Stepfamily – is it time to rethink the ‘Wicked Stepmother’ myth? 

StepfamilyStepfamilies comprise one of the largest and fastest growing demographic groups in Australia, with research suggesting that one in every four families is a stepfamily.

The negotiation required to make a newly formed stepfamily work successfully is complex, and if done correctly it can assist the new family to thrive. The issues within a stepfamily are vexed and varied.  Parenting styles, methods of discipline, eating habits and even bedtime routines can cause problems, particularly if they differ from the stepchild’s biological parent’s routines.

National Stepfamily Awareness Day is a great opportunity to highlight and recognise the challenges inherent in stepfamilies.  It is an excellent time to let stepfamilies know there is nothing wrong with stepparents seeking support to help make their new family work effectively.

One of the main reasons stepfamilies can fail is the misunderstanding many have regarding their role as the stepparent. Parenting differences rank as the number 1 reason for step family conflict.

Coming to an agreement on parenting is crucial to a successful stepfamily. The different parenting styles can add another burden to an already hard and challenging transition. Children usually have their mother’s rules and boundaries set, when they become a part of dad’s new family. There are new and different boundaries leaving children confused, angry or distressed.


How to help positively shape your new stepparenting role?

1.     Allow the biological parent to discipline their own children

The stepparent is not and never will be the main parent, so disciplining the other partner’s child is often cause for dispute between the children and the stepparent as well as between the new couple.

2.     Never denigrate the child’s other parent to them or the new partner

Children love both their parents and find it very stressful to hear either their biological or stepparent speak badly about their parent. This leaves the children feeling upset. Children should have no real idea of the difficulties the biological parents are experiencing. Keep any discussion about the other parent away from the children at all times.

3.     Spend time getting to know your step children

It is important that the stepparent spend some time with their stepchildren without the biological parents always being there. It allows communication and the relationship to develop between the new parent and the child as they get to know each other.

4.     Don’t try to step in to the role of their mother or father as they have one already

Even if as the stepparent, you believe you could guide or direct the child’s behaviour or decisions; this is best left to the biological parent. Make suggestions as to what you feel could be beneficial, however always leave it up to either the child or the child’s parent to make that decision.

5.     As the stepparent, invest in being the child’s mentor, not their parent

Understand that you will never be the stepchild’s parent and while you may even be raising them fifty percent of their lives, it is safer for all if you mentor the child, guide them, assist them and support them without parenting them. stepparent As a stepmother and someone who specialises in working with blended and step families, I often explain that being a stepparent can be a lonely existence.  Friends and extended family often don’t realise just how hard it can be for a stepparent, particularly in the first few years, when they need support the most. We are plunged into having these new children to care for and at the same time, we are not allowed to cross that shaky line in the sand of overstepping our mark.  Children will quickly jump on you if you attempt to parent them or discipline them.  If there is animosity with your partners ex, which unfortunately there often is, then this can exaggerate the situation.  If the biological mother is against the relationship of the new partner, the children already view you with apprehension. Stepparents often do not receive the recognition they deserve for all they do in raising their stepchildren. They undertake the daily duties of the parent thanklessly, and can feel unappreciated if the new couple don’t have clear lines of communication about how to structure the newly formed family unit.” Experts agree that one way to beat the odds of step family failure is to seek out professional help as studies have shown that this type of help reduces the anxiety step parents often feel and set the new family up for success rather than failure. Reaching out for assistance not only helps the new couple, but can also dramatically aid the children to readjust and feel like an integral part of their new family.  Many new stepparents find their role very difficult to adjust to and this is because there are no rules to follow, you are left to resolve it all.  Setting the ground rules early and understanding each person’s role in relation to the children can really assist.

Top tips to assist children feel more secure and part of their new family:

  1. Be realistic and help the children recognise their family is now different
  2. Ensure the children know that it is not their fault their family has changed
  3. Ensure each parent spend some quality time with their own biological children as they can get jealous of the attention their parent is spending on the new step-parent and step children.
  4. Spend time together as a family unit
  5. Have the children talk with a Counsellor about their feelings as they can find it difficult to disclose deep concerns to parents

Step Mother is no longer a dirty word, and the more parents can calmly and rationally negotiate how their new family will look the greater the chances of its success.”   Let’s ensure we support all our stepparents for the great job they are doing for the children.        

Karen says:

Dear Juls,
Congratulations on doing a great job. While the age of the children when they enter into their new family is important, you both sound like you have discussed and arrange it so it works really well for you all. Well done, great to hear.
Kind regards

Juls says:

Very good advice. We have been a blended family for 7 months with 6 children aged between 7 and 13 years. It has certainly had it’s challenges but overall has been a positive experience for all of us. One of the important things I have learnt is spend time together as a couple and take time to talk to each other about any issues as well as non child related topics. The point about disciplining your own children is interesting as we did this at first but found that over time we started disciplining each other’s children for little things and now we have the same limits and expectations for everyone’s behaviour so whoever is closer/available intervenes. I think that because we have done this over time, we have gained the children’s respect which is important. I have been reading every bit of advice I can get my hands on!

Judith-Rose Max says:

Thanks Juls, it is so good to hear about a blended family that is working well – very inspirational for those about to begin their journey and those already in the swing of things.

Judith-Rose Max says:

Thanks for sharing Vicki!

Vicki says:

So good, great advise. I have 2 step children and experience difficulties. I think we sometimes expect gratitude for all the things we do for the children that are not ours. I will now rethink the way I do things, can only get better. It is always hard though when their mother continually undermines you and I have said things about her – oops. Thanks Karen

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