Becoming a successful step-parent

Q   I’ve just moved in with my partner and his two children; both girls, aged ten and 13. I’ve never had children on my own and I don’t want to replace their mother but I do want to build a relationship with them. My partner would like us to parent them together and this scares me a little bit as I never want to come across as the “evil stepmother”. We got along well before I moved in and I would like to build on this relationship. How do I now adjust to this new role while preserving our positive relationship?

A  Becoming a step-parent and successfully integrating into each other’s lives can be challenging, as well as rewarding. It’s wonderful that you are giving these new relationships particular focus and wanting to be proactive sooner rather than later. The transition for all of you may take some time and you might all learn from issues that arise but there’s no ‘best’ way of becoming a successful step-parent.  How well you transition into this new role also depends on the other people involved such as your partner, the children, the children’s mother, the children’s extended family and your own assumptions and expectations. Other people may have different expectations of you as well as differing attitudes towards you. However, you and your partner are the most important foundation in making this work and talking through expectations and any concerns together will hopefully keep your relationship strong. Very importantly, don’t put pressure on yourself to create the perfect family; take it slowly and keep the following practical tips in mind.

  1. Have a conversation with your partner about how he sees you fitting into their everyday lives. What should you do? What shouldn’t you do? Ensure you and your partner present as a team to the children in your decision-making. Constantly communicate to each other about how it’s going − what’s working, what’s not working.
  2. Initially, you really should focus on building a positive relationship with the girls – allow your partner to do the parenting (and disciplining) at first. It’s important to build a respectful and trusting relationship with the girls first before stepping in as their father might when challenges arise. As much as we don’t encourage parents just to be a ‘friend’ to their child, step-parents are in a unique position and really do need to build a friendship first, as another adult role model in their lives. Take an interest in their hobbies and activities and invite them to spend time with you.
  3. Always be respectful of the children’s mother and acknowledge their mother in everyday life and conversation. This creates an atmosphere of openness and respect and the girls won’t feel they have to keep their lives with their mother a secret.
  4. Give the girls some time alone with their Dad. Before you moved in, they had their Dad mostly to themselves so this is an adjustment for the girls as they see their relationship with their Dad changing. Sometimes children have difficulty with a step-parent taking a parent away from them so encouraging their time with their Dad is a good strategy for all of you.
  5. Expect some hiccups − sometimes it may feel like a rollercoaster! Even with kindness and good intentions, don’t expect perfection. Not all step-parents are immediately embraced by their step-children so be kind to yourself and find ways to deal with any stress that arises. Talk to your partner, other step-parents, friends or a counsellor. All families have challenges and it’s normal to expect some teething problems when joining another family.

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Tanya Russell

Tanya Russell is CatholicCare's Counselling Team Leader and a registered psychologist.

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