How To Navigate Becoming & Being A Stepparent

Be it the result of unexpected bereavement or divorce, blended families are now as common as the nuclear two parents-two children. But that doesn’t mean step-parenting isn’t without its challenges. From navigating the early stages of a new relationship to raising younger children who have experienced trauma, we asked a child psychologist and a children’s wellbeing expert to share their advice.

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Why is being a stepparent sometimes thought of as challenging?

“The fact that fairy tales include a wicked stepmother definitely don’t help the image, and nor does the fact that step-parenthood often follows a period of trauma – be that divorce or death, so in many ways a stepparent is off to a difficult start. It’s not easy parenting from a place where you have already formed a biological attachment to a child, let alone parenting from a place where you may have entered the child’s life at school age or adolescence. It is also a very tricky line to traverse of being a ‘guardian’ but not a biological parent. As a stepparent, you may face constant reminders that you are not the biological parent and that you have a very specific set of boundaries to manage. This can be draining and emotionally turbulent, particularly if you would like to play more of a traditional parent role with your stepchild, but you’re facing pushback in doing so.” – Leading child & adult psychologist Dr Alison McClymont

“It’s true that parents often have their own ways of doing things, their own home rules and boundaries, and we develop bonds, mannerisms, routines and ways of being that are often individual to our parent/child relationship. When we blend a family or become a stepparent, we are sometimes blending vast differences. This can be hard to manage and maintain – especially when it comes to not wanting to change too much for the children but also trying to establish a new way of being for everyone. There are potentially difficulties in terms of jealousy for many different reasons, from the children or adults themselves.” – Expert in children’s emotional wellbeing at Mother Fit, Jenna Farrelly

What are some of the specific challenges a stepparent can face?

“As mentioned, introduction of a stepparent often follows a period of trauma, either the breakdown of a previous relationship, or the loss of a parent. This is incredibly important for a stepparent to remember – the child has already formed an attachment they thought was never going to change and now it has evolved, or maybe even dissolved. A child’s biological parent is their primary caregiver and to have that role altered in some way can be painful, confusing and traumatic. As a stepparent, you are unwittingly thrown into the middle of this emotional turbulence simply by virtue of having a relationship with one of the child’s parents. For some children, this can mean that they direct their pain and confusion towards you – in essence, you become the enemy. It’s hard not to feel angry about being on the receiving end of this, but you have to remind yourself, this child has ‘lost’ a parent in their eyes. A stepparent may also be thrown into a world of domesticity and child rearing they previously had no knowledge of; if this is your first experience of caring for a child, you may find yourself dealing with homework, discipline, school runs, and mealtimes. It might be challenging, tiring or even boring.  You also might find that your relationship with your partner feels dominated by their role as a parent and you in turn have to conform to this family in ways you don’t want to or are not used to.” – Dr Alison

Do you have any advice for becoming a good stepparent?

“Remember, this child has a lot more to adapt to than you. They have lost their previous family model, so try to show compassion and understanding, even if occasionally it is through gritted teeth. Second, don’t try to do too much too soon – allow relationships and attachment to develop naturally and don’t force it; let the child come to you. Finally, be yourself. Nobody expects or needs you to be the carbon copy of their biological parent. Let your stepchild see you as an individual and allow your relationship to form organically from there.” – Dr Alison

“Every child needs and wants to be loved; they didn’t choose this situation so try to meet them with compassion and openness. Also, try to remember that you are a necessary part of a stepchild’s life – find your feet with it but don’t shut yourself out; you can be an integral part of their development even if you feel unsure about how you fit in. Finally, don’t pressure yourself or your stepchild to be best friends from the off. It can take a long time to build trust in this new relationship.” – Jenna

When & how should you introduce yourself to your stepchild? 

“Teenagers are more likely to understand that you are their parent’s partner and that you have a romantic relationship. For younger children go gently and make it very clear you are not a ‘new mummy or daddy’. You could even help the child to come up with a special name for you to explain your relationship to them.” – Dr Alison

“It’s my personal belief that little intros at the beginning are key, as opposed to a long, intense day or sleepover. Meeting them somewhere fun is a good idea – younger children are often motivated by being active, so it will take the pressure off, and they’ll likely enjoy your company more. For young children, try to meet them somewhere they know, and feel safe – it will help them manage the change better. Teens feel things very intensely, so come at this new relationship with open arms, but try not to take it personally if they struggle to connect right away. Teens are navigating a huge amount, so there’s the potential for things to feel overwhelming. Trying to bond with them over their likes and interests will help you build a relationship over time.” – Jenna 

How should you nurture your relationship with your stepchild?

