You need patience plus a good understanding of the emotions and thoughts your newly acquired step-child is experiencing in order to become a successful step-parent. But don’t be scared off entering a new relationship because studies show that children in step-parenting households experience long-term benefits.
- It Can Work
- Realistic Expectations
- The ‘New Family’
- How To Step Through The Minefield
- The Benefits Of The Step-Parenting Experience
It Can Work
At least half of the children from divorced or separated de facto families will successfully renegotiate a change back into a nuclear family when the custodial parent remarries or embarks on a new de facto relationship.
What does this new arrangement mean for the step-parent and what do they need to know?
This question gains even more importance given that an emotional relationship between the couple precedes the movement into the new and different “family” situation. The couple’s emotional relationship influences how a step-parent will cope with his or her new step-child.
It is unrealistic to assume that a child of any age will calmly accept their mother or father re-marrying or entering into a new de facto relationship. Nor is it realistic to assume that they will even like the ‘new parent’ or for that matter that the step-parent will like the child.
As with any expected change, it is important to prepare the child for the reality of the new relationship.
If the child is still in the crisis phase of a recent separation or divorce , it is not the time to tell the child about the new relationship. This is best left until the child is well into the adjustment phase .
Just because the adults share an emotional relationship, it is unrealistic to assume that the child is ready for any such engagement.
The ‘New Family’
In the new household, difficulties arise for all parties involved. The responsibility of both the parent and the step-parent is to be aware of the three major hurdles that they will all face in the stormy months ahead.
1. The child will initially resent the intrusion of the step-parent into the household.
Pre-school aged children tend to enact their resentment in their behaviour towards the step-parent. The child makes it clear that he wants to interact with the parent but not the step-parent. For example, when the step-parent comes into the room, the child’s mood will change. He or she may become sullen or aggressive in an attempt to hurt the step-parent.
Primary-aged children may be more inclined to express their resentment verbally. A common refrain is: “I don’t like you living with us”. Irrespective of age, the child’s intention is to hurt the step-parent.
2. The child will attempt to reject the step-parent.
Underlying these attempts to reject is the child’s cruel wish to rid the household of the ‘wicked step-parent’.
What is common to all children in this situation is that they struggle with the fantasy wish to return to the original two-parent household, versus what the child views as the cruel reality of the new step-parent household.
A common feature of this struggle is summed up in the words: ‘Anyway, I hate you and you can’t tell me what to do ’cause you’re not my parent anyway. Go away!’
3. The child will attempt to come between the custodial parent and the step-parent.
What underlies attempts to come between the adults is the child’s fear that the relationship the adults share, will take the place of the relationship between the parent and the child.
In other words, because the child feels threatened, he or she perceives the step-parent to be a rival for the parent’s love. This battle can best be expressed in the statement: ‘Anyway, we have a secret about you, so there!!’
How To Step Through The Minefield
Both parent and step-parent will be able to step through the minefield together – if they know the hurdles and present a united front when the child attempts to sabotage the new relationship.
Ground rules need to be established – whereby both adults agree that they will not press the button by reacting to the child’s attempts to provoke.
When discipline is required, the parent and step-parent are well-advised to discuss the issue together. This will prevent the step-parent from feeling excluded and also function to strengthen the emotional adult relationship.
A common trap that step-parents fall into is to take on the disciplining of the child.
Instead, when disciplinary measures are discussed between the two adults, then implemented by the parent, it provides a secure base from which all relationships can function adequately within the household, rather than being blown apart.
The child might momentarily feel disarmed, but adults can feel reassured that the child’s feet are on solid ground.
The Benefits Of The Step-Parenting Experience
Contrary to what some parents might think, studies show that children in step-parenting households experience long-term benefits.
These benefits are particularly significant when the step-parent has a willingness to be involved and is sensitive to the child’s needs.
The initial movement into the new household requires major adjustments and added responsibilities for all concerned.
Over time, there is also potential for an emotional relationship to develop between the step-parent and step-child, which is unique in itself and enriching for both.