By Raising Children Network
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Stepmum watching step-daughter swimming in backyard pool

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Families are more likely to blend successfully when they can talk about different expectations in the family, develop ways to manage conflict and acknowledge and talk about each other’s feelings.
 
Becoming a step-parent can be challenging and rewarding. Taking things slowly and gradually building a relationship with your stepchild can help step-parenting go smoothly.

Step-parenting: the basics

When you become a step-parent, it’s normal to wonder whether you should act like a parent from the start, or take a wait-and-see approach. There’s no one right way to be a step-parent. Over time you’ll find a way of step-parenting that suits you and your family.

Rewards of being a step-parent

The rewards of being a step-parent can include the:

  • opportunity to play a central role in a child’s life
  • pleasures and support of an extended family network
  • opportunity for your children to develop strong relationships with step-siblings and half-siblings
  • opportunity for you to build a strong relationship with your partner and step-children. 

Challenges of being a step-parent

The challenges of being a step-parent can include coming into a new family where everybody else already knows each other. To start with, you might feel a bit left out.

Your stepchild might reject you, ignore you or just feel uncomfortable or shy around you. It can be hard to cope with this and find a way to relate to your stepchild that works for her and for you.

You might have to deal with negative reactions or criticism from your stepchild’s other parent. And if your stepchild’s other parent isn’t keen for you to be in your stepchild’s life, this could affect how your stepchild behaves towards you.

If you have a child or children of your own, you might feel biased towards your own child, or upset if you think your partner isn’t being fair to your child.

You and your partner might have different approaches to and expectations about parenting. You’ll need to work with your partner on any problems that come up because of these differences.

And there might be pressure to take on a particular role – for example, stepmothers might feel they’re expected to take on the main caring role, or stepfathers might feel they should take charge of rules and boundaries.

Even though I didn’t want to reconcile with my former partner, I was upset when there was a new woman on the scene. I didn’t want her having an influence on my kids.
– Jamie, 40, divorced mother of two children

Helping step-parenting go smoothly

Here are some tips to help you ease into your relationship with your stepchild and your role as a step-parent.

Talk with your partner
Ask your partner questions like:

  • What role do you want me to play with your child?
  • What should I do? What shouldn’t I do?
  • How will we know if it’s going well?
  • How will we give each other feedback without taking it too personally?

You can also think about what level of involvement you want and what feels comfortable to you.

Get to know your stepchild
Get to know your stepchild before you live together if you can. You could go on outings or do activities together like walking the dog, reading a book or watching a movie. Or you could do practical things like helping your stepchild with homework, or driving him to meet friends. You could also ask your partner about your stepchild’s particular needs, likes and dislikes.

Focus on positives
Try to be accepting and positive towards your stepchild. For example, you could point out when she does the right thing, or you could celebrate with a surprise cake when your stepchild does well at something.

Take things slowly
Take things at a pace that suits your stepchild. Don’t expect to instantly love or even like your stepchild, and don’t expect him to love or like you. In the early days settle for respect.

It usually works best in the first year or two if you spend time being supportive of your stepchild, but not taking on an active parenting role. For example, it’s enough to be someone your stepchild can depend on to do the same things each week, like always taking her to sport on Saturdays. This will give your stepchild the chance to get to know and trust you.

Once you and your stepchild are comfortable with each other, you can take on more of a parenting role if that’s what you, your partner and your stepchild want.

Think about former partners
Your partner’s former partner might need time to adjust to you as a step-parent. It can be easier if you don’t have much involvement with your partner’s ex, at least at first.

It usually works best if the two parents talk about child care and other issues with each other, especially in the early years. But if your partner’s ex is happy to discuss arrangements with you, it’s fine if you and your partner also feel OK with that.

Over time you might get to know and like your partner’s ex and feel comfortable enough to share events like children’s birthdays or graduation celebrations.

Look after yourself
It’s also important to look after yourself. Spend time doing things that make you feel good and are good for you – for example, exercising, eating well, seeing friends and keeping up with interests and hobbies.

Video Blended families: being a step-parent

Download video   34.1mb
In this video, step-parents share their experiences. They say building a relationship with your partner’s children takes time. You can build trust by listening, being sensitive and showing them you care. One mum says having a stepmother when she was a child was like having an extra resource. Now she enjoys getting to know her stepchildren and finding ways she can play a special part in their lives.
 
Invent your own definition of what a stepmum or stepdad does. When my partner argues with his kids I leave the room because that works best in our family. Don’t be afraid to make up your own rules so it works for you.
– Millicent, 40, stepmother of two children

Being a parent for the first time

If you haven’t been a parent before, it can help to:

  • read about the developmental ages and stages of your stepchildren
  • learn about positive parenting techniques like active listening, using routines to manage behaviour and using attention to improve behaviour. You and your partner could go to a positive parenting class together
  • ask your partner about your stepchild’s normal routines and have a plan for the day, especially if you’re looking after your stepchild while your partner isn’t around.
If your partner has children who are older than your own, it’s a good idea to find out more about their particular developmental stages.
 
 
 
  • Last updated or reviewed 01-02-2016
  • Acknowledgements This article was developed in collaboration with Claire Cartwright, School of Psychology, University of Auckland, and Stepfamilies Australia.