Making Step-Families Work

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Families don’t come with an instruction book but blended families really need a whole set of guidelines, so whether you’re finding your feet as a step-parent, have a new partner coming into you and your child’s life or you’re bringing two sets of kids together, here’s how to start to make it work.

Accept that a stepfamily is different in significant ways from a “first” family.

In a first family, couples have time for their relationship to evolve before children are introduced, ideally partners work together to parent them when they are, and the boundaries around the family are fairly closed. They develop an “our family” way of doing things.

In a step-family, the parent-child alliance has developed before the new-couple relationship has found it’s feet. Parenting tasks need to be shared with the child’s other parent, who may well have developed a different parenting groove since the separation. The boundaries between the families who share care of the children need to be fluid, so children can pass easily between them. Step families are complex. Trying to blend individuals who each have their own history, ties, loyalties and losses is not easy.

It takes time effort and planning.

Recognise that step families, by nature, begin with an ending.

The term”step” even comes from the Old English word “steop” which means “born of loss”. Both partners have to come to terms with what this means for all involved: the loss of a partner, parent of a child, perhaps of grandparents or friends who have pulled away, of a neighbourhood or school or childhood bedroom, if the change involved moving.

And then of course, there’s the regular having to say goodbye to one parent to spend time with another.

Separation also involves the loss of expectation or hope for a relationship and often finances or financial opportunities as well. These losses, and the effects of them, need to be acknowledged within a step-family and room needs to be made for grieving. The more parents, partners and children feel supported through their individual and sometimes joint grieving processes, the easier they’ll recover and be able to look ahead with hope.

Accept that step families have to cope with constant change and adjustment.

Children coming and going, in-laws, friends and grandparents reacting, the other parent moving or starting a new relationship, holidays, birthdays, religious, cultural and other important celebrations and occasions need to be negotiated along with the myriad of big and small decisions around children’s upbringing.

Some parents try to cope with this stress by attempting to minimize the influence of or time spent with the child’s other parent, but (unless this is recommended for some reason) this is likely to generate more conflict and stress.

Get back to basics.

With all the chaos and complexity, it’s easy to lose sight of the important things. One of the most important is that you and your partner will not only want to be together, but be good together.

What this may require is a conscious intent on both your parts to work on strengthening the bond between you, because it’s this relationship that provides stability for the rest of them and helps you to be a more resilient family.

Watch how you relate to each other, what is and isn’t working and polish up on those negotiation skills.  The trick is to make your relationship bigger and stronger than the issues you have to deal with.

Here’s Five Tips for making it work:

  1. Expect that it will take time for all involved (including your child’s other parent) to adjust to changes. New changes mean new adjusting. 

  2. Try to facilitate one change at a time, so people can build coping skills in between.

  3. Expect emotional upheavals: change can be stressful and scary for many.

  4. Misunderstandings and problems are normal as everyone finds their feet.

  5. Keep the lines of communication open so everyone knows what’s going on.