Step families

For many parents who separate or divorce, becoming involved in new families as a step parent, or having a new step parent involved can be a difficult process.

Your ex's new partner

If your family has separated and your ex has a new partner, it is not uncommon for you to have feelings of jealousy or worry about their relationship with your children.

You have to remember that no one can or will replace you as your child’s parent. Children love their parents. They can, and often do, grow to love a step-parent, but the bond they have with their own parent is always greatest.

Turning the new partner into a ‘wicked step-parent’ will not help your children. How do you think it will make them feel? They may worry about their other parent if they think that they live with someone who isn’t nice.

Don’t do it to yourself either. Creating fantasies about them will make it harder, not easier, for you. Find out about them and meet them if you can. If they are going to be part of your child’s life, you need to work with them – not against them.

Don’t put your children on the spot by asking them either to lobby their other parent about meeting a new partner or by coaching them not to like that person. Either way, you are asking them to take sides and behave inappropriately. It will hurt and confuse them – and they will feel uncomfortable, confused and may well resent you or feel angry with you for doing it.

Build bridges – not walls

In all likelihood your children will eventually meet and have a relationship with your ex’s new partner. Would you rather have some say or part in that or find that, ultimately, it has happened without your involvement? Think about how you would like this to happen, how you can effectively help your children to have a reasonable and open introduction to that person, rather than an underhand or accidental one.

How would you like to be treated when you have a new partner? How would you expect your new partner to treat your children? Whatever that is, apply that to your ex and their new partner.

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If you have a new partner

There is no hard and fast rule about introducing new partners and potential step parents. Children will be curious as to whom this person may be. But they need time to come to terms with all that has happened. Preventing children from meeting a new partner may store up problems for later – particularly if it continues to cause conflict between you. Conflict, particularly continuing or long-lasting conflict between parents, causes the greatest harm to children.

Give them time

Accept that your children may not automatically love and admire your new partner in the way that you do. Forcing a new partner on your children can be counterproductive. Be patient. Respect their feelings and try to put yourself in their shoes. After all, if this is going to be long-lasting, what’s the rush?

Understand that for some children, a new partner may feel like a replacement for them. They may worry that you are going to love your new partner more than them. Ensure that you are clear with your children that you love them and want what is best for them. Remember that it is hard for children to understand the complexity of adult relationships. Be particularly mindful of this if your new partner has children too.

Give your child and your new partner time to work out their relationship. Many children long to have the ‘other parent’ in their life – others may feel resentful and jealous, especially if you have been their one carer. Either way, children need time to work through their feelings and establish a relationship with someone new to their family. Don’t try to force a parenting relationship on either your child or your new partner – they may want the relationship to be different. Many step parents have very close and loving relationships with their step children as friends and supporters rather than as a ‘parent’.

Your children will value the time spent with each of their parents and may feel resentful if they have to share that time with a new partner (and their children). Help them to make the transition by spending time with them alone, letting them get used to the idea that their parents are not living together anymore before presenting them with a new step parent.

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If you are the new partner

Sometimes it can be difficult being ‘the new partner’. You may find that your partner’s ex or children feel resentful toward you. If your partner’s ex is being unreasonable, try to respect their feelings and understand why they are acting this way. They are hurt and angry, and need time to recover. Imagine how you would feel and react if you thought somebody was moving in on your family.

Understand that for some children, a new partner may feel like a replacement for them. They may worry that their parent is going to love you more than them. They need to feel reassured that their parent loves them.

It is hard for children to understand the complexity of adult relationships. They’re coming to terms with all that has happened between their parents. They may not yet be ready to see their parent ‘move on’.

It can be helpful to work out with your new partner some ground rules about the children. What they are going to call you, how discipline has worked in the family and what their other parent would expect in terms of behaviour.

Encourage your partner to communicate with their ex and to act cooperatively. A poor relationship between the children’s parents will affect the children – and will make life difficult for you too.

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Bringing two families together

If you and your new partner both have children, bringing the two families together can be hard. Remember, your children did not choose this situation and may find it very unsettling and uncomfortable.

Make space and take time to talk to your own children about the new situation. Allow them to say if they are unhappy or don’t like their new step siblings or their new step parent – then work together on how things might feel better or more comfortable for your children.

Explain that it is new for you too and that you will all be learning together. Sometimes, things will go wrong but you will always love them no matter what.

Don’t assume that children, even if similar in age, are going to get on – or even like one another. They may not be happy sharing their room, home, clothes or possessions with a new step sibling.

Be aware of and sensitive to children’s feelings about not being with you when their step siblings may be. They may be jealous about their different situations.

Step families are often complicated with lots of complex and practical things to remember, such as where everyone is going to be with each part of their family, when and how they are going to move between their homes. Try to make arrangements visible by using a chart or diary that shows where everyone is going to be can be very helpful – especially for younger children who may struggle with understanding or making sense of time intervals.

Don’t criticise your former partner or compare your previous family with your new step family. Your children are members of more than one family. Criticising their other parent or their other family will hurt and confuse them.

Don’t assume that when children act up it’s because of being in a new step family. It may be because they are growing up, becoming a teenager, learning how to be independent or just having a bad day. Listen to what they have to say.

Tips for being a successful step family

Don’t try to replace the children’s other parent

Sometimes, in the aftermath of a separation and the bloom of a new relationship, people get caught up in recreating the perfect family and forget that children have two parents already. It is not your job to replace the children’s other parent. Step parents can play a valuable role in a child’s life as a loved and valued adult supporter and friend.

Remember to try and make some space for yourselves too

Your relationship is important. You need to feel secure in your own relationship in order to help build and maintain your new family too.

Be honest with each other

If either of you are having problems or difficulties with the situation, with each other’s children or with your own children, make sure you make time to talk about it and how, together, you can present a united front to deal with it.

Use your experience

Many of us have been or are members of step families. Think about what worked best for you and what was particularly difficult and use your experience as a guide in building your new family.

Talk as a family

If you can, try and talk together as a whole family about how things are working. You need to plan together to make sure everyone gets their say and that no one feels left out. Family mealtimes can be a very helpful way of getting everyone together, to share news and to talk about how everyone is doing.

Get some support

You may have friends or other members of your family who are in a similar situation. They may well have already dealt with issues that arise for you – get their advice and support. Extended family members, grandparents, aunts and uncles can be very helpful supporters to talk to. The useful organisations near the top of this page can provide information, advice and support for new partners and step families.