When I was commissioned to write a book some years ago on stepfamilies, it was assumed that step parents would be wed. However, the question of coping with step children, these days, doesn’t necessarily involve being married to their natural parent. On the contrary! As more and more couples are involved in serial relationships, so the question might more reasonably be asked: how do step children cope with step parents?

I was invited by BBC Radio 5 Live to take part in a debate, arguing the case for the premise Can A Step Parent Take The Place Of A Real Parent? The e-mail was from one of their producers, who said he’d found my book in a Google search. During the telephone conversation that ensued, he asked me if I knew of anyone who might argue the case against. I had to say that I don’t. Because most of the stepfamilies I know – including my own – have been very positive about the experience.


My book was based on personal experience, but also included a number of case studies: people my second husband and I interviewed for the book. Some of the contributors were step parents coping with step children; others were the biological parent; and yet others the stepkids themselves. Not one of them could say that they were a stepfamily without problems. But what all of them could vouch for was that they had worked through their difficulties – and were prepared to continue doing so.


So the BBC5 invitation prompted me to think through the sort of advice I might offer – not simply to those families who are encountering problems, but to those who’ve not yet taken the plunge. In other words, those who are still thinking about becoming a stepfamily.

The first thing I’d say is:

Understand where you’re coming from.
Evaluate what emotional baggage you’ll be taking with you into the new family.
And how you can deal with it to get where you want to be: a cohesive family unit.
A stepfamily is the result of remarriage after either a divorce or a death. Both are traumatic experiences which affect every member of the family.
Divorce and death involve dealing with the loss of a loved one: spouse or parent.
Both may engender similar emotions: denial, rejection, failure, sorrow, guilt and regret, anger and depression – not just for you, but for your children, too. Some of the points I’ve made in my posts on bereavement, are relevant to those who are divorced.
You may think that you’re over your emotional upheaval – particularly if you’ve found a new love – but it may not be realistic to expect your children to be, too.
The fact is that trying to blend two families together can be like trying to renovate a ruin, whils living in it at the same time!

Understanding that this is where you and your children are coming from and the emotional baggage you’re taking with you are crucial to developing the skills needed when it comes to understanding how you can deal with the upsets which, inevitably, will arise in the stepfamily. I have identified the following three F’s:


Fear of the unknown is very real for all members of a stepfamily. Will it work? Will he/she walk out on me? Will my mum/dad stop loving me? The thing to remember is that fear can only flourish in the absence of love.

Develop an atmosphere of love – before you even become a stepfamily.
Love means trusting one another; being open and honest as a family; making yourself vulnerable.
Communication is key. Vocal. And physical. Never let anything become off-topic. Talk openly about the past with your children. And about what will be happening in the future. Encourage them to talk about their own fears. What if . . .
Show them lots of affection.
Never run your children’s absent parent down – particularly in front of their soon-to-be step parent. It’s bound to upset the kids and alienate them against their step parent.
Help your children to understand that even though you’re going to become a stepfamily, you are utterly committed to them.
Teach them that love does not mean allowing yourself to be manipulated.
Love means that they will be disciplined when they behave badly.
Above all, help them to understand that love is not finite, like a cake divided into slices with only so much to go round. Love grows as you give it away.


This is another topic I’ve written about previously in articles about the art of forgiveness, and healing and forgiveness . The point I’d like to stress above all is that the only person who suffers because of unforgiveness, is the victim who has been wronged. Why punish yourself twice? Forgiving helps you, and your children, to be free to take on new relationships unencumbered. Here’s what you, and they need to know:

Forgiveness is an act of will, not emotion.
It doesn’t mean condoning the bad behaviour of an adulterous ex-partner.
It doesn’t mean that you are to blame.
It’s a journey. Today’s forgiveness will almost certainly have to be repeated tomorrow. And the next day. And the next.
Learn to admit it if you are in the wrong. And teach your children. ‘I am sorry’ are said to be the hardest three words in the world. But they’re also liberating.
Learn to forgive yourself. And teach your children to do likewise.


If you’ve been hurt, you can wrap yourself up and refuse ever to trust anyone again. But living is loving. Do you really want to die on your feet?

