Step Parenting Advice: Don't Do It Unless You're Prepared To Work At It!

Posted at 20:19pm on 4th December 2008

Can A Step Parent Ever Replace A Real Parent? This was the topic under debate on the Richard Bacon radio show on BBC Radio 5 Live on Tuesday evening. As the author of a book titled Stepfamilies, I had been invited to participate to put the positive side of the case, whilst Philip Parkin, General Secretary of the Teachers Union Voice, was to argue against. In the event, we both (I think) found ourselves singing from the same hymn sheet. Stepfamily problems – the sort of harmful results that Philip Parkin said he found among children in primary schools – tend to arise from unresolved hurts following the breakdown of the original family unit.

STEPFAMILY PROBLEMS? OR UNRESOLVED PAST INSECURITIES?

As I wrote in my blog last week, Successful Step Parenting: Do You Know What It Takes? unlike a first marriage, the union that creates a stepfamily is always the result of a traumatic experience: divorce or death. Unless we understand that, and deal with the raw emotions arising from the event, we’re unlikely to achieve the harmony we crave in a second marriage and stepfamily.

A new love in the life of a parent may temporarily mask hidden anger and insecurities left from the break up of a previous marriage. But if left unresolved, those feelings will almost certainly cause problems at a later date. And even if we feel we’ve dealt with these underlying emotions ourselves, we must recognise that our children may feel otherwise. Whether by death or divorce, they have suffered the loss of a loved one: the absent parent.

In either situation, there may be an ongoing sense of grief and bereavement, guilt and denial. And above all, anger! It’s important that we recognise these for what they are: the normal emotional outworking of loss.

BLENDED FAMILY PARENTING

It goes without saying that children are best raised in a harmonious family experience with both biological parents. Sadly, this is not always possible and, as I said on the radio programme, unfortunately, some Real Parents are Rubbish Parents. In that case, a happy and secure environment in a stepfamily may well be preferable to the misery and uncertainty of living with parents at war with each other. But successful step parenting requires more than a simple desire to marry the new love of your life. And herein lies the crux of the matter. Because in my view successful step parenting relies as much on successful marriages as does first-time parenting. There’s no such thing as blended family parenting unless there are blended parents!

The point about building a happy, harmonious stepfamily, is that, if the children are young, most of the work has to be done by the adults. The children in this equation may assume (and often do) that they are to blame for the current situation. Uppermost in their minds may be the thoughts: Did Daddy leave because I was naughty? Was Mummy unhappy because I wasn’t a good boy? Have they stopped loving me?

THE THREE C’s OF SUCCESSFUL STEP PARENTING

The three components of successful marriages are, actually, common to all relationships. They are: Commitment; Communication; Cementing together (bonding). I’m going to take only the first today. We’ll look at the others another time.

COMMITMENT

Assuming that the children you are taking on as a step-parent have had a chance to get to know you and like you before you marry their mum or dad, what is the single thing that’s going to be on their minds? Almost certainly it will be the fear of the unknown which we identified in my last blog.

  • Is my mum going to stop loving me now she’s got John?
  • Are things going to be different now John’s moved in?
  • Will John walk out on us like my Dad did?
  • Are Mary and my Dad going to have a new family and forget about me?
  • Or will they think I’m in the way?

Human babies are born dependent upon adults. Instinctively, they ensure that their world revolves around them. When your very survival depends upon your parents, you’re going to do all you can to charm them (by learning to smile and say Mama and Dadda); and to demand attention when you need them for the essentials of life (crying for a feed; bawling when your nappy needs changing or you have pain due to wind).

That instinct continues long into childhood. The basic needs for food, shelter, warmth and love remain unabated. Without adult intervention to provide these necessities in life, children don’t thrive. As natural parents and as step parents it behoves us to provide the practical elements of survival, inside which the emotional elements may be met. So what are the practical implications of commitment?

  1. Moving your toothbrush into the bathroom helps – but isn’t quite enough. Dad’s belongings used to be there and that didn’t stop him moving out.
  2. Starting afresh with the purchase of a jointly-owned property is a statement of commitment. It also provides the family with a mutually neutral territory.
  3. Verbal affirmation helps to convince a spouse and a child that they’re loved – but it needs to be sincere; and it needs to be persistent. More of this next week when we look at Communication.
  4. Investment of yourself is crucial. You can’t afford to hold anything back if your commitment is real. And this, of course, may be difficult if you are the other half of a broken marriage and still feel vulnerable. That’s why it’s so important to deal with the baggage from the last relationship before embarking on the next.
  5. Integrity is paramount. It’s no good pretending to be a jolly, cake-baking, risk-taking, three-legged spoon racing type of Mum if, in reality, you’re the quiet, but good listener, sort. Children see through that sort of sham instantly and unforgivingly.
  6. Commitment, like forgiveness, is an act of will. You make a covenant (promise) with yourself that you will not give up. No matter what.

NEXT WEEK: We’ll take a look at Communication

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