“Develop or suggest activities you can do together, but don’t expect them to rush at once and don’t even expect gratitude at first. Keep offering suggestions and ideas and wait for them to take you up on it. Communication is key, so let them in to your life and let them get to know you. Be warm and inviting, but not pushy in your affection. Allow the child their space and take their lead.” – Dr Alison

“Showing them interest, including them as much as possible, trying to find common ground and exploring their likes and dislikes will validate their feelings and provide them with a safe space to offload, show them that you aren’t a threat to their relationship with their mum/dad and that you are trustworthy and honest. Above all, let them feel loved and appreciated and don’t take things personally.” – Jenna

GUILLAUME DE GERMAIN/UNSPLASH
As a stepparent you should NEVER BAD MOUTH the biological parent. Even if the child does, simply LISTEN and VALIDATE their feelings – never engage.

Are there any boundaries stepparents shouldn’t cross?

“It should go without saying that as a stepparent you should never bad mouth the biological parent. Even if the child does, simply listen and validate their feelings – never engage in bitching or gossip. Know your limits when it comes to disciplining the child and enforcing rules, too, and perhaps discuss this with your partner to know when you may have to bite your tongue.” – Dr Alison

Are there different step-parenting styles worth knowing about?

“Yes, just as there are in ‘normal’ parenting roles. Everyone works differently, and you may find your step-parenting style differs from your own parenting style – it doesn’t necessarily matter or have to be something that is set in stone. You may find step-parenting easier and less pressured than parenting your own children, or you may find your styles match and you want to maintain this. It is very much down to the individual.” – Jenna

“There are as many different step-parenting styles as there are parenting styles. Step-parenting of course may have some slight differences in the sense that, depending on the age of the children, you may play a more or less involved role in their life, and you also may or may not have children of your own – which again will influence your parenting style. But as every individual is unique, so is a step-parenting relationship.” – Dr Alison 

Here, Dr Alison and Jenna share their views on common step-parenting scenarios…

SCENARIO ONE: My partner has children from a previous relationship, and I feel nervous about meeting them for the first time.

“Discuss your concerns with your parent and find a way you can be introduced to the child and decide the terms you are going to use to describe your relationship. Maybe even role play some answers to expected questions. When you do meet the child, be led by them as to how much information you share or how much interaction you have with them. Be warm, be friendly, be interested, but don’t be pushy.” – Dr Alison

“Write down why you feel nervous and work through each anxious thought asking yourself, am I catastrophising? Am I imagining things that might not happen? Is there something I can do to help these anxious thoughts? This may help, and if it doesn’t, speak to your partner and be honest. Reach out to other stepparents and ask for their support and advice – it’s so nice to feel like you’re not alone in your worries. Try and plan a short, fun activity for the first time too so that you all feel less pressured in an intense environment.” – Jenna

 

SCENARIO TWO: I’ve just become a stepparent & I’d like to introduce them to my own children. 

“Discuss this with your children first to find out how they feel about meeting your stepchildren. Maybe they have an idea about where they would like to meet them and how. Your first responsibility should be to your biological children, so ensuring they feel comfortable and secure with the details of the meeting and take it from there. Ensure your partner does the same with their children so that each set of siblings feels protected, listened to, and validated.” – Dr Alison 

“Ask your children specifical to share any worries or concerns. Do they have an idea of how they want to be introduced? Anything that might make them feel more secure? It’s always worth having an open conversation and reassuring all the children that you are there for them all and you will take it at their pace.” – Jenna

 

SCENARIO THREE: My young stepchildren are shy & haven’t warmed to me yet, but I’d like to find a way to improve the relationship.

“Try things where you don’t necessarily need to have direct eye contact, or their parent can support them to play with you. Fun, outdoor activities can be useful. Can you find out what their interests are and try to bond that way? Give them time to come round by following their lead and taking it at their pace. Forcing them to communicate or talk will make them feel worse, so getting down to their level and asking just one question at a time will be a good start. If they don’t reply, don’t take it personally and don’t make a fuss.” – Jenna

“Take your time. While you may not feel they have gone through a trauma, or maybe you feel like the previous family model was not good for them, they have gone through an extreme period of emotional turbulence. Be engaging, ask questions, and make suggestions. Allow them to take the lead and let them guide you as to how and when they form a relationship with you.” – Dr Alison 

 

SCENARIO FOUR: I’m not sure what my role is as a stepmother within our blended family.

