- What is considered a stepparent?
- Blended families in the UK
- Common obstacles for stepparents
- Five top tips for new stepparents
- Resources and further advice for stepparents
Parenting can be difficult at the best of times, but being the stepparent brings its own unique set of challenges. When stepparents are introduced into the fold, it can be easy for roles to get confused and emotions to flare up. 🤯
How does your role differ from that of the biological parents? Should you be involved in disciplining your stepchildren? And what about your own children – if you have them – how do they fit into all of this?
It can be stressful as you navigate this next chapter and establish new family dynamics, but try not to panic. As long as you and your partner work together and leave plenty of room for open communication with everyone involved, there’s no reason why your blended family can’t be happy and harmonious. 😇
What is considered a stepparent?
Legally speaking, a partner only becomes a stepparent upon marriage to one of the child’s biological parents. No matter how long you’ve cohabited with your partner – if you are not married – you are not considered a stepparent to their children from a legal perspective. 🧑⚖️
However, as stepfamilies and blended families become a more common feature of our modern lives, the definition of a stepparent often stretches to include anyone who has taken on the role of a parent whether through a divorce, death or otherwise – irrespective of marital status. 💍
Blended families in the UK
Stepfamilies represent a growing demographic. In fact, according to the Office of National Statistics, stepfamilies are the fastest-growing type of household over the last two decades, having increased by two-thirds to an estimated 278,800 households in 2020. 📈
In the UK, around half of the stepparents in blended families will have a baby together. And this can mean that the existing children end up not only with stepsiblings but also with half-brothers or sisters.
Given this shift in family models, it's vital that we understand how stepfamilies differ from traditional nuclear families, talk about the benefits and challenges involved and support all family members and their individual needs with care. 🤗
Common obstacles for stepparents
How to be a stepparent – there is no perfect way to do this. Becoming a stepparent by blending families or marrying someone with kids can be rewarding and fulfilling but, more often than not, you will experience bumps in the road.
A good way to give yourself the best chance of success is to consider the potential obstacles before they arise. That way, you can be stress-free and measured in your response should you face them. So, before we get onto some straightforward stepparenting advice, let's look at some of the most common factors about becoming a stepparent you may want to consider. 👇
Your presence spells the end
As seasoned counsellor Graeme Armstrong, MBACP puts it, no matter how much time has passed since the break-up “the sheer presence of a stepparent seals the notion that the biological parents are not going to get back together again.” This can, and often is, met with very real feelings of fear, upset and upheaval for a child. These feelings need to be understood, respected and considered at all times. 🧒
Replacing mum or dad
As Anita Cleare, MA AdvDip and co-founder of the Positive Parenting Project says, “your primary job is to support your partner’s parenting not to be an extra parent. Aim for a relationship that is more like an aunt or uncle – i.e. a responsible and caring adult who deputises for mum/dad when they are not around but who is not the primary parental figure.” 👪
Differences in discipline
Resist the urge to discipline your stepchildren, expecting that the biological parent should back you up. Director of the Institute for Stepfamily Education, Dr Patricia Papernow says "this is disastrous – the research is very clear: Kids are not ready for a stepparent's discipline until or unless that stepparent has formed a caring, trusting relationship with his or her stepchild." 🙅
Five top tips for new stepparents
What is stepparenting and how can you do it well? This will ultimately depend on your and your partner's style of parenting but now that you have considered some of the most common obstacles and how to deal with them, you are ready to meet this new role with optimism and compassion.
I’m going to be a stepparent, help! Here are some of our best tips on how to approach becoming a stepparent. 👇
#1 Give it time
All relationships need time to grow. Try your best to manage your expectations and start out slow. Let things develop naturally – kids can tell when adults are being fake or insincere.
Anita Cleare, MA AdvDip advises “not to expect your stepchildren to love you – or even like you! – to start with. Keep trying to find ways to connect but understand that those bonds will take time to grow. You can’t make them happen.” ⌛
#2 Put the kids first
Although you may be newly in love and feeling very lucky to have found happiness again, it is important not to be blind to the very real anxieties that the children may be suffering. You are, after all, the adult in the situation.
Even when a child seems to be 'acting up' or appearing to do something to sabotage your new relationship, as Christine Webber, a Harley Street psychotherapist, advises “do try to remember that though your partner has fallen for you, their child has not.” 🤟
#3 Don’t criticise the ex-spouse
It may seem obvious but this is critical. Minimal conflict and open communication between ex-partners can make a big difference when it comes to how easily kids accept you as their stepparent. It's much easier for kids to adjust to new living arrangements when adults lead by example and remain respectful.
We understand this can be challenging at times but as Graeme Armstrong, MBACP, puts it “it's important not to criticise the ex-spouse in front of the children, no matter how awful you think they are.” 🧘
#4 Treat everyone equally
Defining your family along biological lines does not lead to a successful stepfamily. You need to learn to accept that your children and stepchildren are siblings and form part of your new family together.
Christine Webber goes on to advise that you “treat your stepfamily as a single unit. If you constantly divide your family down biological routes the two units will remain distant. If you don't see your stepfamily as a 'family' no one else will either.” ⚖️
#5 Keep talking!
Regardless of whether you already have kids yourself, or this will be your first time helping to raise a child, there are a lot of individual needs and customs to consider besides your own. It is important to make sure everyone is heard.
Anita Cleare, MA AdvDip, advises that you “use family meetings to give everyone an opportunity to have their say and help build your new family life. Having clear, agreed rules in place helps children know what is expected of them.” 👂
Resources and further advice for stepparents
There is plenty of advice for stepparents and their families out there from podcasts and books to helplines and online forums. Ultimately, you know your own relationships best, but the following sites and charities offer a wealth of further advice and helpful information. 💁
#1 Relate – the UK's largest provider of relationship support
#2 Family Lives – targeted early intervention and crisis support to families
#3 Happy Steps – the UK's only research-based stepfamily resource centre
#4 Being a Stepparent – online advice for stepparents and their families
#5 Childline – a free and confidential service where you can talk about anything