Advice for new step-parents
Becoming a new step-parent has to be one of the hardest things to get right and yet also very common. More than 1 in 10 families have a child which is a step-child to one of the parents (source: ONS).
The step-parent role, at best is rewarding but hard work, and at worst can be a huge test of patience and fortitude. In time the relationship between step parent and children can develop to be a very special one, but in the first instance, making the effort to be a good step parent is an act of love for which your partner will (or should) be immensely grateful.
Be adaptable to your step children’s needs
Children are individuals and how they respond to you will depend on many factors outside your control, e.g. upbringing, character, relationship with parents and how acrimonious the divorce has been. Don’t attempt to change them, it’s you who will have to be flexible and patient as they adjust to a new adult in loco parentis. Be friendly, approachable and welcoming to the home you share with their parent, but don’t be pushy.
What should your step-children call you?
Before you meet your step-children, it’s worth having a think about what you will be called. Obviously most people are sensitive enough to their kids to not introduce the new step parent as “your new mummy/daddy”. It really cannot be stressed how much a child does not want to hear that. However the term “step-mother” can carry negative fairy tale connotations. First names are quite acceptable, or maybe you just want to suck it and see and let the kids work out what they want to call you (as long as it’s polite!)
Let the children come to like you in their own time
There are plenty of families where the stepmother or father has become a much-loved member of the blended family group and that is absolutely and hopefully a real possibility. But don’t rush it and don’t push yourself forward. When the children come round, they have come primarily to see their parent. That you are there as well will at best be of little interest to them and at worst a completely horrifying and misery making ordeal that they have to endure only because they want to see their parent. Less is definitely more in this situation.
Answering awkward questions from your step-child
Be ready to answer any questions they have as openly as you can. But never go into long protracted explanations when asked, “Why is my daddy with you now?” and particularly do not say anything bad about your partner’s ex. Children, particularly young ones, generally think the sun shines out of their parents’ bottoms and like any other creature on the planet they are territorial. And now here you are being mean about their parent. At best this is confusing and likely to alienate you from them.
If your relationship with their parent has resulted in the other parent being miserable and crying all the time, you are going to have a mountain to climb. Although you cannot run away from the situation and it does need to be faced, the children may well feel conflicted about your happiness when they have left their other obviously unhappy parent at home.
If things are tricky to start with, don’t feel you have to always be there.
Welcome them to your home, making sure that you do not take offence at any cold shoulders pointed in your direction. Take your cue from your partner and the children themselves and then if you need to, make yourself scarce. Go shopping, visit a friend, do something you enjoy, anything, just give your new partner and the children space to be together and enjoy each other’s company. Come back later and join in any outings but never be pushy, and be prepared that if the child really does not want you to go out with them, to give in (at the beginning).
Getting used to the new world order is a huge step for any child and anything you can do to make it easier, you should. But it should not become a habit and you and their father can slowly work on making them understand that you are there for keeps. The next time an outing is planned, gently but firmly explain that you are all going to the pictures together and then take their mind off it by talking about the film or whether you are going to have pop corn or sweets when you get there. It will take time, but you can do it!
Responding to “you are not my mummy/ daddy”
Discipline can be a thorny issue “You’re not my mummy/ daddy, you can’t tell me what to do!”. How do you cope when you can’t discipline the kids and their birth parent alone has the final say? Again, patience is key.
To start with try to let your partner be in charge of discipline. Agree some simple house rules and make sure everyone knows what they are. There will be certain behaviours that are not tolerated in any form, such as hitting or swearing. Where necessary you can firmly tell the children that no matter which adult is in the house, they are breaking a house rule.
But any grey areas it is up to their mother/ father to decide and it is also up to them to decide what the response/ punishment should be. Support your partner and back them up. Be firm, patient and consistent to the children, don’t overstep the mark and don’t rise to any taunts.
This really is a tough one, it is going, invariably, to be a bumpy ride. The months following your arrival will test you and your new relationship to the limit. But by being consistent and fair, you can win the children’s respect and co-operation.
Step-parenting can be wonderful!
I mentioned the extended blended family earlier and it cannot be emphasised what a blessing this can be once the dust has settled. My own step-sons are wonderful, loving, funny members of the family and I love them dearly.
Children respond to fairness and to loving kindness. It may not seem all that easy to feel that way if you are living with doors slamming and looks that would kill at 20 paces, but stick to your guns and show how much love you have to offer both to their parent and to them and they should come round.
Nobody can stay angry and bitter in the face of unrelenting kindness and the unfaltering hand of friendship. All you have to do is make sure that that is exactly what you have to offer.
Lucy Davis is a co-founder of divorceclub.com and a TV Producer. She divorced 7 years ago. She is a passionate advocate for exploring the potential for change and creativity that can result from the trauma of divorce.