Over a million children* in the UK live in a blended family where one parent is not their biological parent. In the majority of cases these families are made up of a mother with her children and a step-father. If you are a step-father you might be wondering how to develop a relationship with your stepchildren…
Separation is really tough on children.
All too often a child may have witnessed arguments between their biological parents and where a break-up hasn’t been handled well, it is natural that a child might experience grief, anger and anxiety. If a child is already feeling vulnerable it is extremely common for them to resent the incoming stepfather. The arrival of a new man on the scene might spell the death of any hope a child has for a reunion between Mum and Dad. No matter how unfair it is, if you are the new step-dad, they are likely to blame you.
- How to become a good stepfather?
- Building Rapport
- Give it time
- Don’t take it personally
- Top Tips to avoid common pitfalls for stepfathers
- Don’t try to replace their biological father
- What if their biological father does not want contact?
- Take a back seat with your partner’s children
- Give them time with mum
- Respect their past
- Ask their opinions
- Take a supporting role in discipline
- What sort of parent are you?
- Household Rules
- Provide a united front in front of the children
- Time is a great healer
- Manage Your Own Stress Levels
- What if you dislike one or more of your stepchildren?
- Is it worth all the effort to be a good step-father?
- How to manage issues in a blended family
- Should i treat my stepchildren differently to my biological children if we all live together?
- Set Clear Expectations about displays of physical affection
- Use routines and rituals to help your children bond with their step brothers and sisters
- Family Routines
- One-on-One Time
- Family Rituals
- Keeping each other in the loop
- Sibling Rivalry in children
- Don’t give up; it takes time to make a blended family work.
So how do you become a good stepfather?
You are going to need to learn patience. Maybe you’ve known the child for a while, or perhaps you are meeting them for the first time. Once you are moving in and staying, even if you got on well with your stepchild when they first met you, the child might react negatively. See it from their perspective, you are moving into a space that used to be filled by their biological father.
This isn’t going to be easy. From early on in the relationship, you will be working to build a rapport with your partner’s children, and patience is the key. After all, just because you are in a relationship with their mother doesn’t mean you are awarded an instant connection with their children. You are the new element.
Give it time
Children will need time to get used to the idea that someone who is not their biological father is now going to be involved in their lives on a daily basis. They can only move at their own pace. It will take time and real effort on your part before real progress can be made with the child.
Don’t take it personally
Children are likely to react negatively towards you for some time, but don’t take it personally. Practicing patience means consciously and voluntarily making sacrifices for the sake of the family as a whole. The children following a separation are dealing with loss and grief and you are the unfortunate scapegoat. Often, deep down they are testing you. Their biological father left them, and they are asking themselves if you will do the same.
Top tips to avoid common pitfalls
Don’t try to replace their biological father.
You are not their Dad. It’s a common mistake for step-dads to want to take the place of the biological father, especially if he was harmful or neglectful. Don’t try to get your stepchildren to call you Dad, don’t bad-mouth him. In fact, where safe, encourage their relationship with him. Ask your partner’s advice on letting them know that you don’t expect to replace him, and take your lead from her – she is an expert on her children and will know the best approach based on their age and temperament.
It’s tempting to try to compete with their biological father for their affection but don’t. It will harm your relationship with the children over the long haul.
Your stepchildren might feel that by liking you and enjoying spending time with you they are being disloyal to their dad. This can be really distressing for them, anticipate this and be clear, you are not replacing their dad.
What if their biological father does not want contact?
It isn’t uncommon for stepfathers to struggle with supporting their stepchildren if their biological father doesn’t keep to agreements and appointments, or even cuts off contact altogether.
No matter how upset you are on their behalf you need to be calm and non-judgmental in front of them. Deep down, a child may believe that it is their fault that their father is gone. Although children struggle to verbalise this thought, they might truly feel that if only they had been better behaved/prettier/cleverer then dad would have stayed. When their father doesn’t keep in touch they naturally blame themselves for not being ‘good’ enough to keep his attention. This feeling of rejection is traumatic for children and can impact their mental health .
