According to the Office of National Statistics NI there are more than 13,700 step-families across Northern Ireland, highlighting the urgent need for greater guidance for parents and support from family specialists.
Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Snow White – fairy tales created for children are full of horrid stepmonsters who go out of their way to bring pain and sadness to the sweet and loving protagonist of the story – though of course we did find out via Disney’s Maleficent that the wicked queen was simply misunderstood.
Psychology expert, Dr Lisa Doodson from Regent’s University London explains: “Stepfamilies are one of the fastest growing types of families in the world, but relationships are often difficult because of a lack of clear ‘rules,’ very little advice and few good role models, especially in fairy tales. I found out about many of these difficulties myself as both a psychologist studying stepmothers and personally, when I met my husband, who had an 18-month-old son from his previous marriage, while I had a three-year-old son and a daughter aged six.
“I went into these new circumstances thinking – ‘I’m already a mum, how hard can it be?’ This turned out to be naïve. Not because I hadn’t thought it through, but because you don’t even know what the issues are until you face them. Being a stepmother was more difficult than I had ever imagined, and if someone had told me then that it could take seven years to build a family I would have been shocked.
“For my academic research I interviewed 250 stepmothers and discovered they had significantly higher anxiety levels and depression than biological mothers, and they also had poorer support than biological families. I often see couples two years into their stepfamily experience when they’re thinking, ‘hang on, I didn’t sign up for this.’ This is why it’s vital to know what to expect as a stepparent, how to navigate the pitfalls – and above all how to be realistic in your expectations.
“No, you don’t go off immediately and live happily ever after, although there are plenty of happy endings. The rewards can be incredible in the long-term: our children are now 22, 19 and 17 and we have built a very happy family together.”
Lisa’s ten top tips for building a successful stepfamily:
1.You won’t love your stepchildren at first. One of the most common myths about step-parenting is that you will automatically love your stepchildren. It’s understandable to go into it thinking that of course you will love them, after all, it’s human nature, isn’t it? Sadly this is not the reality. It’s like getting to know anyone – there’s no instant bond, you have to grow to understand their personality. Be respectful, build trust and hopefully those feelings will grow. You can’t expect instant love from them either, but you can and should expect them to show you respect. If that’s not happening make sure your partner insists on it.
2.Your house, your rules.Don’t be afraid of setting house rules that may be different from their biological parent's. Stepparents often worry that they are burdening children with confusing expectations about different behaviours in different houses, but they are very good at having two worlds with rules in each, as long as they are consistently applied. Keep reminding them – ‘in this house you need to set the table before dinner’ – and even though it will be like Groundhog Day for a while, it will eventually become second nature. Thank them when they remember to do something as it will encourage them to do it again next time.
3.Have realistic expectations. Couples will often say to me, we thought it would take a year to get sorted – two years tops. Before my experience I thought that too. Yet research suggests it’s quite normal to take seven years to build a happy, successful, functioning step-family. Even the fastest families take four years before everyone is comfortable. It’s hardly surprising that 80 per cent of stepmothers say they had downgraded their expectations. A common pattern is that someone will start by really throwing themselves into the role and go to extraordinary lengths to show their stepchildren a good time. I’ve worked with some who work out to the hour everything they are going to do that weekend. But no one can maintain this. So then when it doesn’t work, they pull back, isolate themselves from the stepchildren and leave everything to the biological parent. But, if you retreat into your original units it stops integration and you remain as two separate groups. Better to create a normal environment – perhaps aim to do one activity all together on a Saturday, but then say you have to do a food shop. It is important to do things regularly as a family as it will build memories and shared experiences you can talk about, which will reinforce the bonds between you all.
4.Build your relationship with your partner. Couples with stepchildren miss out on the initial years when it’s just the two of them together building precious memories they can draw on when times become hard. That makes it vital to make time to be together, just the two of you. It’s not important how often, only that you prioritise your relationship and make sure you keep the dates. The way couples communicate in a stepfamily is typically different: there’s less conflict and criticism, which sounds encouraging. But this is often replaced by a withdrawal to avoid discussing difficult topics. This can leave them more prone to unresolved issues which can contribute to simmering resentments and frustration. So when you’re together it’s important to talk about subjects that matter, discuss problems openly and present solutions as well as problems.
