Yours, mine and ours
“You’re not my mummy – I’m not going to do what you say!” Four-year-old Brooke pouted with hands on hips, before prancing into her bedroom and slamming the door. At her wits end over another angry outburst, her stepmother Leanne burst into tears.
Deciding to be a part of a stepfamily is not an easy road to take. Misconceptions, unrealistic expectations, and divided loyalties can make it a challenging journey for everyone. But there are also exciting possibilities.
Your child will gain more siblings. Their lives will be enriched with valuable lessons in sharing, kindness, and compassion. They’ll also learn first hand about being flexible, and adaptable, and to consider others needs outside their own birth family.
A unique family unit
The reality is stepfamilies are families like no other. Unlike biological families, stepfamilies are families with relationships formed ‘on the run’, says Steve Martin, Executive Officer Stepfamilies Australia. This brings its own unique set of complexities.
‘Different family members can have different expectations of their roles, and responsibilities, and even their feelings about the step family forming in the first place,’ he says.
For the happy couple it’s a time of hope, of rediscovered love and a chance at a new beginning. But for many children it’s a time of confusion, uncertainty, and heartache.
Stepfamilies are families borne out of loss. Some children are still grieving when the parent remarries, and for many this means letting go of the fantasy that one day their parents will reunite.
Some relatives might want no part of the new step kids, and step-siblings might feel torn between loyalty with their other parent and the new stepparent.
There are a multitude of issues that stepfamilies will have to deal with, but by embracing the challenges with a spirit of determination and optimism, stepfamilies can survive and thrive.
The changing face of families
• If you are part of a stepfamily – you’re in good company. The traditional face of contemporary families is changing with an increase in almost 50 per cent of blended families in the last decade. This represents around 10.6 per cent of all families according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). While almost 40% of marriages end in divorce, more than half of parents who separate re-partner.
• One in five families in Australia is either a step or blended family.
Research shows that young children under the age of five adapt more easily to blended family life than pre-teens and teenagers. But there are no hard and fast rules. Much depends on the circumstances of the parents break-up, the child’s personality type and temperament, and a host of other factors.
Exploding the myths
Unfortunately negative stereotypes in fairy tales and folklore do little to help pave the way for a smooth transition in stepfamilies.
Open up a children’s bedtime story book, and chances are you’ll find an evil stepmother lurking between the pages. Multimedia and television shows all work to perpetuate the myth of the wicked stepmother.
Many stepparents mistakenly try to overcome the negative stereotyping by becoming ‘super step parents’ says Joy Conolly, author of Step Families – Towards a Clearer Understanding.
Buying into that line of thinking is counterproductive at best, at worst it’s a potential recipe for disaster, she says. “They try too hard, and their very anxiety sets up what they wish to avoid,” she says.
It takes time
In fairy tales - there’s usually a ‘happy ever after’ – and in stepfamilies that is possible too. The key is not to expect too much too soon, according to Margaret Howden, psychologist and author of Making Molehills out of Mountains – a practical guide for stepfamilies.
Caring, nurturing relationships take time to develop. It’s important to be patient, and realistic about your expectations, she says.
“You can’t expect to instantly love, or even like your new step children, you should however try to respect them, and they you,” she says.
Before you move in together, talk to the children about your plans for the future. Look at things from the child’s perspective, and try to put yourself in their shoes.
Children need to be calmly reassured about any changes that might happen, says Mr Martin. They might have to move house, or share a bedroom with step siblings. The eldest child might suddenly find themselves somewhere in the middle, he says.
A touchy subject - discipline
In step families there can be power struggles, as step parents try to establish their authority. Step mothers are often burdened with most of the responsibility, but little power to enforce the rules.
Until trust is established between step parent and child, the biological parent should take on the role of disciplinarian, says Ms Howden. But the children need to know if the biological parent isn’t around, the step parent has the authority, she adds.
It’s also important that parents and step parents be on the same page with parenting issues.
‘You need to support each other in front of the children and work out any differences behind closed doors,’ she says.
New family boundaries
For a step family to work well there must also be flexible family boundaries – because step families are linked to others through the step children. It can be challenging at times, particularly if the ex-partners are difficult. If this is the case, your best course of action is to view your relationship with your ex as a business arrangement – it can help to keep emotions in check, says Ms Howden.
And baby makes?
‘Guess what? You’re going to have a brand new brother or sister!’ Having an ‘ours’ baby can lead to a gamet of emotions in children. Some might be excited at the prospect of a new sibling; others may feel envious, or angry towards you and your growing baby bump.
‘Reassure the children that when the new baby comes they will still be loved and part of the family,’ suggests Ms Howden. If they want to be involved, they can feel part of the event by helping to decorate the nursery or looking through baby name books.
As your new stepfamily begins to find its way, remember to keep talking to each other and work to nurture your own relationship.
Do things together as a family. Planning regular family times together builds a shared family history.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. It can be a one step forward, two steps backwards process.
Encourage the children to discuss their concerns, their fears, and their hopes for the future. Hold regular family meetings, as a forum for everyone to share their thoughts, suggests Mr Martin.
‘Children need to feel as though their voices are heard, so they can air any grievances, and they need to know that their feelings are taken into consideration when making decisions as a family,’ he says.
Just like biological families, it’s not always going to be smooth sailing. Positively working through any conflict teaches children lessons that will help them navigate their way through life’s many ups and downs.
Stepchildren will learn the art of compromise, and sharing - even when they have different ideas. They’ll also learn first hand important social skills such as being flexible, and tolerant of others.
Research also shows being part of a stepfamily can have a positive impact on a child’s self-esteem and wellbeing that continues well into adulthood.
Your children’s lives will also be enhanced by the presence of additional caring adults. ‘After all, we can never have too many people who care about us,’ says Mr Martin.
by Carrol Baker
The Child Support Agency – supporting stepfamilies
Step and blended families face a range of unique and complex challenges, from dealing with the breakdown of the original family to developing relationships with new partners and siblings as well as their extended families.
There are variety of support services to help them through the more challenging times.
• The CSA works with organisations such as Stepfamilies Australia to help support families affected by separation and support separated parents who re-partner.
• CSA publications such as the Me and My Changing Family booklet www.csa.gov.au are designed to help stepfamilies build healthy relationships and deal effectively with the tensions and challenges of new family arrangements. These booklets are also available as audio CDs.
• The CSA has a range of support products and services for separated parents.
For more information visit: www.csa.gov.au
Parents are encouraged to contact the CSA on 131 272 to update their contact details and advise of any change in circumstances (such as the birth of a new child) to ensure their child support assessment is accurate