Your job as step dad is to:
- let them express their grief and upset without trying to fix it
- To never bad mouth their father; it will put the child in the position of feeling they have to be loyal and defend him
- And take every opportunity to build up the child’s self-esteem
Take a Back Seat with your partner’s children
It is easy to feel left out as the step dad. Your step children are used to turning to their mother for everything and you might be resentful of the amount of time and energy she gives to them. It isn’t unusual for stepdads to try and fix this. Or you might find yourself competing with the children for your partner’s time and attention. That is a recipe for disaster. It will leave you resentful of the kids and at odds with your wife/partner.
Some men believe that they have to compensate for the fact they are not the biological father by constantly trying to fix their step childrens’ problems. This comes from the best of intentions but avoid jumping in too fast; wait until the child asks for your help or advice.
In the meantime, simply being there as a listening and sympathetic ear is the wisest thing to do.
Make it a priority to develop a relationship with your step children by spending one on one time with each child. Join in with their interests, support their hobbies, help with their homework. Over time this will develop their trust in you.
Give Them Time with their Mum
Many stepfathers understandably want to be included in all family activities. Remember though time just with their mum will be precious. Having already lost their daily contact with their biological father they are likely to be afraid you will take their mum away from them in some way.
Instead always be supportive of their relationship with their mum. Help them prepare for a day out with her, but don’t always go. It will go some way towards building their trust in you.
Respect their past
If the children want to talk about their childhood memories, show interest and ask questions. Even go through photo albums with them. It shows you accept them as they are.
Ask their opinions
Make it clear that you are interested in their opinion, and don’t always assume it will be different from yours. The more they feel free to talk about what matters to them, the more comfortable they are likely to feel around you.
Take a supporting role in discipline
It can be hard to accept but you are simply not going to be able to discipline your stepchildren in the same way you might discipline your own children.
Privately discuss the discipline of the children with your partner and make sure you know what she expects and why. Let her know if you are really struggling with an aspect of the children’s behaviour. Don’t respond to the children with anger or frustration. Your partner may have a very different perspective to you. She might have more patience or be less of a disciplinarian but no matter how frustrated you are, do not criticize her children. No matter how much she loves you it will be instinctive for her to be protective of them.
What sort of parent are you?
It’s critical to understand that when it comes to discipline and other important child-rearing decisions like bedtimes, homework time, playtime and TV time it is very common for a step father to have a very different parenting style from his partner. You will need to respect and accommodate your partner’s parenting style.
Authoritarian Parenting Style
An authoritarian parenting style is one that is strict, demanding, and controlling. It is where parents set the rules for their children and expect them to follow those rules without question. This type of parenting style tends to be regarded as an old-fashioned approach in which the parent expects the child to have good manners, obedience, and respect for authority. This style relies heavily on discipline as opposed to positive reinforcement.
Permissive Parenting Style
A permissive parenting style means that parents do not set limits with their children. They tend not to enforce punishment when needed and they do not expect their children to self-regulate. They are nurturing and communicative but try to avoid confrontation and tend to try to be a friend rather than a parent to their children.
Uninvolved Parenting Style
An uninvolved parenting style differs from a permissive style in that the uninvolved parent is not particularly nurturing or communicative with their children. Sometimes this can lead to child neglect.
Authoritative Parenting Style
An authoritative parenting style is based on love and communication with patience and limits. Parents set limits for behavior but are respectful of their children’s feelings and interests. They foster open communication with their children about rules, decisions, behaviors as well as feelings. The child does not feel powerless but instead feels empowered to be part of the decision-making process in regards to family boundaries and decisions.
Be Proactive About Household Rules
Household rules and boundaries make children feel safe. Agree with your partner to put together family household rules – not many, no more than four and to sit down with the children to talk about how we are all going to look after each other as a family. Agree proportionate and relevant consequences if those rules are broken, and support your partner in enforcing those consequences kindly and firmly when they are broken.
