How to manage emotions and family dynamics as a step-parent

You’ve met the person you want to share your life with, you’ve spent some time getting to know each other and you’ve made the decision to live together, either within a marriage or not. And your partner has children. The expectation for happy families is held by you, your partner,  friends and family. You love each other but it can be difficult to step into the role of step-parent?

What does it mean to be a step-parent?

When considering your new role, lots of questions may arise: how does it fit into your new home life? What are the criteria for the role and how do you know if you fulfil them? What are the expectations, both from others and yourself?

A ‘step-parent’ as opposed to a natural/biological parent. Makes it sound like being a step-parent isn’t natural, doesn’t it? The role of step-parent does not come with a job description or guidelines. This role is infinitely variable and the rules are far from clear cut. It’s not something that you spend time with your partner deciding whether or not to embark on, making attempts to achieve and having nine months to adjust to.

When relationships break down, it’s very common that there are children involved, and when ex-partners move on to a new relationship, stepchildren are part of the “package”. If you and your partner have come together in your 30s, 40s, 50s or beyond, chances are that one or both of you have children from a previous relationship.

For the children, gaining a step-parent may well be a hugely positive thing and come with many benefits. This does not take away the fact that the situation you will find yourself in takes some adjusting to and it can be difficult for children to come to terms with a new parent.

Adjusting as a ‘step-family’

As well as altering living patterns, the effects of learning to live in a new family structure can include lowered self-confidence and emotional well-being. The 2005 Parentline Plus report revealed high levels of depression and anxiety among step-parents. It can be easy to put pressure on yourself to be the ‘perfect’ step-parent, particularly if children are having difficulty adjusting to you.

Managing expectations

Managing realistic expectations can help. For example, instead of having faith that love will find a way, acknowledging that relationships take time and hard work to build. It is essential that you be yourself, allowing time for your step-children to get to know you and taking the time to get to know them. Some say that it takes between two and 10 years for stepfamily relationships to settle.

Step-parents can struggle under the weight of masquerading as biological families instead of acknowledging that they are living with other people’s children. Instead of getting used to one another since babyhood, step-parents and step-children are required to get along with each other suddenly, even though neither chose the other.

The importance of communication

The role of step-parent is often seen as a one-way affair with the step-parent having a duty of care for their step-children but there being no onus on the step-children to appreciate or respect the step-parent’s place in the family. Despite taking a great deal of responsibility and performing the same parenting tasks, step-parents are often not given equal credit for the influence that they have on their step-children’s lives.

As with any relationship, communication and honesty are key. Being honest about your feelings is vital yet many step-parents pretend that everything is alright in order to avoid being seen as the “step-monster”. Emotions such as anger, frustration, resentment, guilt or hatred can fester under the surface. Struggles around differing views about what constitutes good behaviour can add pressure and differing parenting styles may make you feel like you are the right choice for your partner but not for their children. All of this can happen under the pretence of a happy family. 

Managing time

The relationships between you and your partner, as well as between your step-children and their parent will be impacted upon by the family structure and it takes time to come to terms with these. You may not be able to get as much time alone with your partner as you would like, especially if the children are young. The children will want time one to one with their parent also.

Then, there’s the question of where does everyone sit within the hierarchy? This may be felt more acutely if your step-children visit rather than living with you as you may become aware of varying levels of time and attention from your partner depending upon whether the children are visiting or not. Feelings of resentment, anger, frustration, low self-confidence and guilt may surface.

Feeling guilty about feeling resentful, for example, tends to lead us into hiding our feelings and pretending everything is alright. But feelings build up over time and it will become very hard not to show them. You may find it helpful if you can take a step back from your feelings; by realising that all parents feel frustrated etc. sometimes, it’s easier to accept your more difficult feelings as well as your loving ones. But accepting both helps to bring about an emotional balance, which can help make the situation feel less overwhelming.

Key figures:

  • 10% of children live with one natural and one step-parent.
  • There were over 17,000 calls to Childline in 1998-99 with a large proportion regarding stepfamilies.
  • There are 100,000 calls per year to Parentline Plus. Issues include tackling problems between step-parents and step-children. Subjects include worries about children’s behaviour and step-parents feeling excluded or overwhelmed by the rest of the family.

Share the load

Everyone knows someone who is a stepchild or step-parent as this is an outcome of our current society. But it means you’re not alone. Although your specific situation is unique, being a step-parent is not. There are many, many step-parents around you, all facing various issues and feelings similar to those that you face, albeit to varying degrees.

Talking with other step-parents about how you feel will help to ‘normalise’ what you are experiencing and may help to put an end to second-guessing yourself and your feelings. Knowing that others also struggle in this nebulous role can help to make things seem less personal and, in turn, reduce levels of guilt and anxiety. For example, if you hear from other step-parents that attention from their partners also seems to lessen when stepchildren visit it may be easier for you to feel that it’s not personal to you but a pattern of behaviour that is quite common and related to the situation.

Above all, take your time: for everyone to get to know each other, to develop relationships, to build confidence in your new role, to talk to others and to gather helpful information.

Channel 4’s 21st Century Family quotes a youngster singing the praises of her step-mother, “One of the best things about having a step-mother is that you can talk to her about things that might be difficult to ask your mum. My step-mum isn’t like a mum. We have a different kind of relationship. But she’s someone really important who cares about me and my dad.” A step-mother says, “It was really hard for everyone to start with, but now we’ve got past that, there’s a big sense of achievement. We’re proud of the family we’ve made."

Being a step-parent is an important role in a child’s life and the experience can be extremely rewarding for all concerned.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Letchworth, Herts, SG6 3NA

Written by Gillian Marchant

Letchworth, Herts, SG6 3NA

Deciding to see a counsellor and making that first contact can be a huge step. It is okay to feel nervous about it. Maybe this is the first time and you don't know what to expect or how things work. Stepping into an unknown situation can be really uncomfortable. I will do everything I can to address...

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