If you are a person of faith, exercise it when it comes to new relationships. We only live once. Don’t let hurt and mistrust deny you some happiness in life. You may be hurt again, in a new relationship. No one can guarantee that you won’t. Take heart. Remember the old saying ‘Better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.’

Do let me know if you’ve had problems in your stepfamily – and the way you’ve overcome them. Or not!


© Mel Menzies, 2008-2009

Related Parenting Articles

One wipe out after another throughout the spring and summer. Tearfully surrendering over and over again, for the balance was just a hair off. Timing, coordination, and courage are the recipe for success, but each time he came up a little short of one or more ingredients. Then, it happened. And we missed it! Our little guy rode his bike for the first time over the weekend. And the weekend after all is, Daddy’s time.

The correct reaction to this news would have been to congratulate him on his achievement of a major milestone in life. The response that came out however was how disappointed I was not to have been there when it happened. Oh what a mixed message it must have been for a five year old to process. I found a way to suck pure excitement out of his huge moment by analyzing how I was affected. In a flash, the excitement was gone. Now I missed two magical experiences, the milestone itself, and the celebration of the accomplishment. Jerk and double jerk.

The harsh reality to joint custody of a child is that some memories will made in the presence of one and the absence of the other parent. The only thing we can do about this is to accept it. Lest we remind ourselves that ultimately we have created this situation in the first place. The kids can’t help where they are when the big moments occur because it was us, the mighty parents who put them there. Armed with that knowledge, what do we do about it?

As you can see from my stellar performance as Step Dad in “Sure you learned how to ride a bike, but what about my feelings” debacle, I too have some work to do. Self awareness is the key. By that I mean to know how, why, and when you feel whatever it is that you feel so your actions can be more thoughtful. If I had been more aware of my feelings and self, I would have recognized his joy and my disappointment as mutually exclusive elements. And, rather than reacting in a somewhat wounded manner, I could have enjoyed the celebration with my step son. Besides, it had nothing at all to do with me.

Related Parenting Articles

Blending two families together successfully can be a big challenge. There are a number of difficult issues to overcome from jealous step siblings to different parenting attitudes. Many children will feel insecure following a relationship break up and may resist your efforts to create a new family for them. Dont allow any negative attitudes to put you off though and keep working towards that balanced, happy family atmosphere you know is possible to achieve. There are many practical parenting tips available that can help you to deal with step families.

Practical Parenting Strategy

It is important that all sets of parents discuss an effective parenting strategy and stick to it. This can be difficult but is essential for the happiness and security of your children. They need to know that they will get the same responses to certain situations so that they understand how they need to behave. For example if you set curfews for teens in one household then these need be close to or the same as the rules in other households the teens may share for consistency. You do not have to strictly adhere to other peoples parenting styles but it is important you respect them and work together to give your children a settled and comfortable life.

Safe Boundaries

One important way to create feelings of security and trust is to establish clear boundaries for everyone in the new extended family. Make sure you define the role that each part of the step family will play so that everyone understands where the boundaries are. Here are some tips for setting clear boundaries for extended families:

Most children respond very negatively from discipline by step parents. Therefore it is much more effective for you to establish step parents in a counselling rather than disciplining role from the very beginning. Leave the biological (or custodial) parents to take responsibility for disciplining children at least until a strong bond has been established in the new extended family.
Sit down and agree a basic set of house rules for everyone to follow. Write these down and put them in a prominent place. These rules can be discussed and adapted to meet different situations in the future but they should be followed by everyone including parents. This will set good examples for children and help them to understand how they need to behave. For the sake of consistency try and keep these rules similar to those used in the other households the children may share if possible.
Dealing with Conflict

Conflict will be a big issue as you merge two families as different lifestyles, parenting techniques and personalities clash. You need to deal with any conflicts that arise quickly before they can escalate into serious problems. Communication is a key way to deal with disagreements and arguments. If you are having rouble with conflict then you can get some effective practical parenting from professional family advice counsellors that could help you find solutions.

There are many practical parenting tips available to help you merge two families together. This can be a difficult task so get as much help and advice as you can to make this work and find balanced, happy solutions for everyone.


Recent Comments

Join With Us