Provide a united front in front of the children
When a couple have a baby together they normally work out parenting together as they go along. However, a stepfather who arrives later in a child’s life will find that his partner already has her own way of parenting.
Yours is a supporting role. You aren’t always going to agree with how your new partner deals with situations with the children. However, remember that this family has already been challenged by the lack of unity between their biological parents. Right now, these children benefit most by seeing that your relationship with their mum is a more stable union. So present a united front.
If you do lose your temper it’s not unusual for a mother to side with their children over their partner. That might feel unfair but it doesn’t mean she doesn’t care about you; it is just how Mother Nature has programmed her!
Time is a great healer
You will earn the right to be a parent to these children and win their trust over time. There is no shortcut and it will proceed at the child’s pace. It takes time for children to learn what behaviour is acceptable, so expect plenty of bumps in the road.
Manage Your Own Stress Levels
Parenting is hard enough without the extra challenges of step-parenting, so give yourself a break. Where possible make time for physical exercise – it’s a great way of reducing stress hormones. If there is a family dog, volunteer to be the one to walk it. Where possible make time for you and your partner to go out together without the children.
Don’t forget you aren’t the only stepfather facing these challenges; see if there are support groups for step-parents in your area.
If there are areas – such as discipline and misbehaviour – which are really causing difficulty in the home, consider seeking family counselling or parenting support for yourself and your partner, and perhaps the children too. It’s often very helpful in planning a way forward when you and your partner cannot seem to improve the situation together.
Step-parenting isn’t for the faint-hearted. It can be a challenging time, but you don’t have to face it alone. If you feel isolated or overwhelmed, talk to someone – and remember there are support agencies out there that provide support for stepfathers in your situation.
What if You Dislike One or more of your stepchildren?
You might already have children of your own and it is unrealistic to expect to love your partner’s children as much as your own.
Even worse, it isn’t unusual for a stepfather to take a dislike to one or more of his partner’s children, especially when they are teenagers pushing every boundary. Step children can seem
Just because you don’t like that child doesn’t make you a bad person. However, it is vital you never show your dislike even if that child is testing you to your limits. Don’t tell your partner that you dislike one or more of her children; this is likely to cause problems in your relationship and it isn’t uncommon for divorces to be blamed on misbehaving stepchildren.
Is it worth all the effort to be a good step-father?
Stepfathers play a critical role in the lives of their stepchildren and can have just as much influence on their lives as biological fathers and mothers do. The unconditional love that is given to stepchildren by a good stepfather can help shape a child’s confidence to pursue new goals, set higher standards for themselves in school or work places, enjoy life more, and make better life choices. Accepting the children and treating them with patience and love will definitely bring out the best in them. And it will bring out the best in you.
How to manage issues in a blended family
But what if your new household includes children from two different families? This could mean you will be playing the role of stepfather and father. You will have to manage the competing needs of children of different ages, sexes and personalities.
Quality time with your own children is a must. Just as you encourage your partner to spend time alone with her children you should set aside time each day or week for quality time with your children if possible.
Be aware your children may feel the need to compete with your new partner for your love and attention so pay special care to your relationship with your partner. Over the long haul, if your relationship stays rock solid not only will they have a firm foundation for their childhood but also a model for a successful long-term relationship when they grow up.
Should I treat my stepchildren differently to my biological children if we all live together?
Be fair and provide attention, patience, and love among all of the children no matter their relation to you. However, just as you need to take a backseat with regards to disciplining your partner’s children, so your partner will need to allow you to be the prime decisionmaker in disciplining your children.
Furthermore your children may be very different ages. If your partner has two children under five years old and you have a fourteen year old you will both need to adjust your parenting accordingly.
Family Routines and rituals will help to reduce the impression you are treating them differently.
Set Clear Expectations about displays of physical affection
In addition, you need to be aware that older children may be uncomfortable with physical affection; so just as the stepchild sets the pace for accepting you with trust, so you must let them set the pace for any displays of physical affection. Girls, in particular, can feel very unhappy about physical displays of affection from a stepfather, so set clear boundaries around appropriate behavior with your stepchildren in the early stages of your relationship; be open to hugs etc but don’t force your stepchildren to give you hugs and kisses, and don’t force your children to be affectionate with your partner.