“Stepparents often feel this way. However, being a stepparent can be such a joy – you are a role model, and someone who can be a trusted outlet that doesn’t hold the same biases and fears as their parents. You can build your own individual relationship with your stepchild that they won’t have with anyone else. If you can work on your own emotions around this, it could be helpful. Write down your feelings and question them one by one, focusing on whether you are just making assumptions and feeling unsure about yourself.” – Jenna

“It’s my belief that it’s not down to you to carve out a position – your position is already defined by nature of your relationship. If you would like to develop a unique relationship between you and your stepchildren, this must come from them. With even the best of intentions and the kindest of gestures, attempting to force a relationship with stepchildren rarely ends in anything but disaster, so sit back, be patient, be yourself and allow them to come to you.” – Dr Alison

Remember, this child has a lot more to ADAPT to than you – they have LOST their previous family model, so try to show COMPASSION and UNDERSTANDING.

SCENARIO FIVE: I’m about to have a baby & I’m nervous my stepchildren will feel jealous of the new arrival. 

“Discuss with them how they feel about the baby and ask them how they would like to refer to the new arrival. Involve them in the activities of caring for the baby (if they want to) and try to set some time aside to engage with them alone with special activities so they feel included.” – Dr Alison 

“You can help them feel included by asking them for their advice, so things like “I need your big sister/brother advice’, ‘Come and help me decide what the baby will wear in hospital’. Buying a gift from the baby to give them will also help them feel included. Making sure you/your partner spends good, quality time with them – even when the baby arrives – is vital, too. Use lots of positive language such as “I can’t wait for our family to grow! We are one big happy family”, to help them to feel secure rather than pushed out. When the baby arrives, they can also help with feeding, bathing, changing etc too so that they are a big part of it all.” – Jenna

 

SCENARIO SIX: I don’t want to tread on the toes of my stepchildren’s mother.

“Just be open and honest. Having good communication with the mother is important for everyone involved. Talk to your stepchild about their mother, too, rather than keeping it separate or a hidden topic. This way, they won’t feel like they have to hide their relationship or that you’re taking over.  Helping them to choose a Mothers’ Day present is also a good way to state you aren’t there to push their mother out.” – Jenna

“Have an adult discussion with her about how you want to manage your relationship such as logistics of collections and holiday arrangements. Keep the dialogue flowing and don’t be too direct in your expectations – it’s your responsibility to manage her boundaries and those of the children, so you will make it easier if you let her be clear about what these boundaries are.” – Dr Alison s

 

SCENARIO SEVEN: I’m finding being a stepmother to three young children really difficult & I don’t know what to do to help the situation improve. 

“We can sometimes get bogged down in thinking that stepchildren want us to recreate their previous mother – but in reality, they don’t and will likely not take kindly to you attempting to do so. “Allow them to see you as an individual, introduce them to some of the things you like/hobbies you have, and try to find unique experiences for you to do together. A relationship takes time, so give yourself a break that all will develop the way it should.” – Dr Alison 

“Give yourself time to find your feet. It’s such a big change and has many challenges, and you’re not alone in finding it difficult. It can be useful to get to the root of the problem – either by writing down your feelings or speaking to someone who can validate your feelings. If you can open up to your partner, you may find they can give you advice to help calm you down. When you find things difficult, check in with your emotions – is it fear? Jealousy? Anger? Then question it. Why do you think you feel this way? And where do you feel it in your body? Focus on deep breathing and explore the emotions and feelings that come to the surface. This may give you some insight into why, which can then lead on to ways of managing it.” – Jenna

 

SCENARIO EIGHT: My stepson often says ‘You’re not my real mum’ during tantrums & I don’t know how to respond.

“First off, he’s correct. So, acknowledge this, as hard as it may seem. What he is trying to convey is that it hurts him that there is change in his life, and he is feeling overwhelmed and confused. Give him space to say this and feel those feelings – you can respond with “I know. But I care for you very much”. There is no point attempting to gloss over or distract the child from his feelings of pain and anger; it is better to offer him a safe space to feel these emotions and let him know that you won’t be scared off by them. Let him know you are safe, you are consistent, and you are there.” – Dr Alison

“When we’re angry, we lose our ability to be rational. Think about yourself – have you lost it before and said things you didn’t mean? Generally, children say things on the surface when they’re really communicating something much deeper. Maybe he is scared, frightened, feeling unsure about where he fits in now? Maybe he isn’t coping with the change or hasn’t processed the feelings of his new life. It will be worth nurturing the relationship, so can you two go out on your own? Play together or read together? Building a close bond is key, but it has to be in his own time. Validate his feelings in the moment by reassuring him that you’re still there for him, even though you’re not his mum, you still love him and care for him.” – Jenna

Want to know more from a first-person account of step-parenthood? Read our interview with Kate Ferdinand here.

For more information visit DrAlisonMcClymont.com & MotherFit.co.uk. You can also follow @WeAreMotherFit on Instagram.

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