Stepfamily situations and other non-traditional families
Stepfamilies are created when two parents separate, and one or both of them enters into a new relationship. They’ve always been around but where in the past they were unusual and happened when a spouse had died, now they are the fastest growing form of family in this country, usually arise out of separation or divorce and are becoming a norm. Other non-traditional family situations such as those with same sex parents, or single parent are also increasingly common. While all families have much in common, these families also have challenges that arise due to the mixture of biological and non-biological relationships that exist between their members.
These families can be challenging for anyone involved, whether they are a parent, child, stepchild, stepparent or step-grandparent. Therefore it is clear that family change is affecting a large number of people.
I use the term stepfamily situation broadly to include people who might not think of themselves as being in a stepfamily. Examples are:
- A single mother who has a boyfriend.
- A father whose ex-wife has a new partner.
- A child whose mother is cohabiting with a father – not the child’s.
- An adult whose mother or father remarries.
- A gay or lesbian couple with children.
Stepfamilies becoming a norm
In reports taken from the 2001 census it was found that:
- 5.3% of all families were stepfamilies i.e. 5 in 100.
- 38% of cohabiting families with dependent children were stepfamilies.
- 8% of all married families were stepfamilies.
Some points to consider about Stepfamily Situations
- Stepfamily Situations are far more common, and affect far more people than at first might appear. They are increasingly becoming the 'norm'.
- Loss is inevitably present and part of the formation of any stepfamily situation.
- Children in stepfamily situations can blame themselves or think they are wrong or bad for having conflicting feelings.
- Adults in stepfamily situations can feel guilty, ashamed or not normal for having the feelings they do and therefore avoid talking about them.
- People in stepfamily situations often expect of themselves that they should feel equal amounts of affection towards step relations as they do towards their own biological family and blame themselves when they don’t.
- People often blame problems on their stepfamily situation and forget that biological families can also be problematic.
- Often people have an idealised ‘fantasy’ family and are upset when their stepfamily isn’t like that.
- Parents might confuse children's developmental problems with stepfamily problems.
- Stepfamily Situations are broader than the stepfamily household itself. There are often people who are part of the whole situation who live elsewhere and are overlooked.
- Stepfamily parents often have to share their children and ex-partners with people that they feel very little for or even actively dislike. Similarly stepfamily children have to share their parents.
- All families family including stepfamilies are in a 'process' - so when we look at them we are catching a point in time; its like freezing a frame in a film because the family is constantly evolving.
There are some important recommendations for people living in these situations that support the healthy development of stepfamily relationships.
Biological relationships are very important. Children need to feel that they can have relationships with both their parents. Therefore every member needs to have a place, their existence be accepted and their importance to children recognised. This includes ex-partners, however problematic the relationship is.
Research has shown that within the stepfamily, discipline should always come from the biological parent supported by the stepparent. This helps stepparents find a place with their stepchildren and develop non conflictual relationships.
It is important to recognise that stepfamilies can present challenges from the start, and that this is natural. It takes time to develop and consolidate as a family group. Two years is fast, probably a minimum expectation.
Despite all the known difficulties for these families, they have great potential. At their best they become something like a tribe or community network of connected adults and children. The biological parent child relationships along with new partners and connected children, can be very extensive. The more harmony between adults the more this is possible - and it can be a very good way of living for all members.