Use routines and rituals to help your children bond with their step brothers and sisters.
With a family consisting of children who started life in a different households, differences in parenting styles can become a source of frustration for the children. Children are very quick to feel they are being treated unfairly. If you and your partner agree on consistent guidelines about rules, routines and family rituals this will show the children that you and your spouse intend to work together to make life fair for every family member.
We mentioned a written set of household rules earlier in this article.
With a blended family you are likely to have a bigger number of children all competing for limited resources – for example, the bathroom.
This means you will need to create routines that work for everybody, especially for work days and school days. Work out and discuss this with both sets of children
- timetables for getting up, breakfasted and ready for school
- routines for what to do with shoes, schoolbags and homework when they come home from school
- routines about any chores such as when they are expected to make their bed, what they are expected to do with their smartphones overnight, etc
These routines need to be discussed in a family meeting, then written up and put on the wall where everyone can see them.
One on One Time
Children desperately need your focused attention. You will need to spend one on one time with your children and your partner will need to spend one on one time with her children. It may simply not be feasible for you to spend one on one time with your stepchildren as well, but if you can that will go a long way toward building trust between you.
For tweens and teens it needs to be an hour a week which you make clear is their hour; and for young children it needs to be 10 minutes per day, every day. The time needs to be child-led; so allow your children to pick a game or a topic of conversation and let them lead it.
Plan, where possible, to eat meals together as a family, and have set times for homework, after school clubs and one on one time. The more family routines and rituals you create and communicate clearly, the easier it will be for everyone to adjust their schedules to the needs of the family as a whole, and even to help them feel part of a team.
Keeping each other in the loop
Both you and your partner may have ex-partners who are also involved in the children’s lives. When an ex partner – yours or hers – changes an agreement it can affect the whole family so you and your partner need to keep each other in the loop about changes and parenting discussions with either ex. Let your children know that your new partner will not be a ‘replacement’ mom or dad, but another person to love and support them, and assume you will take the primary role with disciplining your own children in your household.
Similarly if you are the one to change an arrangement you will need to communicate it to your partner and to your ex.
Sibling Rivalry in children
Sibling rivalry is common between full siblings, and even more so in blended families, especially if any of the children have had their parent’s undivided attention for a while. If that is the case it is highly likely they may become jealous not only of their step-siblings but also their new step-parent.
It is possible to have children of much closer ages than is possible in a household where the children all share the same biological parents and this can intensify a sense of rivalry, especially if one child is more successful at school, or sports, or is regarded as prettier than the other.
Some children may become jealous of the attention their parent gives to stepchildren and they may feel that as a result, you love them less.
Each child needs to learn to treat others with respect and to learn that they themselves are also respected and worthy of respect.
The only way to do this is if you and your partner model showing respect to each other and to all the children. Children learn through modelling adult behaviour. Learn to model staying calm and don’t be afraid to say “I am now getting cross, so I am going to go into the garden to calm down”. It is good for children to learn that it is okay to feel upset or angry but it is not acceptable to be disrespectful of someone else and that if they are too upset to control themselves they can go into another room to calm down.
Don’t give up; it takes time to make a blended family work.
No new partner, no matter how wonderful they are, can be instantly accepted by all children. In any family, patience is needed in order to build good relationships and have everyone get on well together. Even the very best stepparents need patience because it takes time for adults and children to adjust to living in a blended family.
Psychiatrists estimate that it can take two years for children to adjust to the new household. Don’t expect quick results. Tolerance of one another has to be earned, as does trust – and patience will help both of these happen. Also, patience with your partner is needed when they are adjusting too – even if you have been together for some time before moving in together.
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*[ARCHIVED CONTENT] Stepfamilies, 2011 – ONS (nationalarchives.gov.uk)