Did you know that more than one in 10 families in the UK are now stepfamilies and the number is rising. As families become ever more diverse, it’s estimated that one in three people are now touched by a stepfamily, whether they are a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle or cousin.

But what is it like to live in a stepfamily? How does it feel to share a room with step-siblings you don’t know, or call someone mum when she’s really just your dad’s girlfriend?

And what happens when you can’t get on with your partners’ kids or their moody teenagers refuse to listen to you because “you’re not my dad”?

Re-partnering or getting remarried represents a new beginning for many people. It can be an exciting time, but it can also be a time of great change for you, your partner and your respective families.

The experience can be a real roller-coaster of emotion for families, as they go through confusion, tears and compromise as they work through their problems.

With change inevitably comes disruption and for some families the process of blending together comes smoother than to others. It’s probably unreasonable to expect everyone to get on straight away because love and respect take time to develop and grow. So don’t force the issue.

Children of different ages react differently to new situations and of course this is a major change. They may feel a range of emotions like resentment, anger, insecurity, grief and guilt. So it’s important that you make time to actively listen and talk through the emotions and feelings that your child is going through.

Here are a few things children have told Childline counsellors

“It’s hard getting to know lots of new people all at once” Michael 12

“I feel like my Mum’s a different person” Janine 13

“I’m not sure who to go to now, when I want to talk about things” Stef 13

“It feels wrong when I’m having fun with Dad and his new wife, when I think of Mum by herself” Alice 15

Ask yourself:

• When could I set up a natural “talk time “ routine to chat through any worries or concerns each week with each of the kids on their own - or just to chat about nothing in particular and spend time with them to support them?

Remember that teenagers always need to have their feelings accepted and respected so here are a few active listening skills you might find helpful

1. Listen Quietly and Attentively.

2. Acknowledge Their Feelings With A One Word.

“Oh...Mmmm….I see…….”

Parents don’t usually give this kind of response because they are frightened that by giving the emotion a name it will make it worse. In fact the exact opposite is true as a teenager feels extremely comforted and reassured that someone “gets it!”

3. Give The Feeling A Name.

“That sounds as if you feel really uncertain!”

4. Make your child’s wish come true - in fantasy.

“I wish I could make the situation easier for you and could wave a magic wand and it would all alright!”

Often when teenagers want something that they can’t have parents usually respond with lots of logical explanations about why they can’t have it - and the harder they explain the harder the kids protest!! Sometimes it’s easier if you just acknowledge and understand how much your teenager wants something as it seems to make reality somehow easier to bear for them.

Another simple tip I use with families to help develop better communication is to get parents and their teens to sit down with an egg-timer and to each have an uninterrupted minute to say what they want. Many teenagers say they find it a relief to talk and be heard.

Becoming a step-parent is a huge undertaking but it’s worth remembering that you’re not alone. Step-parents can often feel pressure that they must love their stepchildren and end up feeling angry or guilty when they don’t have those feelings. You mustn’t beat yourself up about it because you can’t feel instant love for a child that is not your own. Love will come if you let it.

When a child says ‘You’re not my mum or dad’ it’s less an attack on you as the step-parent and more a cry for help because they are hurting. Rather than get upset, explain that you know you’re not their parent but you’re someone who cares about them who’s doing their best.

Setting up house rules, having a notice board or sharing the jobs around the house can help bond a family together. It shows that, although things may have been different in a previous family, this is how the new family operates.

If the other parent has re-married, visiting children may feel jealous, anxious, uncomfortable or reticent towards their mum or dad’s new family because they get to spend more time with their parent. Getting them involved in the household and giving them their own space will help them feel more at home.

Stepfamilies are complex, but the rewards are tremendous. Kids can gain by having several parental figures around who love and care about them, and you may get a second chance at being a good parent or be a parent to the child you never had.

Perhaps every step-parent should have ‘And the children come too’ tattooed on their foreheads and I think it helps if everyone involved realises that it’s a package deal – the person you fall in love with and their children.

It can be a minefield but if you recognise the traps, it can be negotiated. A sense of humour can work wonders to break down barriers and dissipate tension and it doesn’t all have to end up like Snow White or Cinderella!!!

Remember to stay grounded, centred and balanced and that having a sense of humour can magically work wonders -

“A smile is a curve that puts a lot of things straight and a laugh is a smile that bursts!!!”

Here are some useful websites:
Relate
Gingerbread
National Council for One Parent Families
Parents at Work

Author's Bio: 

Sue Atkins is a Parent Coach and Author of "Raising Happy Children for Dummies" one in the famous black and yellow series and mother of two teenage children. She has written many books on self esteem, toddlers and teenagers and has a collection of Parenting Made Easy Toolkits available from her website. To find out more about her work and to receive her free monthly newsletter packed full of practical tips and helpful advice for bringing up happy, confident, well-balanced children go to www.positive-parents.com

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