Being a Stepparent: What You Need to Know to Make It Work

Being a Stepparent: What you Need to Know To Make Them Work

I’ve done a lot of hard things. I’ve run a marathon (well, technically a ‘fun run’ but it did require running shorts, running and sweat so I stand firm on ‘marathon’); I’ve given up sugar (not gonna lie – worst 2 hours of my life) and I’ve travelled (‘Middle East, solo, broke with a backpack’ travelled, not ‘may I take your bags madam? The lift to the 34th floor is just past the atrium’ travelled).

Being a step-parent is up there with the hardest. My stepchildren are adults now and even though the fog has cleared, I still claim that it’s one of the most difficult things I’ve done.

From the outset, there are things about a stepfamily that would likely hint at trouble if they happened in a biological family:

  • Another person (the other biological parent) has a hand in some of the big decisions that affect your family – the way the kids are raised (which will always have an impact on your home), weekends, holidays, family rituals, rules. Though you will have a say, there’s a third person with an investment who will potentially want to interfere be heard.
  • The alliance between the parent and child in a biological family is potentially stronger (understandably) than the couple. In a biological family, both parents have an equal say and big decisions are made by the couple. In a stepfamily, matters to do with the child will often be between the biological parents, or the biological parent and child. Potentially, the step-parent will have less influence in decisions that impact the family and the individuals in it.
  • The step-parent is an outsider. There are years of shared history, memories, connection and experiences between members of the biological family that the step-parent will never be a part of. Of course in time the stepfamily will grow into something new and wonderful, but first there will be a bit of compromise.

Being the second wife/husband/important person does have benefits, the main one of which is that your partner already has a realistic idea of the work that’s required to make a marriage work. There are no illusions the second time around in relation to the marriage, though there may be a few in relation to the family. 

The good news is that there are things that can be done to smooth the bumps along the way, even if you can’t completely disappear them:

  1. Let go of the fantasy.

    It sounds simple enough (it’s not!) but it could be the difference between your relationship working or not. That’s not overstating it. It really is that important.

    An abundance of research has confirmed that unhappiness is caused by the distance between expectations and reality. It’s not so much the situation that causes distress but that the situation is different to what’s expected. 

    In a stepfamily, everyone comes with their own fantasy. It’s completely normal and inevitable – but if you hang on to the fantasy too tightly, it could very well fall you. Most couples come into a stepfamily thinking that the family will immediately gel, the relationships will be tight, everyone will feel the love and the family will be a happy one. But it really doesn’t work like that.

    In a biological family, there would be problems if there was no expectation that you will love your children, they’ll love you back and all will be close. In a stepfamily though, these fantasies set up the potential for profound disappointment. Why? Because all family members come with their own fantasy, some of which are completely incompatible.

    Patricia Papernow is a leader in the field of stepfamilies. Her book, Being a Stepfamily, is the best I’ve read. (Juuuust in cast you were wondering, this is not an affiliate link – I just love the book. It was a game-changer for me in my own experience as a step-parent.) She identified the following fantasies which are typical in a stepfamily:

    •  Step-parent: ‘We’ll be one big happy family. The kids will love me. I’ll love them back. My relationship will be solid. I can’t wait for us all to be a family.’

    •  Biological Parent: ‘My partner will love the kids as much as I do and the kids will love him/her back. The kids will be so grateful for everything he/she gives this family. I just can’t wait to show everyone how happy we can be as a family.’

    •  The kids: ‘It’s only a matter of time before mum and dad get back together. They actually love each other a lot and as soon as they realise that we can be a family again.’

    Letting go of the fantasy allows for greater acceptance of the reality, more respect for what ‘is’ and more of the flexibility that’s needed to get to wherever you’re going as a family. A stepfamily can be as happy and successful as any other, but it will be different. It’s important to let go of the fantasy gently though, because your imaginings of what things would be like would have been a big part of the reason you decided to do this. And don’t worry, let go of the fantasy and reality will see to it that eventually something at least as good will take its place.

  2. See the rough patches for what they are – a progression not a fall.

    There are going to be rough patches and that’s okay. Accept them as a sign of progression towards a new kind of family – one with you in it. Your experience of the stepfamily might be different to what you expected but it doesn’t mean a happy ending isn’t coming.

    It’s likely that at some point you will feel like an outsider, as well as jealous, lonely, resentful, confused and inadequate. You’ll probably experience hostility, indifference or rejection from your stepkids and more than likely you’ll fight with your partner more than you expected. This is normal. Accept it, let it unfold and most importantly don’t take it personally, though I know that’s easier said than done.

