ‘How to Win as a Step-Family’ by Emily and John Visher ISBN 9780876306449
There is also useful material in ‘Parenting Apart’ by Christina McGhee ISBN 9780091939830