Parenting in a step-family

Step-families are becoming one of the most common types of families.

Each step-family is unique and will experience both challenges and rewards. For all new step-families there can be a time of significant change and adjustment as the new family comes together. During this time, the most important consideration should be the children and their relationship with each of their parents.

Children need reassurance from parents and step-parents that they are still very much loved and that it is not their fault their parents have separated. Each parent needs to make sure that they only speak in a positive manner about the other parent. Parents need to spend as much time as possible with their child. Children need reassurance that whether they live with a parent or not, both parents will always be a part of their lives.

Parents not living with their children have an important role to play. Children may share their concerns about their new family with you. They need you to listen and support them through these times. Children need a nurturing, safe and secure relationship with both parents as they begin to form relationships with the new adults and children in their step-family.

Step-parents in a new step-family must think about:

  • developing a relationship with the new partner’s children
  • supporting new step-siblings to develop relationships with each other
  • the ways in which their parenting ideas are the same or different and agree on a way of parenting together in this new family.

For some children a new step-family may be a difficult transition. A child may

  • lose their position in the family
  • have to share a bedroom when they are used to having their own
  • have to share the parent they had to themselves before the new relationship
  • want the original family back
  • have moved house, leaving friends, school and other familiarities including the other parent.

However, there may also be significant advantages for children in a step-family such as:

  • their parent is much happier in the new relationship
  • there are extra adults to care for them, including new grandparents
  • the child has new brothers and sisters
  • the opportunity to be part of a family again.

There are many ways parents and step-parents can help children through this transition phase.

Children show their feelings through their behaviour. When a child’s behaviour changes for the worse, children are saying they are not OK. Pay attention to what your child is telling you through their words and behaviour and take their concerns seriously.

Common behaviours that suggest a child is finding the transition difficult include:

  • regression of development such as reverting to bed wetting or baby talk
  • nightmares and other sleeping difficulties
  • problems at school – academic standards dropping and no longer wanting to participate in activities that they were previously interested in.
  • becoming aggressive or withdrawn

As parents and step-parents you must:

  • listen to your child
  • try to understand the situation from their point of view
  • encourage all the children in the new family to talk about their feelings or troubles
  • support relationships but allow them to develop at their own pace
  • set up routines in the new family situation that will provide security for all the children
  • make time with each child one on one
  • remind your child that you love them and will always be there for them