    It feels like a shake up, and it is, but it’s all part of the adjustment the family has to go through to get to something better.  The family is recalibrating and changing shape to make way for you. That sort of adjustment was never going to be easy. Sometimes things have to fall apart a little so they can come back together in a different way. See the rough patches for what they are – a remaking, a realignment, a progression towards something new, rather than a threat.

  3. Understand and respond to the loyalty bind.

    It’s normal for children to worry that their acceptance of a step-parent might betray their biological parent. They might worry that if they like you, accept you or love you, their biological parent will be hurt or angry. This may increase their need to show loyalty to the biological parent by rejecting you or being hostile to you to ‘prove’ their love and loyalty to their parent. 

    If you suspect a loyalty bind might be at play, see it for what it is and don’t take it personally. Let your stepchild know that you aren’t trying to replace his or her biological parent and that you know nobody could ever do that. Let them know it’s okay to feel as they do and that you will work through it together.

    Next, gently put the idea out there that they can care about you and love their other parent at the same time. Acknowledge that you know that their relationship with their biological parent will always be special and different to anything else. Let them know you would like to try to have a relationship that is good for both you and the child, and that you’ll follow their lead as to what that looks like.

  4. When your stepchild is ready, work on creating the new relationship.

    Don’t try to replicate the relationship your child has with their biological parent. This runs the risk of inflaming the loyalty bind but it also takes away the opportunity for you to create something new. You have qualities, wisdom and experience that will be different to those of the other adults in the child’s life. It may take a while for your stepchild to appreciate that, but be patient. Find new things to share that are different to what the child has with his or her biological parent. 

  5. Decide on what’s important. And let the rest go.

    There will be plenty to argue about. The fact that a stepfamily is in the making means that nobody’s story has ended the way they thought it would. Nobody goes into marriage anticipating divorce and children don’t look forward to the day their parents live in separate houses. There’s a lot going on – broken hearts, endings and angry people. People won’t always be on their best behaviour.

    Decide on the things that are important to you and let the rest go. Push gently for the change that needs to happen but at the same time, respect the rest of the family’s need for stability.

    The balance will get precarious at times but it’s an important part of getting to where you need to be. You won’t be able to function as a new family until differences are worked through and people have enough of what they need to not feel compromised. Without a doubt, your new family can be phenomenal but it will take time.

  6. Appreciate the small stuff.

    Understand that it may be difficult for your stepchild to accept you or show affection for so many reasons, none of which will have anything to do with how they feel about you. The upheaval, their own grief and loyalty binds all make for shaky ground. Appreciate the small moments of contact. It’s easy to overlook them but when they happen, know that it’s big.

  7. Respect that it will take time.

    In her extensive work, Papernow has found that stepfamilies take about 7-12 years to adjust and to exist as a healthy, well-functioning system. Quicker families might do it in four but some families never really get there. I wonder how much of the time frame has to do with the stepchildren reaching independence and establishing a relationship with their step-parents as adults, rather than children.

  8. Be open to letting go.

    Be open to the possibility that you may never be close to all or any of your stepchildren. One may have less need for another adult in their lives or may feel the conflict of a loyalty bind more than the others. You might also just be too different from each other to make it work. The most important thing is that when they are younger, you are committed to making it work, but that doesn’t mean it will work out as planned. There is enormous grace and courage in being able to let go, which is different to giving up.

All stepfamilies are different but they share common vulnerabilities. They can be as rich, warm, loving and wonderful as any other family. No family is smooth sailing all the time but the dynamics of a stepfamily present challenges at the start that are unique. Within that is the potential to rise to the challenge and come out with something extraordinary.

179 Comments

Anon

I wish parents who re-marry with children/child could appreciate how difficult it is for the childless partner. Coming into a relationship there are so many feelings, obviously lots of talking about the ex, and just the stress of wanting to do good and running myself out trying… I wish he’d see all I’ve put in. I don’t think he ever will, because how can you imagine yourself in another person’s shoes who doesn’t have a child when you do? I’m exhausted.

