Step families are a complex mix of different people and both new and established families. They bring with them different experiences, traditions, expectations, assumptions and so on. Good communication is crucial in this kind of family dynamic, as without it misunderstandings and arguments can easily arise.
Where communication is poor, it is more common to have issues arise which can lead to stress, worry, misunderstanding or argument.
Families who prioritise communication, experience more positive relationships, where everyone has the opportunity to feel heard and valued – especially important in the step family.
Why is communication especially important when considering step children?
In many ways, the children of a step family are more vulnerable. They are or have been subject to some massive life changes which they have had very little influence over – including the end of one family unit, their parent/s meeting new partners, the creation of a new step family, etc. How all these changes are communicated to them, and how they are involved in any future decision making, is crucial to how they will feel.
So when you start your new step family, it is worth thinking about how you can use communication to create as stable an environment as possible for them, as the lack of communication will only serve to cause them stress over the unknown and make them continue to feel powerless.
A good place to start as a new family, is to come together to agree a family contract. You may want to split this into three types of discussion/agreement:
- Agreement for family discussions
- Family/House rules
- Family Treats and Traditions
A) Agreement for family discussions
Firstly, agreeing how family members communicate with each other can be important, and emphasise that all members of the family, including parents, have to follow these. Once the children realise that they can impact on the rules about how you need to listen to them, they may have a bigger interest in helping to set them.
The communication agreement can have any points which your family members wish it to have, they will be individual to your family, and some may be more vague, and others more specific. An idea of what it might include are:
- To listen without interrupting
- For everyone to take turns to say their point of view
- To have a family discussion time once a week at a set time
- To set up a talking notebook – where each child that wants one has one, and they can write anything in it which they want to tell their parents. Parents will check it every Monday and Thursday (for example) and write back to them in the notebook. This gives children a way of opening dialogue about topics which are difficult to bring up, face-to-face.
B) Family/House rules
“You can’t tell me what to do, you’re not my Dad!” If you hear or have heard these words at some point, you will not be the only Step Dad who has! Rules which children feel imposed on them by someone with no authority to do so, are more likely to be resisted than rules which they feel have more legitimacy.
A way around this is by bringing the family together as a group, agree some family rules, allocate chores, and consequences for breaking these agreements. The more involved all members of the family are in creating these, the more likely they are to be respected. This also leads to making it easier for both parents to enforce them, if that is the approach towards parenting which you have agreed to take.
In simple terms, get everyone together and ask everyone to contribute to at least one rule, and a possible consequence for breaking a rule. Keep going until you feel you have a good list. You then may also want to agree a chores rota, with family members all agreeing to sign up for different chores.
Remember that these are family rules & chores, so it should not just be the children who are expected to sign up to them, you adults should too, and in order for them to be respected by everyone, it is important that the adults of the house abide by the rules and consequences in the same way the children are expected to.
If you can, write them out and put them up somewhere everyone can see them.
C) Family Treats and Traditions
Finally, it is good to also work together to plan positive occasions too, and to listen to what matters to each of the family members. When you bring together two families, especially where there are children from both parents, you can find there is a real mix of pre-existing traditions and rituals which are important to each, and taking into account everyone’s feelings about these, and planning to accommodate and recognise them, is really significant.
These could include anything, but could be family Sunday lunch out once a month, what you do on bonfire night, family traditions for Christmas, etc. It might include going to see the grave of a family member on a certain day of every year, or someone saying that being able to watch the Formula One is important to them! The point is to encourage communication to find out what matters to the members of your family, to make sure that nothing important or meaningful is overlooked or forgotten about, and the things that do matter can be planned for and understood by everyone else.
Helping your children communicate
Children often find it hard to verbalise how they are feeling and what is causing them to feel that way, and their behaviour is often a good indicator of how they are feeling underneath, although they themselves may not realise this.
As adults, we tend to give our feelings more validity and understanding than we do to the children around us. Adults are ‘allowed’ to be in a bad mood and have a bad day, but children are often not given the same space to have these kinds of emotions, even though they are less equipped than us in being able to deal with them.
So when you see behaviour that is not acceptable, it is okay to use the family rules to show those boundaries and give consequences if necessary, but it is also important to balance this with an understanding that there is likely something behind that behaviour – the child is not ‘bad’ but is using this behaviour as an outlet to relieve the bottled up difficult feelings.
Don’t underestimate how children will assume that some feelings are ‘bad’, such as feeling angry or jealous. They might feel they will get into trouble for having these feelings and so try to repress them, which can just lead to making them feel even more overwhelming. Supporting children to understand that feelings are just feelings – they can’t help them and it is ok to have them is really important for their mental and emotional well-being. Supporting them to know it is ok to talk to you about how they feel, can go a long way to helping resolve issues. It might not always be easy to hear what they have to say, but it is a massive step forward if you can create the kind of environment and relationship where they feel safe to express themselves.
Other things to talk about with them might include:
- Acknowledging that the changes they have gone through to become part of a step family will not all have been easy for them, and it is ok to not be happy with them all.
- Tell them it’s okay to feel differently from other people, and don’t assume how they will feel. Be clear with them that they are allowed to feel sad or unsure about things other people are happy about (such as the news of a new baby).
- If you know a change is coming up, be transparent with them, give them opportunities to be as involved in decision making as possible.
- Find out some things which are very important to them, and pledge to prioritise making sure those things stay consistent for them.
- Help them keep in touch with people that matter to them – it might be easier to build new relationships, if they don’t feel like they are losing all their old ones.
Supporting your child to communicate how they feel is important, as them keeping it bottled up can mean that their stress causes stress and strain within the family as well.
Communicating with their other parent
Supporting your step child to communicate with you and your partner is important, but it is also important to keep the lines of communication open with their other parent too, even if you personally would prefer them to be out of your lives entirely.
Your children or step children, might be angry or upset with their other parent, and if they feel they have been let down or abandoned. They may feel afraid of their other parent not wanting to see them at all any more, and decide it will hurt less if it is their decision to stop communication. There is nothing wrong with them having these kinds of confused feelings, but not having dialogue with their other parent does nothing to temper these feelings, and it is important that the other parent has an opportunity to try to work on their relationship with their child. The child may regret it in the future, if their relationship with their other parent diminishes to no contact, so keeping that door open for them to continue to make their choices is important.
Children can also be fiercely loyal, and if they feel that the other parent has caused your partner pain and upset, they may want to ‘boycott’ seeing or speaking to them, due to this. Of course, the other parent is still their parent, and it is important that children are not drawn into adult conflicts or disagreements. They can still have, and should have, the opportunity, to have a relationship with their other parent, regardless of how you or your partner feel about them.
Can this lead to some difficult situations? Yes, it can. If the other parent is prone to letting them down, forgetting important occasions or being hurtful in other ways, it can be far from straight forward. Your role though is not to bad mouth them, or tell the child that they would be better off not seeing/talking to them, but, as challenging as it is, remain neutral, calm and non-judgemental in front of your step child. It would be natural for you to be angry and upset on their behalf, but the best way of supporting them is making sure that you are giving them all the things their other parent is not – being consistent, dependable and there for them. Allow them to express how they feel, rather than you tell them how they should feel. Validate that it is okay for them to feel this way, and that if they are upset or angry, that it is okay to feel this way but still love someone – and it is confusing to have these kinds of feelings too.
Find out more about how to support your step child in this situation at Your Step Children’s biological father – how to support your step children when their fathers do not want contact.
Communication is at the heart of every positive family dynamic, spend as much time as possible working together to create the kind of environment where communication can and does take place, and you will find this is at the root of building a positive and happy family.