Newsletter, Issue 10
Here’s a further five concrete ideas, following on from Part 2.
5. Create a blend of rules.
Accept there will need to be a mix of groups with different rules, and practically design life to acknowledge this. Write a list of what ‘normal’ used to look like for each partner/family around getting up, meals, discipline/ boundaries, talking together, weekends, family time, TV time, going to bed. Everyone needs to have things that won’t change so they can handle and agree to other change. So consider how much you can keep constant and where the changes really need to be. Get the whole family involved so that everyone feels part of saying what they want and designing the new ‘normal’. In this way you respect the needs of both the insiders and outsiders (see Part 1). Write things down so that there is clarity and everyone is agreeing to specifics. This way as a parent you can still hold the boundaries for children; they may just differ on different days or in different homes.
E.g. One partner/family is used to sitting at table to eat, whilst the other is used to TV dinners. Agree a schedule where some meals are eaten all together at the table, others all together in front of the TV, and others where some sit at the table and the others in front of the TV. Children will learn that Wednesday is TV dinner and Thursday table dinner, whilst Friday is a mix.
6. Have even more practical structure & clarity.
The details and logistics are more of a challenge where children are moving between two different homes, where everyone is not used to living together, or where a step parent is getting used to what needs to be done as a parent. There is often little time and space to communicate the complexities and it can be an added stress to remember all the details. SO create a daily or weekly planner with columns for everyone where you can write who is doing what, when, going where etc.
E.g. this can include who is doing a nursery/school run if it’s shared. Include a space for messages on each column so you can write notes to each other about any changes, future events, or things you want to discuss. Agree up front what kind of messages you will and won’t leave, ideally sticking to factual information, naming a topic you want to discuss, or thanking/positive ones. If the message is a more emotional one remember it needs a conversation, as leaving a note is likely to provoke rather than resolve things.
7. Have clear roles around disciplining children.
Experience shows that what works best is the biological parent being in charge of discipline, though critically with the support of the step parent as a sounding board, out of earshot, so the couple are working together. The step parent is then in charge of enforcing agreed house rules when the biological parent is not present, which can include 2 or 3 new agreed rules from the step parent. This helps the adults manage the natural tendency for children to play them off against each other, and for everyone to know who holds what boundaries.
8. Think about what you’re going to say when…
It really helps to have a measured answer ready for some of the inevitable reactions from children within a step family. So when a child repeatedly says the same thing and you have no idea how best to respond, take time, ideally with your partner, to think about the message you want to give them and how you might say that. Don’t add to the stress by over preparing, worrying if you don’t have an answer initially or if you find yourself overreacting yet again – remember you are human and children will respond when you do find the words.
E.g “But you’re not my mum/dad” when the step parent is enforcing house rules. An honest and positive adult response might be, “You’re right, I’m not. There’s a lot of change for all of us right now. Your mum/dad will always be your mum/dad. You and I will get to know each other slowly; maybe we’ll come to love each other, maybe not! Meanwhile I’m the grown up / in charge.” It acknowledges the change and, as importantly, what doesn’t change, it gets out in the open that the step parent and child are now getting to know each other but without pressure to do it quickly or to get on well, alongside holding the authority of being the adult.
9. Get support from time to time.
When it feels too much, try reading a supportive book – One client found the Relate Guide helped them; ‘Step-families: Living Successfully with Other People’s Children’ by Suzie Hayman. You could also find a suitable professional to help you navigate this complex journey. You might use a trained mediator to help with negotiations at the start and also those that flare up from time to time, so you have more clarity around access and finances. Knowing where you stand can help you feel more able to make decisions and get on with living life, in what can be difficult circumstances. Given the importance of the adult to adult relationship as a foundation for family, seeing a couples counsellor or coach can help you resolve ongoing issues there and strengthen that bond. Family therapists or child psychologists can help where there is an ongoing issue for the family as a whole, though it is easy for adult issues to be unintentionally placed on a ‘difficult’ child, and I would recommend exploring things as a couple first.
Step family life is unlikely to be dull in the early years, and it’s well worth stepping back and finding a way to approach things as a couple as much as is possible.