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sonja p

I married my husband 4 years ago and he has been the sole carer of his talented 17-year-old since his son was 2 .. The boy won a scholarship to a prestigious private school because of his music skills and my husband moved to the South west of the UK to support him. I though someone who does that for his child can’t be all bad 🙂
Since joining the family I introduced family sit-down meals, Sunday brunches, do the washing and most of the housework and generally help put. My stepson has been very respectful and courteous towards me but he seems to want more and more from me. He always talks directly to me at mealtimes, not to his father, tells me a million things a day and is always interrupting us. We are now in lockdown and although this has been slightly eased, he never goes anywhere, never sees friends outside, never goes to the shops or for a walk. It’s driving me crazy. We live in a small house and I have to leave when he is practising or having online music lessons as it is too loud. I have two grown-up daughters and I never saw as much of them since they were about 14. They were always out and about. He doesn’t even talk to his friends on Skype. Unfortunately his mother, who lived in London, passed away 6 months ago but he only ever went on exotic holidays with her. My husband is super-protective of any criticism I have of him and also worries endlessly if he as much as goes on a bike ride (once in 12 weeks of lockdown). This closeness may be many stepparents’ dream but I’m freaking out. I can’t get away from him and his music. I have suggested my husband take him out for an afternoon at the weekend so I can be by myself but to no avail. We have no time alone together. I am a writer. Am I a bitch or an evil stepmother?I haven’t felt this way since my daughters were tiny. I need space but I also don’t want to be continually on the run from my own home. Does anyone else have the problem of their stepchildren wanting too much from them?

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Kiran C

I have been married for a little over a year to my husband. We both have 2 children from previous relationships and just recently had a child of our own; so 5 children total. Combining our blended family has been a constant struggle for us mainly because our children have been very “annoyed” “intolerant” and have a habit seeing how the others do things differently as a bad or “wrong” way to be. This turns into feelings of resentment, anger and unacceptance from his children towards mine or vice versa. Most recently, his 17 year old daughter and I had butted heads over how I approach her about things I see as disrespectful. She says I always approach her in an “aggressive” and “snotty” manner. I agreed that I need to approach her in a less aggressive way and told her I would do so next time something comes up. However, I feel she is looking for ways to come in between my husband and I and is very unaccepting of me. My husband wants me to have a heart to heart talk with her today in order to try setting aside some differences or misunderstandings. One thing I’m going to approach her on is why she is suspicious I am cheating on her father. I have never cheated on him before and I am not now. However, I left my phone at home one day and left for work; I receive spam phone calls almost daily however when she saw what looked like a local number calling my phone, she took a picture of it and sent it to her father and asked if he recognized who’s number this was and that maybe I was doing something behind his back. I feel she was completely out of line and want to understand what possessed her to even look at the phone to see who was calling in the first place. Keep in mind, I have been quite stressed out lately and it has shown in how I act around my house. The kids see me unhappy, their father unhappy and I when my own children are not in our home (I have 50/50 custody), I tend to hideaway in my room with our newborn baby lately just to avoid annoying my step children and allowing them to feel comfortable in our (and their) home. We have a lot of things to discuss however, how do I approach her about her actions and accusations regarding my faithfulness to her father?

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Kable

I have an 11 year old son from a previous relationship and my partner of 4 years has a 20 year old son of her own. We were married in February of this year as her father is terminally ill. We have been living apart for the last 12 months as she has been his full time carer for the past 12 months. My partner and I have always clashed because of my parenting style. I’m a little too casual for her and she believes I treat my son more like a mate and allow him to control the house and me. This is true to some extent and has possibly evolved primarily from the little time I spend with him and that when I tried to get more access my ex manipulated him to the point that he didn’t want to come see me. My partner is a strict disciplinarian who demands boundaries and punishment for my child when he does wrong. Anyway, in the last few weekends we have been able to spend some time together and the weekend just gone my son was with me. She made several mentions over the weekend of certain aspects of my parenting within earshot and at some points in the company of my son. At dinner my son was creating a scene because he was apparently full however, as I always do, I made him finish. My partner then accuses me of making her out to be the bitch because I only did it to appease her. I feel like I’m in a no win situation. This issue has driven such a wedge that I can’t see a way for our relationship to work

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When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.
Sometimes we all just need space to talk to someone who will listen without giving advice, or problem solving, or lecturing. Someone who will let us talk, and who can handle our experiences and words and feelings without having to smooth out the wrinkles or tidy the frayed edges. 

Our kids need this too, but as their important adults, it can be hard to hush without needing to fix things, or gather up their experience and bundle it into a learning that will grow them. We do this because we love them, but it can also mean that they choose not to let us in for the wrong reasons. 

We can’t help them if we don’t know what’s happening in their world, and entry will be on their terms - even more as they get older. As they grow, they won’t trust us with the big things if we don’t give them the opportunity to learn that we can handle the little things (which might feel seismic to them). They won’t let us in to their world unless we make it safe for them to.

