Solving the struggles of step parenting

Embarking on a new relationship can be tricky in itself, but when adding children into the mix, the challenges can often be taken to a whole new level.

With an increase in blended and step families comprising one of the largest demographic trends throughout Australia, more and more people are finding themselves in one of the most challenging roles of their lives, as that of a Step Parent.

According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, a ‘step family’ is defined as a couple family with at least one child who is a step child of either parent, whilst a ‘blended family’ is a couple family where there are at least 2 children, one of whom belongs to both of the remarrying partners, and one of whom is a step child of either member of the couple.

Julia Roberts in the 1998 film, <i>Stepmum</i>.
Julia Roberts in the 1998 film, Stepmum

One of the saddest statistics to emerge from this growing trend however is the fact that about 70% of remarriages involving children end in separation within a five to six year timeframe.

So how much of a part does the role of step parenting play in making second marriages with children a success?

According to Jacqueline McDiarmid, a Couples & Family Therapist & Lecturer from Sydney, step parenting plays a big role. “These days in my practice, 80% of my core work is based around step family problems”, Jacqueline says.  “It’s quite a major hurdle for couples blending families to overcome, and can definitely be a deal breaker on both sides. A lot of the people who come to see me believe that, if they can’t work out the problems with the children, then the relationship is going to be over”.

Daniela Zimmerman, National Program Manager at Stepfamilies Australia agrees. “Making step families a success is hard work”, she says. “There are so many factors involved, and so many things to take into consideration. Families have to build relationships from the ground up, relinquish power plays, and establish boundaries”. 

Having counseled hundreds of couples a year, both Daniela and Jacqueline are well aware of the many challenges that step families of today face. However, both list communication, discipline, financial, bonding, and emotional issues as being amongst the more common problems that they witness step parents tackling time and time again.

Transitioning into a family

Transitioning into becoming a new family unit is one of the hardest things for a step family to do, so it’s really important that time is taken to introduce step parents to children slowly. 

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“One of the most common mistakes that couples make is to jump in and live together immediately”, explains Daniela. “Where possible, this really should be avoided, and the new family unit should take the time to meet on neutral ground and increase contact from there”. 

Daniela suggests watching sports events, going to the park, eating out, or cooking together as good ways of building on relationships.

Jacqueline concurs with the fact that couples should be completely serious about their relationship before taking it the next level.

“Couples really need to establish themselves as a partnership before moving in together. They need to understand where they are going together, and discuss values and beliefs, as well as things like expectations, and the discipline of the children. Going in with set boundaries and rules is the best way to transition into a new family”.

Bonding with step children

When it comes to building relationships and bonding with step children, both experts agree that the one of the key ways to do this successfully is to become involved in activities that are of interest to the children.  

“It’s about doing what the children want to do, and not the adult”, advises Jacqueline. “More than anything though, the key is just to spend time on a one and one basis with each child, and do something that is unique to them”.

As far as adult children are concerned however, both ladies agree that navigating a relationship can often be a bit trickier.

“Adults children can often be a bit more resistent to a new partner coming into the family unit”, says Jacqueline, “but, assisting them in a way that perhaps their own parent can’t, or, as with younger children, bonding over common interests, may make the journey a bit smoother”. 

Despite all of this, it’s human nature that not everyone is always going to get along in life and, its unreasonable and unrealistic to expect any different of step parents and step children. 

“Step families are not going to automatically love each other”, says Daniela. “Maybe they will become fond of each other over time, and, for some, this will develop into love, but not always. The key is to establish a relationship to be able to live under the same roof and, for that, courtesy is key”.

Disciplining step children

Discipline is one of the most common problems faced by new step families, and it is often the case that both parent and step parent have to readjust their views and actions in order to accommodate their new family unit. 

“It can be very threatening for the parent when a step parent comes in and addresses their discipline tactics”, explains Jacqueline. “To the parent, it can feel like a criticism or accusation, and, as a result, it can cause conflict”.

On the flip side of the coin though, Jacqueline does believe that a fresh set of eyes from the outside can often contribute positively towards boundary setting and discipline within a family. 

“The key thing to remember is that you may well both have different perspectives and ideas on discipline, and that’s why it is so important to talk about this before you move in together. You need to be able to understand each other’s points, as well as agree on the disciplining tactics that you will maintain, and those that you will discard. 

“Parents have to be open to allowing some things to change”, Jacqueline adds.

Dealing with resentments or feelings of anger/bittnerness

Changing priorities and the adjustment to becoming a new family unit is an unsettling period for everyone within a step family. So, it comes as no surprise that, there is a lot of emotional baggage that comes along for the ride, with resentment generally being one of the top emotional offenders. 

“The quick change of life causes resentment for everyone”, explains Jacqueline. “But step parents and children particularly can often feel displaced as they adjust to their new family, and have to learn to share their partner or parent more than before”.

Daniela agrees, adding, “It’s important to put yourself in the shoes of the child who may have been through a number of changes in a short period of time. Things such as moving house, abiding by different rules, and, in the case of blended families, adjusting to new siblings, can all take its toll”.

In situations like this, Jacqueline advises that it is the parent who holds the most powerful position within the family, having love for both their child and their partner and, therefore, believes that the main responsibility lies in their lap to make things work.

“The parent needs to address any issues with both parties, and explain how everyone should be treated as part of the new family. It’s really important that they don’t let the step parent fight it out with the children, as this just ends in disaster and the break down of relationships. 

Traps to avoid falling into

One of the key traps that step parents often fall into is actually caring too much. 

“That may sound strange but, if you are constantly trying to do everything well, and constantly being supportive, you can end up getting hurt along the way”, says Daniela. “Being a step parent can be a thankless task at times, and you need to learn to be okay with this”.

Jacqueline echoes Daniela in her sentiments, “Its important that step parents try as hard as possible not to take the comments and behaviours of children too personally. It’s hard to do when you are not used to being around children, but step parents need to learn to understand that, very often, children are ‘acting out’ in a normal or developmental manner, and it is not necessarily a personal attack”.

Jacqueline also warns step parents to be wary of taking too much of a back seat and trying too hard to be a friend to the step children, rather than being another adult in the relationship.

“Children will have a field day with a step parent who doesn’t discipline or stand their ground in the family hierarchy”, she explains, “and, at the end of the day, it’s a hierarchy of parents that provides stability for children”.

Ongoing Strategies

  • Ensure that you do a lot of ground work before moving in together
  • Always be direct and honest about what you think and you feel
  • Always be clear about your expectations of the family
  • Establish a relationship with the child or children that is independent of the relationship you have with the parent
  • Understand your own limits and be realistic. 
  • Be aware of what you will accept, and what you won’t
  • Don’t take things personally
  • Maintain good boundaries, and don’t get involved in the partner’s issues with their ex
  • Ensure that both partners are playing a dual role in parenting
  • Work as a team
  • When things get tough, get proactive by undertaking counseling, a course, or ringing a helpline

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