How the children might feel and how to help them adjust

When you come together as a step family, you may have children of your own to consider, as well as your step children. There is no rule for how they will all cope and respond, it will depend on many different factors, from their own individual personalities, through to what their life experiences have been so far.

It is true that there are some generic differences, according to the age of the children at the time you form the new family unit, and even their gender, but these are not givens, just a general understanding of what can often happen.

One thing is consistent though, and that is the needs of your children and step children within the family – and why building a relationship where the child feels secure and cared for is crucial. Even where a child appears to be resisting your presence, or being part of the family, it does not mean that they do not want or need to, and you may just need to be more creative and patient, in how you approach the situation.

Does age make a difference to their adjustment?

It can do. It is important to remember though that children are individuals, so they will not act a certain way just because they are of a certain age. However, there are some patterns it can be helpful to be aware of in advance as you manage your own expectations about the transition and how they may cope.

Children aged 10 and under - This is the age group which usually find it easiest to adjust to new family units and relationships, and are more likely to accept a step parent positively.

Children aged 10-14 - This age group are more likely to find it the most difficult to adjust to new family units and relationships. They are more likely to resist the authority of a new step parent, especially disciplining, until they have bonded and accepted the into the family, which can take time.

Children ages 15 and over - This age group may never fully integrate into new family units and relationships, and instead be focused on creating their own lives and identifies. It is important to remember that the ‘children’ in this age group are in reality, almost adults. They have strong opinions and are often emotionally distant - even with their biological parents.

No matter what their age, or what behaviours they demonstrate, all children will still need to feel they do have a place in the family, and are loved.

Does gender make a difference to their adjustment?

It can do, but again, it is important to remember that children are individuals, so they will not automatically act a certain way just because they are of a specific gender.

There are some accepted general patterns relating to gender though, including that girls tend to take longer to accept a Step Dad, than boys than do.

Regardless of gender though, step children report preferring their step parents to demonstrate their affection towards them through the use of language, rather than through physical contact (such as hugging, etc). This covers both genders, but it is also noted that surveys show that girls are specifically more uncomfortable receiving physical affection from a Step Dad.

You cannot use these general points as a rule for how you interact with your step sons and daughters – but use them as points to be aware of, and then see what your children (and you) feel comfortable with.

Coping with children’s negative emotions

It is not uncommon for there to be some negative feelings from the children and step children in the early days of building your family unit, no matter how hard you all try to help them adjust.  

These can occur for a number of reasons, and these are some of the key ones to be aware of and to help your children and step children to manage:

The collapse of the fairy tale ending

Sometimes the reality of you moving in, perhaps even marrying their mum, or officially becoming their Step Dad, can cause some very confusing feelings for children that they may not have even been aware of. It is not uncommon for children to harbour secret hopes of their parents reconciling. Even though you may feel that you have been part of their lives for a while and they must have moved on from those kinds of feelings, they well may not have done.

When it does become clear that the fairy tale reconciliation is not going to happen, the crushing of that fantasy can create a real sense of grief and loss for the child, which can manifest itself in them reacting negatively against you – as you become who they blame for not getting their fairy tale ending.

All you can do is be patient and give them time to come to terms with reality, which they will. You still have to demonstrate how much you love and are committed to their mum, despite the fact that it is this commitment, which is causing some of the issues! It is important though, that they feel their new situation is stable and secure and you will not cause their mum more pain and upset, so that when they do have come to terms with it all, they feel safe.

Split loyalties

Your step child/children may find difficulties adjusting, due to not being sure how they can reconcile how they can like you, or see you as any kind of father figure, and it not be an insult or betrayal to their dad. They may feel that they will hurt their dad’s feelings, and so it is easier to stop this from happening by just keeping you at arm’s length, or even proactively trying to make sure they don’t fall into the trap of liking you.

It is sometimes possible that their dad can contribute towards these kinds of feelings, by speaking badly of you, but don’t assume it is the case, as it is also possible that they know nothing about it – children can create these worries all on their own sometimes.

Depending on your partners’ relationship with her ex and how willing he is to support his child to manage their relationships and feelings, one thing that might help the situation, is if your step child’s dad explicitly tells his child to give you a chance, and explains that he knows it doesn’t affect their love for him. Sometimes this kind of ‘permission’ can be a real breakthrough.

Jealousy

Children may have had their parent to themselves for a long time, and this can include both either your own children with you, or your step children with their mum. This kind of situation can have led to exceptionally strong bonds and assumed ways of life.

There is a lot of adjustment for children to go through, with the arrival of another parent figure, or other children, into such a close-knit family unit. It can be the cause of upset, and lead to some normal feelings of jealousy as a child suddenly has to share their parent’s love, attention and time with another adult or other children.  

Make sure you still make one-to-one time for your own children, and make sure that your step children get the same thing with their mum. The more that they can see that they can still have this time with their parent, albeit not as frequently as they did, will help them adjust.

Permissiveness

Not always, but it is not uncommon after a relationship breakdown for parenting to become more permissive. Each parent is under stress or upset due to the situation anyway, and may also be carrying guilt about the impact of everything on their children. In addition, now when they are caring for their children, are solely responsible.

This high stress/parental guilt/sole responsibility environment, can lead to parents being more prone to letting bad behaviour go, giving their children a bit more slack than they would have done previously, or more easily agreeing to what their child wants. It is understandable, and in small amounts even helpful, but if it continues indefinitely and without boundaries, it can make for a difficult ongoing family dynamic to manage, especially when a step parent comes into the family.

A step parent may become more aware of the level of permissiveness within a household they are coming into you, and try to instil a little more routine or discipline into the household – which can set them apart as the ‘bad guy.’ This can cause the step children to rally against the authority in protest and make the adjustment into family life much more difficult for the children.

It can be a good idea to discuss your role with your partner, and also to talk through how you will manage parenting. Many experts suggest that the new step parent does not try to discipline their step children, or instil a new way of parenting, but instead works first to build a relationship within the family, so they and their words are more easily accepted. Of course, this does not prevent you from supporting your partner in her parenting of her children, but there are different ways of doing that.

You may also want to revisit your own relationship with your children, if you have any, and think about whether your parenting style has changed and if there are any changes you want to make. Do make them gently if there are, as your children will be going through a lot of change, but be assured that children do find boundaries beneficial.

For more information on this, visit Different parenting styles are causing our family friction, what do I do? and I don’t agree with how my wife parents her children, do I challenge it or ignore it?

Keeping the lines of communication open with your children and step children is a crucial way of helping to make the adjustment into their new family lives – find out more about why this matters so much, and how you can support it - Communication within your family.

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Guest Tuesday, 17 January 2017

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