When my own kids were small, we had a rule that when I picked them up from school they could tell me anything, and when we drove into the driveway, the conversation would be finished if they wanted it to be. They only put this rule into play a few times, but it was enough for them to learn that it was safe to talk about anything, and for me to hear what was happening in that part of their world that happened without me. My gosh though, there were times that the end of the conversation would be jarring and breathtaking and so unfinished for me, but every time they would come back when they were ready and we would finish the chat. As it turned out, I had to trust them as much as I wanted them to trust me. But that’s how parenting is really isn’t it.

Of course there will always be lessons in their experiences we will want to hear straight up, but we also need them to learn that we are safe to come to.  We need them to know that there isn’t anything about them or their life we can’t handle, and when the world feels hard or uncertain, it’s safe here. By building safety, we build our connection and influence. It’s just how it seems to work.♥️
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#parenting #parenthood #mindfulparenting
Words can be hard sometimes. The right words can be orbital and unconquerable and hard to grab hold of. Feelings though - they’ll always make themselves known, with or without the ‘why’. 

Kids and teens are no different to the rest of us. Their feelings can feel bigger than words - unfathomable and messy and too much to be lassoed into language. If we tap into our own experience, we can sometimes (not all the time) get an idea of what they might need. 

It’s completely understandable that new things or hard things (such as going back to school) might drive thoughts of falls and fails and missteps. When this happens, it’s not so much the hard thing or the new thing that drives avoidance, but thoughts of failing or not being good enough. The more meaningful the ‘thing’ is, the more this is likely to happen. If you can look behind the words, and through to the intention - to avoid failure more than the new or difficult experience, it can be easier to give them what they need. 

Often, ‘I can’t’ means, ‘What if I can’t?’ or, ‘Do you think I can?’, or, ‘Will you still think I’m brave, strong, and capable of I fail?’ They need to know that the outcome won’t make any difference at all to how much you adore them, and how capable and exceptional you think they are. By focusing on process, (the courage to give it a go), we clear the runway so they can feel safer to crawl, then walk, then run, then fly. 

It takes time to reach full flight in anything, but in the meantime the stumbling can make even the strongest of hearts feel vulnerable. The more we focus on process over outcome (their courage to try over the result), and who they are over what they do (their courage, tenacity, curiosity over the outcome), the safer they will feel to try new things or hard things. We know they can do hard things, and the beauty and expansion comes first in the willingness to try. 
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#parenting #mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparent
Never in the history of forever has there been such a  lavish opportunity for a year to be better than the last. Not to be grabby, but you know what I’d love this year? Less opportunities that come in the name of ‘resilience’. I’m ready for joy, or adventure, or connection, or gratitude, or courage - anything else but resilience really. Opportunities for resilience have a place, but 2020 has been relentless with its servings, and it’s time for an out breath. Here’s hoping 2021 will be a year that wraps its loving arms around us. I’m ready for that. x
The holidays are a wonderland of everything that can lead to hyped up, exhausted, cranky, excited, happy kids (and adults). Sometimes they’ll cycle through all of these within ten minutes. Sugar will constantly pry their little mouths wide open and jump inside, routines will laugh at you from a distance, there will be gatherings and parties, and everything will feel a little bit different to usual. And a bit like magic. 

Know that whatever happens, it’s all part of what the holidays are meant to look like. They aren’t meant to be pristine and orderly and exactly as planned. They were never meant to be that. Christmas is about people, your favourite ones, not tasks. If focusing on the people means some of the tasks fall down, let that be okay, because that’s what Christmas is. It’s about you and your people. It’s not about proving your parenting stamina, or that you’ve raised perfectly well-behaved humans, or that your family can polish up like the catalog ones any day of the week, or that you can create restaurant quality meals and decorate the table like you were born doing it. Christmas is messy and ridiculous and exhausting and there will be plenty of frayed edges. And plenty of magic. The magic will happen the way it always happens. Not with the decorations or the trimmings or the food or the polish, but by being with the ones you love, and the ones who love you right back.

When it all starts to feel too important, too necessary and too ‘un-let-go-able’, be guided by the bigger truth, which is that more than anything, you will all remember how you all felt – as in how happy they felt, how loved they felt were, how noticed they felt. They won’t care about the instagram-worthy meals on the table, the cleanliness of the floors, how many relatives they visited, or how impressed other grown-ups were with their clean faces and darling smiles. It’s easy to forget sometimes, that what matters most at Christmas isn’t the tasks, but the people – the ones who would give up pretty much anything just to have the day with you.

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