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The stepparent: 7 tips for the most fragile of all relationships

Statistics from the Office for National Statistics suggest that nearly 24% of dependent children live in stepfamilies. In a remarriage where children from a previous relationship are involved, everyone can be hurled quickly into a precarious position. The children can be vulnerable and angry, because their secret fantasy that their parents might reunite is finally over, a fact that can work not to calm them but to exacerbate their difficult feelings. The father and the mother can have great hope, great anxiety and display divided loyalties between the new partner and their (very different) children.

The stepparent is expected to… Well, what exactly are the expectations around the stepparent, what do they need to bring to the new family table? That they will be all loving, all parental to children whom they have just started to bond with, children who for very good reasons might be angry, hurt, confused and lashing out? From a child’s perspective, this intrusion of a new third into the parent-child dyad could spell big trouble.

To become a stepparent and consciously and consistently give out your love and compassion to your partner’s child without having that biological bond, that attachment is, I think, none other than a sign of great and mature love; you stand the chance of risking it all, being rejected and having your heart ripped apart. It can be filled with failure and a sense of overwhelm, yet also it can be a story of incredible success and love.

The problem is, it’s complicated.

We are beset by fairy tales of wicked stepmothers and stepdads who are dark and boozy, on the cusp of being violent. The sheer presence of a stepparent seals the notion that the biological parents are not going to get back together again. A new system begins and any argument between parent and child can be met with rejection and abandonment by the child - they have a bolthole now - as if this is a recompense for feelings of parental abandonment years past.

The power dynamic in a stepfamily has to be seen, acknowledged and explored. It is not like a power demonic in a so-called intact family, it can be power held in a child’s hand, which is difficult to manage. 

When a stepchild is ill-mannered, it is hard for a stepparent to set boundaries or discipline them because the relationship feels new, fragile; rules are not often set and negotiated, the child might feel (as is often the case) that the new parent has been helicoptered in quite quickly.

Without much thought or processing, it will become evident to the stepfamily that there is a sudden culture clash, between the upbringing and rules of the separated family and the same in the stepparents. The biological parent will often without thinking about it-see the way they discipline as writ in stone, for the other parent it will seem as if all this comes from another planet (which, in a way, it does).

Then the two parents have a child between them, which brings a whole new set of issues, the new child presents a kind of 5th Element into the extended family, a special and unique blend between the new couple which can threaten the existing relationships. This can be exacerbated by the age gap between the (original) youngest child and the new child.

All that said, if you are becoming or are a stepparent, here are a few tips to help:

  • It’s OK to have different rules in different houses, e.g. the rules in biomum’s are not the same as in biodad’s/stepmum’s. But you need to work this out.
  • Check out your self-compassion: step parenting will test you, you need to be kind to yourself throughout.
  • You will, at times, feel as if your relationship and/or new family is being controlled by an ex-spouse (the ex-spouse probably feels the same if it’s any consolation).
  • You might become a keeper of secrets between the children and their bioparents: it’s important you can do this.
  • You don’t have to love your stepchildren, but it might be useful to get on with them: be a friend, not a parent.
  • Put as much time into your couple relationship as your step-parenting.
  • Don’t criticise the ex-spouse in front of the children, no matter how awful they are.
  • Try family counselling: working with a professional who is “outside the system” can offer a fresh perspective to parents and children alike, free from what could be seen as an otherwise biased viewpoint.

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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Written by Graeme Armstrong MBACP

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Written by Graeme Armstrong MBACP

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