Common challenges new stepfamilies face
Being a parent is hard, really hard, but being a step-parent is another whole level of hard.
Stepfamilies have challenges that the biological family don’t and knowing about and preparing for these challenges gives you the best chance of having a family life that is happy for all.
New Stepfamily Challenge #1: Managing Grief & Loss
A stepfamily is formed after loss of some kind. Whether that loss is through separation or death there will be a period of mourning, and this period of mourning differs for everyone involved.
Where it gets tricky is when new family units are formed before all members of the families are ready.
Be aware that ALL members of the family will be feeling a level of grief and there will be differing periods of mourning. Children who have easy access to both parents and don’t feel the need to defend one parent against the other do best with managing feelings of loss and grief (generally).
My tips for assessing and managing feelings of loss among the merging family members:
- Everyone needs to be able to talk freely about their feelings and feel heard
- There is an awareness that loss is always present and can affect a person any time
- Children are able to have momentos and photos of the other parent in their room
It is hard to do, but so worth it.
New Stepfamily Challenge #2: Feelings
Sometimes couples rush into the new relationship hoping that their life will improve. They are lonely and maybe struggling with single parenthood, and dream that having a loving relationship will solve their problems. But as talked about in challenge 1 above there is always a period of mourning and the new relationship will not prevent that feeling of loss.
Like all feelings the best way to cope with them is to feel the emotions, try to understand them and where they’re coming from, and communicate how we feel calmly without accusatory language.
We often try to not feel the negative feelings, but it is the best long-term solution to experience and share those feelings openly. This action alone will help you overcome relationship blocks that will inevitably raise their ugly head later down the track.
Feelings that are suppressed often show up in other ways like anger, hostility, and resentment. Which, when introduced into a stepfamily environment increase the likelihood of separation.
It takes time to form new relationships – especially new stepfamily relationships – and it is best done in very small steps and with lots of communication. If this is rushed, then it can create problems down the line. This applies no matter what the ages of the children. (Even many adult children struggle with their widowed parent remarrying.)
New stepfamily couples who attend specialised counselling, or a stepfamily course, have a higher rate of success in achieving the increased level of communication that is needed, and will gain a greater understanding of the ways that a stepfamily is not a nuclear family, and healthy ways to adjust. This type of support also teaches you helpful ways of approaching difficult conversations and sharing your emotions calmly with your partner.
New Stepfamily Challenge #3: Discipline
This is the one that comes up more often than any other issue. Discipline.
The biological parent tends to be extra sensitive and defensive about any limit setting by the non-biological parent. This defensiveness is seen by their new partner as special treatment for the child and can set up a “yours and mine” scenario which, if not worked through, can leave each member of the couple with a great deal of resentment toward one another.
When we have a biological child, we develop 2-way bonds of love long before there is a need for discipling. It is like putting money into a bank. Then later when there is discipline needed the adult and child already have a strong relationship foundations in place so that when the child is disciplined there is still plenty in the “love bank” to keep the relationship strong.
The new adult to the stepfamily does not have that “money in the bank” with the child so any withdrawal in terms of discipline can take the balance into negative territory.
My number 1 piece of advice that is not always understood, is that for many years, only the biological parent is to do the disciplining of their child/ren.
This is a very complex issue and for more understanding about what to do, see my article “How to discipline as a step-parent”
New Stepfamily Challenge #4: The Ex
Ex-spouses, who are also the biological parent, are exs for a reason which usually means that the two adults don’t like each other much. But for the success of the new stepfamily and the long-term success of their children it is invaluable if the adult issues can be put aside and the focus is on what is best for the child (not each other).
I know this sounds right, but it is so much harder to do in real life because emotions are involved.
Remembering that the child loves both parents no matter what they have done will help to keep you from saying things that will hurt the child.
The biological parent might want to dictate the upbringing of their children and not be happy about the rules or experiences of the new stepfamily. They possibly do not like another person in the role of step-parent to their child, and they might not be willing to see their ex-partner in a new relationship. The more we can understand how the ex is feeling, the better this will be for all.
Although sometimes many of the things your ex may be doing or saying that seem to be negative, I’d like you to remember that they are just them trying to do the best for their child. And that they are probably hurting and frustrated too.
If you need help now, I have a video of “tapping to release the frustration about the ex-partner” [LINK] that is invaluable for reducing the feelings before the situation gets worse.
Empathy and understanding are needed for all people involved in the new and previous family units. Not to mention boundaries and clear expectations. And I’ll be honest, it takes lots of patience and a willingness not to react. Again, all of this takes an amazing amount of calm and clear communication between all parties, something that can be hard to achieve without support.
New Stepfamily Challenge #5: Patience & Self-Care
Experts have calculated that it takes an average of 4 to 7 years for children to adjust to new stepfamily environments and relationships. This is much longer than most couples would think and so they can feel that there is something wrong in their relationship, or that it is never going to get better. Patience is the key.
During this “waiting” period, feelings of jealousy, competition for attention, despair, frustration and feelings that “it is always going to be this way” can be felt by all concerned. The solution is to look after your own self-care.
Even though you are working hard at establishing a new family it is important to look after your own needs. Take some time out to do things you loved as an individual and keep dating your new partner. This is after all the reason that you have made all these changes, and it is a relationship that deserves nurturing. Strong couple bonds increase the chance of long-term success in the stepfamily.
New Stepfamily Challenge #5: Step-siblings
Step siblings add another layer of complication. Even if the children have enjoyed each other’s company during visits, that is very different than now sharing a home.
Rearrangements of birth order, sharing things that they previously didn’t have to, less time for each child, missing the close relationship they had with their biological parent when they were single parenting, and missing the absent parent all contribute to a child feeling confused. This in turn causes rebellion, anger, sadness or reduction in self-esteem.
In a blended family, sacrifices are part of the package but usually the children did not have any say in the divorce or the remarriage and can feel resentful about all the changes they are having to make.
Communication through these changes is key. If you make an effort to acknowledge individual losses that are experienced (whether you think they are minor or not!).
Work on fostering the new relationships within the stepfamily so that you can have a wonderfully blended family in which each member is a little bit more than they would have been because of the new skills and relationships they have developed.
As I’ve indicated above there is a common theme to tackling these challenges successfully: Communication.
Communication that is calm, clear and non-accusatory works best.
For help with this, my “Making Stepfamilies Work” course [LINK] teaches many skills for great communication within stepfamilies. It also helps you develop an understanding of how people are feeling and how to understand your own feelings and where they are really stemming from.
The research shows that doing a course or participating in early counselling can make a big difference for the success of the new stepfamily relationship. So please do reach out for support and guidance: Contact Me. [LINK]