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Step-parenting: The family minefield

However well it goes, there are times when step-parenting presents a significant challenge, especially in the early years. Estimates suggest that roughly a quarter of families in NZ are remarriages with children, and that a great many of these remarriages dissolve within the first few years. Authors suggest it may take 7 years for the ‘new’, blended family to function effectively as a united team but many families do not last that long. However, there are principles worth following to improve the odds of a successful outcome.

A step-parent (SP) may enter the ‘new’ family with a mixture of fervour and trepidation. Determined to avoid the pitfalls of the archetypal ‘evil’ stereotype, the SP may strive hard and wonder why their efforts (with their step-children) sometimes fail. Reasons are complex. The step-children have undergone the loss by death or separation of a biological parent, and feel strong loyalties to that parent, so a sense of betrayal may accompany any positive feelings they experience toward the SP. Also, the child may view the SP with suspicion, or even as a threat to their ties with, and attention from, the biological parent (BP) partnered with the SP.

The new couple may share similar backgrounds and have similar views about parenting, but this is frequently not the case. Time taken to discuss values, early experiences and hopes provides a building platform for the ‘new’ parenting team. There may be aspects of parenting that each parent is wishing to avoid (from their own experience of being parented or how it was in the previous family) and aspects that they wish to repeat. The discussion of expectations for behaviour, and negotiation of plans for management of the inevitable pushing of boundaries, pays dividends. Then parents need to communicate these plans to the children. One critical principal is always to maintain respect for biological lines – the BP does the front-line parenting and the SP provides a solid support or back-up system. It is also important to allow time for biological ties to be honoured with rituals and memories and one-on-one time between the BP and his or her children.

Maintenance of a strong couple relationship may go some way to prevent biological children and their BP aligning against the SP. Plan strategies for positive discipline, and ensure that the children see a united team in the parents - especially when it comes to the maintenance of expectations. Decide on support, rules, consequences, and household tasks, and encourage adherence, noticing and reinforcing positive behaviour. When the hard stuff happens and punishments or consequences are required for defiance, or failure to comply, the BP must adopt the lead role with the SP in support (perhaps standing beside or just behind the BP and nodding, wordlessly). Difficulties escalate when the SP, in their fervour to get it right or be helpful or defuse conflicr between the BP and the child, moves in front of the BP to a ‘policing role’. Primarily, at least early on, the SP’s goal is to be a warm friend to the child – keeping a distance so that the child has a space in which to observe the SP and approach when comfort allows.

It is a mistake to try to compensate for the deficits you perceive it your partner’s parenting by adjusting your own style. For example, a parent who perceives their partner as unduly harsh may overlook behavioural transgressions and fail to maintain appropriate boundaries. Rather, each parent needs to address their own parenting strengths and weaknesses so they are able to confidently model calm and balance in their approach to the children. Expect the bumps in the road and welcome them as a chance to try out your well-rehearsed tools.

Be aware of the potential for the children suffering loyalty conflicts and maintain positivity towards the absent biological parent to minimise the children’s distress and anxiety. At all costs avoid the child witnessing hostility or conflict between any of their parents. Whatever the composition of the blended family, it is up to parents to take the role seriously and engage in planning. When the blended family works well, the rewards are immense for all members and children flourish. I recommend The Step-Parents’ Parachute by Flora McEvedy as an excellent, practical resource for understanding the difficult the role of the SP, answering questions like: Who am I in all this? What am I supposed to do? What is my role? How can I contribute in a positive way? How can I help?