Colin and Gayle both had one child each when they married, and are now parents to another six children. The family lives in Adelaide, South Australia.
‘Gayle and I married 15 years ago now. I have a son, Jason, from a previous marriage, and my wife had a daughter, Fiona, from her previous marriage. When we got together, she became a stepmother and I became a stepfather. Then we had six children of our own, including a set of twins.
‘My son was about five and my stepdaughter was about four when we got together. That was a good age for children to adjust quickly to the situation – I think it can be a lot more difficult for step-parents when the children are teenagers and the parents get together. My son lived with us full-time for about 12 months when he was about eight or so, but other than that, he’s mostly lived with his mum. He was here pretty much every weekend and most of the holidays until he moved interstate, then he just came on school holidays.
‘There are a lot of different issues to do with being a step-parent. For me, these are to do with my ex-wife causing a few problems within the new marriage, and a few to do with discipline. The question is, who is responsible for discipline? Should the step-parents play a role or should it be left up to the biological parent? Because my son stayed with his mum for the majority of the time, I made sure that I varied the discipline there. With my stepdaughter, my mistake was to come in too quickly and too hard as the step-parent. It’s usually good for the step-parent to sit back and build a relationship with the child before starting with discipline. I think any step-parent these days can expect it to take anywhere up to seven years for the family to be functioning. Parents need to give it that time, to communicate, and don’t try to be the super step-parent.
‘In some ways I’m very fortunate because I’m the only dad my stepdaughter has really ever known. I very rarely use the term stepdaughter. She’s my daughter and she has been since she was four years old. I think we’ve got a pretty good relationship and she’s called me Dad from day one. My wife and my son might have had a few little problems, but overall, they have a good relationship as well.’
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At a glance
- In 2010, there were approximately 99 000 step-families.
- Another 91 000 families were classified as blended families during 2010.
- In 2010, 7% of all families were step or blended families.
Myths about stepfamilies
Of all parent and family types, none have more stereotypes or myths associated with them than step-parents and stepfamilies – just think of the sugar-coated bliss of The Brady Bunch or the wicked step mother in Cinderella! Other stepfamily myths include:
- A stepfamily is created instantly.
- Stepfamilies can function like biological families.
- All stepfamily members will, given time, love one another.
- Relating to stepchildren is the same as relating to biological children.
- All the children in a stepfamily will automatically get on together.
- Part-time stepfamilies where children ‘visit’ have it easier than full-time stepfamilies where children ‘live in’.
- The stepfamily is headed by a wicked stepmother or cruel stepfather.
- Stepfamilies formed after the death of a partner have fewer problems than those formed after divorce or separation.
- If stepchildren are treated kindly by their step-parent they’ll always respond well.
- The parent couple can love one another so much that problems creating a stepfamily will be easily overcome.
© From Gerrard and Howden (1998). Making Stepfamilies Work: A course for couples – Leaders Manual, Stepfamilies Australia, p36.
When they join a new family, children can find it difficult forming relationships with new parents and stepsiblings. Much of this difficulty is related to understanding what other people are like and learning about differences in personality. As children don’t always have the same understanding as adults – that people have good and bad points – they can often form judgments without getting to know the person properly, and might resist communication efforts until the other person has ‘proven’ themselves.
Children can feel jealous and angry when their biological parent shares time with stepsiblings or the new partner. This can be worse if the child is having trouble forming their own relationships within the new family. All family members are likely to have some difficulties adjusting and might feel insecure, disillusioned, jealous, helpless and lonely.
Living day to day
Children respond to routine and habits. If changes are made in the household, including simple everyday things such as the type of food eaten, expectations about housework or the amount of time spent with a parent or siblings, it can take some getting used to.
Emotional stress in a stepfamily can come from a number of sources. Both children and adults may be sad about the loss of their old family or closeness with a particular family member. As with other types of grief, this process can bring up many emotions such as anger, sadness and denial. Problems with money, particularly those related to a custody dispute, can also increase a parent’s stress level, which can get in the way of forming new relationships with the children.
Sometimes step-parents, particularly stepfathers, can be confused about whether to take a role in disciplining stepchildren. This situation can be made more difficult when stepchildren resist or resent their new parent trying to be an active parent. Step-parents may respond to resistance from their stepchildren with increased negativity and might shut off from them. This can then put added stress on the relationship with the new partner.
Meeting the challenges
Focus on building relationships
Perhaps the most important task in creating a happy stepfamily is building individual relationships. Stepmothers and fathers can build trust and respect by developing a warm and involved relationship with the child before becoming involved in discipline. Spending one-on-one time without the demands of other people helps with direct communication. Doing fun activities together – such as taking a walk or a bike ride, going on a special outing, going shopping or teaching a new skill – can show the child the step-parent’s good qualities. This sort of time together shows the child their step-parent cares about them, not just their parent.
Ease into discipline
Research suggests that easing into discipline is particularly effective for stepfathers. While the relationship with the child develops, the father can support the mother’s discipline, such as offering children an explanation for why they might be in trouble. Once trust and respect develops, stepfathers can take a more active parenting role. Stepfathers may need to spend some time adjusting to this role, particularly if they were in the ‘provider’ role in their previous relationship, rather than the care-giving role.
On the other hand, stepmothers fare best when they nurture their relationship with their partner and support the biological parents in their parenting role. When the stepmother takes on a more active role, she may find herself resented or rejected by the children.
Take time and don’t expect too much too soon
In the case of all challenges faced by step-parents, the key is not to expect things to happen too quickly – getting to know other people can take years and you can’t hurry the process. Both partners are doing something new and it can help if you can work out a strategy for the role each partner will play. Introducing gradual changes in day-to-day living can help ease the new family into place and make the transition for children much easier.