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Top Tips for step dads

Having a relationship with a partner who already has children is a role which is difficult to prepare for. The role will vary depending on who the individuals are in your step family, how many children there are, how old they are, their previous experiences, and so on. There is not a magic formula to create an instant family, and many people dislike the use of the term ‘blending family’ to describe step families for this reason

You may go into your role as step father with all the best intentions to be as involved and active a parent as possible, bringing a positive contribution to the household. You may find that the reality is a lot more complex than this, and the results you experience do not tally up with your expectations.

It’s also important to give time to explore what your role is. Is it exactly the same as a biological father or is it different? What do your step children need or want from you? What about your partner? This depends on all the individuals in your family and cannot be specified in advance.

It is recognised that relationships in step families are more complex. Up to 72% of remarriages with children end in divorce, and one of the key reasons cited for this is the added difficulties of having to also negotiate not just a relationship with a partner, but also the children.

At the end of the day, your partner and their child/children were already a family before you joined, so there will be integration and adaptation for everyone. Finding the way through takes time, and a willingness from you to let go of ideals and expectations about what families or step families should look like, and to find the individual way which does work for yours.

So with this in mind, here are our Top Tips for Step Dads:

Step Dad does not necessarily mean disciplinarian 

It is not unusual for men to see part of their role as a dad as disciplining. However, it is important to recognise that just because you are taking on a Step Dad role, it does not automatically grant you equal rights to disciplining all the children of your household. Assuming it does can cause resentment and difficulties, not only between yourself and your step children, but also yourself and your partner. A good rule of thumb is to try and fit in with the children and the existing family unit, rather than have them fit in with you.

A good starting point is to discuss this topic with your partner. What behaviours do you both think are acceptable/unacceptable – don’t assume you will have the same views on this! What does your partner feel is an appropriate way of you responding to unwanted behaviour from one of her children? Discuss this in advance.

An alternative option is to work as a family to come up with agreed house rules (including do’s and don’ts, chores, etc) and to agree consequences to rules being broken. Having a shared ownership of creating the rules and consequences can make their enforcement more acceptable to everyone.

Read our article on Communication within your family to get some more ideas.

Remember that children’s behaviour towards you is not always about you

All the changes and emotional turmoil which can come with becoming part of a step family, can be a lot for anyone to process, and as an adult you will no doubt come across this on a personal level at some point.

For children, it is important to remember, that in many ways it is much harder for them. They may feel subjected to changes which they have no say or control over – such as their parents’ relationships ending, new ones beginning, moving house, so on and so forth. It helps to remember that most children did not want their parents to split up. That it can be difficult for them to live in two different households with two (or even more variations) of families. That feeling split loyalties can be very difficult. That they find it incredibly difficult to witness or cope with the arguments or dislike of one parent/step parent, towards their other parent/step parent. These are all huge pressures for children, and it is not surprising that they can find them too difficult to deal with at times.

In addition to this, their emotional resilience and resources are also more immature than yours, and so they may experience feelings of being overwhelmed. Teenagers in even the most ‘stable’ environments can experience these kinds of feelings on a day to day basis as their hormones naturally change anyway, so in an environment which feels more changeable, it is not surprising that these feelings may occur or be emphasized. 

One of the ways that children and teens show their difficulties in dealing with a situation is through their behaviour. From the tantrum of a toddler to the talking back of a teenager, it is important to remember that this may just be how they are expressing feeling vulnerable and confused, not necessarily anything to do with you.

Of course, it can be very difficult to not take things personally, and it is normal to experience feelings of hurt or even anger in some of these situations. In these instances, if you can, try to take a mental pause to be mindful of what may be lying behind their actions and words, and only then respond to the situation. Punishing a child for feeling vulnerable will not help remedy the situation and it could even cause damage to your relationship with them.

Don’t expect that dad and step dad will be the same thing

This will depend on your individual family. Some children do grow up and see their Step Dad as their one and only dad, especially in situations where their biological dad is absent. However, if you expect that will be the role you will fill, you may be disappointed, as not all step relationships are like this.

In many situations, and especially ones where their biological father is still involved in their lives (even sometimes to a minimal extent), your step children might feel that seeing or treating you as a dad is disloyal to their dad. It is not uncommon for children to feel ‘If I like him, then that means I don’t love dad’ and this causes them a profound internal conflict which they are often ill equipped to deal with.

Rather than worry about categorising your relationship – I need to be a dad, so I need to act like this, and this is what I expect will happen… Instead, focus on developing a relationship with your step children. Join in with their interests, support their hobbies, help with their homework. You will find your own relationship with them this way, in a way which is easier (although not always necessarily easy) for them to accept.

This kind of open mindedness in being willing to just see what evolves, is critical to you developing a positive relationship with your step child/children, in their own way, in their own time. You might come to feel more like an uncle than a dad, for example, but there is nothing wrong with this. It’s about finding what best works for each individual relationship – and you might find that you have different approaches and different relationships with different step children too. Try to let go of any expectations of how things ‘should’ be, and find what works for you all.

Be diplomatic

Being a Step Dad is a remarkable role to take on, as without doubt, parenting someone else’s children will certainly be difficult at times.

Do remember to keep talking to your partner, and to look after your relationship together, as well as the relationship you are building as a family. Your role of step dad has developed out of your love for her, and this is an incredible thing, when you think about it.  

Do be sensitive when you discuss her children with her, while it may be helpful to discuss your feelings or any difficult situations, it is also important to not overly criticise or blame her children, or indeed, her. It is instinctive that she will be protective of them, and no matter how much she loves you, she may find it very difficult to hear criticism of them. 

Don’t expect to feel the same about your step children, as you do your own

It is not unusual as a step parent to find that you do not feel exactly the same way about your partners’ children as you do your own. You may find you don’t love them in the same way, and there might be times when you even really struggle to like one of them. This is not something to feel guilty about, and in some ways, being aware of this is important so that you can make sure it doesn’t subconsciously impact on your behaviour.

Just because you have come together to make a family, does not mean that you will all immediately feel a close connection and affection for each other. Many experts agree that there are actually benefits for step parents when they recognise and understand that it is normal for a child to prefer their own parent, or a parent to feel closer to their own child. Trying to struggle against something which cannot be changed or helped, can create more difficulties.

The key is to be aware of your thoughts and feelings, but to be mindful and conscious about your actions. It might be one thing to have preferences, but that doesn’t mean it is okay to act unfairly because of them.

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