5.You won’t get any thanks. Biological parents already understand that children don’t thank you for changing their bedclothes, but it can come as a shock to a new stepmum with no children of her own. Research suggests that stepmums with no biological children feel the most resentment of all. Sometimes, stepparents who have their own children expect more gratefulness from their stepchildren than their own children. The person to expect gratitude from is your partner, who can restore the balance. One woman took on eight of her partner’s children and was happy to do so, but she did need words of encouragement and appreciation every so often from him.
6.Find something to share together.It can be hard to find something in common with a 17-year-old boy that you can both share as ‘your thing.’ It’s much easier with younger children – perhaps planting seeds or cooking – and with older girls – shopping ticks most boxes. It doesn’t have to be a big thing, with my stepson it’s watching Doctor Who. No one else in our family seems to like it so it’s something we can share that no one else does. You can’t contrive it, but you can enable it, and searching for that common ground is a good way to get to know what makes them tick.
7.Don’t try to be a parent early on. If the stepchildren are younger, think of yourself as an aunt or godmother figure. If they’re older or you don’t have any parenting experience, start by being a friend to them and work on building trust, rather than being a parent too early. Let your partner spend time with their children without you in the early days so that they don’t feel things are changing too quickly. One of the main reasons children are wary of their parents’ new partners is the worry that they will interfere with their own closeness to their parents. It’s best if their biological parent does the discipline initially, but you still need to agree an approach, something biological families don’t usually need to do as their position has grown organically. There can’t be even the tiniest crack between you – the children have to think you speak as one voice.
8.Put yourself in their shoes. It can help sometimes to think about what stepchildren are going through. It’s the couple who have got together – the children have not asked for any of it. Moving them around from house to house can be disruptive and it doesn’t give them much control over their lives. Any bad behaviour can be a result of trying to get that control. When they arrive in your house they can be strange, standoffish, and often either extremely loud or extremely quiet. They are not trying to be difficult, they are trying to adjust while frantically thinking, ‘oh no, they’ll ask me what I did at Mum’s – do I mention her new boyfriend?’ Life has an added complexity for stepchildren who are desperately trying to remember how to act in front of certain people.
9.Create your own traditions. If you don’t act as a family then others won’t treat you as a family so it’s important to build your own traditions and memories, otherwise you can end up with a fragmented two halves of a family – you take your child out for the day, he takes his. Family mealtimes are an important ‘glue.’ You’re not aiming to be The Waltons, but one shared meal during the weekend is realistic. Insist on no TV, no mobiles and everyone must engage.
10.Toddlers and teens are different. It’s a simplification but in general children under nine will find it easier to accept a stepparent, although there’s more hard graft involved. There is some evidence to suggest that stepdaughters are more difficult than stepsons, but it’s marginal at this age. When they are teenagers it can make more difference – boys tend to be more straightforward, while girls can be more emotional and loath to let things go. It’s important to stress to girls that you’re not taking over their mum’s role as they will have huge loyalty to her and there can be jealousy because you are taking away their father’s attention and time. The last thing any teenager wants is another parent at a time when friends are more important, so it’s important to say, ‘you have a mum and dad and you have me as well, an extra person who cares about you.’ What we say to our own children is, ‘take the best of each of us – no one is good at everything.’
Lisa’s new book - ‘Understanding Stepfamilies – a practical guide for professionals working with blended families’, helps address the most important challenges facing stepfamilies RRP £22.99
Dr Lisa Doodson is an experienced chartered psychologist, and widely recognised as an expert on stepfamily relationships in the UK and is regularly asked for advice on stepparenting issues by National press, magazines and TV. As part of her PhD she conducted the UK’s largest study on stepfamily wellbeing and in 2010 published a book, based on the research entitled ‘How to be a Happy Stepmum’.