In a step family, you realise how complicated some issues can be, when something as simple as a name becomes a tricky subject!
Sometimes a parent (ex or resident parent) might try to influence what a child calls their step parent. Sometimes the step parent themselves tries to influence the decision. Sometimes children come up with a name which is not one anyone would have expected or chosen!
Ideally, children should be free to decide what names/titles they want to use for their step parent, but that the step parent also agrees they feel comfortable with. However, adults do not always empower children to make these decisions, and instead prioritise their own feelings and assumptions.
Is a name important?
What children choose to call the members of their family, is not a reflection on how strong, stable or connected their step family is – it is a lot more complex than this. Children often appear to be more empathetic of the repercussions of using certain names and labels in a way that adults are not always.
They might ask what they ‘should’ call you, and you can suggest different options, such as your first name. Saying that whatever feels right to them is ok to choose, and that if they change their mind over time, and want to change the term, that’s ok too.
Give them options
Children can find it reassuring to know that they don’t have to use the same term to refer to you all the time, and that you will understand if they don’t.
It is normal for children to feel that what is appropriate to call you, changes over time. This might be over years, but it also might be from day to day.
For example, if your step child has been to stay with their biological dad for a few days, on their return to your household, they might feel awkward calling you ‘Dad’ for a while, even if this is what they usually do call you. This may be simply due to the sadness of having to say goodbye again to another important Dad in their life, and those confused loyalties. Over the next few days, as everything settles back down again, the child may feel able to resume the use of the term ‘Dad’ – but as what they call you is an important barometer for how they are coping with changing situations and feelings, it is important to let them do this in their own time.
There may also be times when you want to give your step child permission to call you something else- so telling them that you don’t mind if they call you by your first name in front of their Dad.
When discussing possible terms your step children can refer to you by, don’t put any pressure on them to call you ‘Dad’. You can suggest it as a possibility if you feel it is appropriate, but only in the context of other terms/names which would also be ok.
Remember that while there are obvious similarities in being a Step Dad, to being a Dad, but there is also lots of differences – not least that in most cases your step-children already have a Dad. You cannot expect, and should not try, to just step into that role.
If your step children are involved with their biological Dad, then it is also important to recognise that they may feel a lot of guilt about calling another man ‘Dad’. They are likely to love their Dad very much, and they can feel a real emotional tug for them, and as though they are being disloyal to their dad by liking another man enough to also call him this too.
If your step children are older (teenagers or more), you may find that they never refer to you as their ‘Dad’ – and this is ok, it does not mean that they will not or do not, respect, care and even love you. The older the child, the more difficult it is to attribute affectionate terms like this to someone new.
If your step children are young, you may find that they do come to use ‘Dad’ or ‘Daddy’ (or the like) with you. As they get older, they may continue to use this term, but there is also the possibility that they may shy away from it at points too, as they become more aware of the complexities of their family dynamics. They key is to remember to always be there for them and not take it personally, it is part of their exploration and learning of themselves (something every child goes through) and giving them room to do so, while making sure they know you are always there for them, is important.
How will your partner’s ex, their dad, feel?
You and your partner might think it doesn’t matter how they feel, and it may not do, but if they are involved with your step children it might – in terms of how they react to your step children and make them feel about what they choose to call you.
Children choosing to call one of their step parents ‘Dad’ or ‘Mum’ can create tension in both families. You may find that an ex, the children’s biological Dad, does not like his children calling another man ‘Dad’. You may even find that he actively makes his children feel guilty for doing so, leaving them confused and upset. He may even directly contact you to tell you to get them to stop, which may cause tension in your own household.
You may find that your partner’s ex does affect what your step child calls you. If this happens, it can be disappointing and frustrating, but try not to put extra pressure on them to call you anything in particular – it is realistic to understand and expect that their Dad’s feelings will have some influence on their actions. Your step child will be anxious about upsetting their Dad, and their relationship with their Dad; and trying to force them to do something you want, will leave them in a very difficult situation indeed.
As already mentioned, try to make the situation easier for everyone involved by giving your step child some options. Tell them that you understand they are in a difficult position – this empathy alone can be a huge relief and stop them feeling isolated. Tell them that you know it is a difficult situation, and whatever they want to call you is fine and you won’t be upset by it. Tell them that it is ok to call you one thing at home and one thing in front of their dad if that would be easier for them.
How do I feel about my children calling another man, ‘Dad’?
If you have children of your own who also have a step dad, you may also have to go through this issue from the other point of view too.
Allow your children to find what is right for them. If you feel able to, let them know that you don’t mind what they call their Step Dad, and you know it doesn’t mean they love you any less and that you certainly won’t love them any less.. It can be difficult to say, but it will give them a huge peace of mind, and actually make your continued connection to them even stronger.
Remember, that you will always be their Dad and no matter how close to their Step Dad they get, even calling him Dad, is not a reflection of their continued love for you. As long as you continue to nurture it, you have an intrinsic bond with your children which will not be diminished, and enabling your children to find a way to live and relate to their step dad, can in fact, enhance this even further.
It is just a name…
Remember, that nothing stays the same forever. What your step children call you may change over time as your family evolves and grows together. Building relationships takes time, and the names we gain from our step children may therefore change, as the relationships do.
However, humans are also creatures of habit, and it is also possible that if one of our step children gets used to calling us a name, it will stick – and it is nothing to do with the strength of the relationship we have with them.
Allow your step children to refer to you by a name that you both find suitable, and don’t place too much emphasis on what it means.
One day, it might happen that you get called Dad, and if it does, quietly enjoy the feeling that goes with it, without bringing too much attention to the situation.
Remember though, you do not have to compete for a certain title, your step children can respect you, love you and care for you, without having to call you Dad. Dad is just a name, and your connection and bond with your family is going to be a lot richer and more complicated than that.