Building Sustainable Relationships For Stepfamilies

Posted at 15:37pm on 24th January 2009

I hope you’ll forgive me! I’m afraid I’m going to take the easy way out today and simply upload part of a chapter from my Stepfamilies book, on the topic of building effective relationships with somebody else’s children. It’s been a difficult week; as I tweeted only today: my mother has fallen and broken her pelvis. To make it worse, she’s on holiday in Spain. Worse still, she is my dad’s Carer: he has dementia. (This is beginning to sound like the plot for a novel!) Lots of obstacles to be overcome. Not only do we have to get her home (stretcher job, involving a UK nurse being flown out and nine empty seats on an aircraft for the return flight) but I have to arrange for 24 hour care to be set up for the two of them.

So you see why I haven’t put up a blog for the last day or so.

Stepfamilies is the book that brought me my last radio broadcast. When it came out I toured the country doing TV and radio slots. But that was thirteen years ago. So it came as quite a surprise when I received an e-mail last month from the producer of the Richard Bacon show on BBC Radio 5 Live. He googled stepfamilies, and came up with my book. Just goes to show – never presume that what you accomplished years, even decades, ago is dead meat! Even an old book is useful in building a positive relationship.

The phone-in on the radio programme showed that there was a lot of interest in this subject. And although I read, yesterday, that by next year married couples will be in a minority in the UK, many of the stepfamily problems encountered by married couples, will be exactly the same as those faced by unmarried couples. When it comes to dealing with someone else’s children, you need all the help you can get.

In this excerpt from Stepfamilies, Dawn and John were newly married. John didn’t like the fact that Dawn did everything for his daughter then moaned to him. He wanted her to put her foot down, but Dawn felt uncomfortable about doing so.


"Dawn’s feelings towards John’s daughter stemmed, partly, from a sense of her own insecurity. Because she was suffering from a sense of ‘loss’ - in that she no longer felt mistress of her own home since she’d moved into the house John had shared with his children since the departure of their mother - she dared not risk further loss. Disciplining John’s daughter represented such a risk: the loss of her stepdaughter’s esteem and, more importantly, perhaps the loss of John’s support also.

Consequently, though commendable, her motives - in wanting to ‘make up’ to her stepdaughter for the years she’d been deprived of a mother - were simply pandering to every adolescent’s dream. Namely, to be able to sit back and be waited on hand and foot!

The insecurity that Dawn experienced is common to many parents and step-parents and unless recognised, it can have the same adverse effect. So, too, is the feeling that there are two codes of practice in operation when it comes to the discipline meted out to children and stepchildren. More usually, however, that is the reverse of Dawn and John’s situation.


In the way of all siblings, there will inevitably be complaints of unfairness - and in the stepfamily, these may well be more justified than most. Inevitably, there will be times when the natural parent feels that the step-parent is prejudiced against their child, and when passions run high.

  • The fact is that each member of the family has to learn to accept that we can never satisfy ‘all of the people, all of the time’.
  • But whilst it is unrealistic to suppose that a step-parent can feel the same level of affection, or impartiality, for a stepchild as for their own flesh and blood, we can take steps to minimise the damage.
  • Only by talking out our sense of frustration, of insecurity, of injustice - as calmly and as non-judgementally as possible, as a family - can we ever hope to come anywhere near resolving the dilemma. (See what I've said previously on the art of Feedback.)
  • This means accepting the limitations of our situation and humbly asking for help with my feelings, rather than pointing the finger at anyone else.

Fortunately, John’s daughter had already experienced the special brand of love that her stepmother brought to the family. Dawn’s daughter, Amy, had sent her a birthday card. And because she’d been unable to find one in the ‘Sister’ category, she had written it on, herself. It was that generosity of spirit from Dawn and her family that eventually won the day.


For those of us facing similar situations, where good intentions may be obscuring clouded motives, the best solution to wanting to ‘spoil’ a deprived stepchild is to find more positive and less corruptible ways of doing so:

  • baking a favourite cake or pudding occasionally
  • doing something together - just the two of you: shopping, swimming; cinema
  • buying his/her favourite magazine - and sharing an interest in the contents of it
  • discussing the options and decorating his/her bedroom - together
  • helping her to make herself a fancy top,or taking him fishing
  • doing an evening class - together
  • asking her to help you colour your hair

The difference between these things and the sort of ‘spoiling’ that Dawn had shown her stepdaughter is that most of them involve ‘togetherness’ and interaction. They are to do with building a relationship between step-parent and child. Consequently, they are unlikely to foster selfishness or thoughtlessness in a stepchild; or to leave a step-parent feeling ‘put upon’."


If you relate to the situation described above, or have other stepfamily problems, do let me know by leaving a comment below. My other half and I formed a stepfamily when we married. But even if we can’t offer the help you need, someone else may be able to. Until then . . .

Your Comments:

5th August 2012
at 9:30am
I am great to find your stepfamily advice,and I am stepmother of 21years and my husband we married 3yrs ago and we have sd does not want to cooperate,communicate with me,she does not contribute in households only sleeping or washing tv.his dad does not want to cope with this,I tried to make my house good but no return.please any help!
10th September 2012
at 6:42am
Forgive me for taking so long to reply to you Masabo jeannine. I've recently moved house so have been very busy.

I'm so sorry you're having problems with your step-daughter, and that your husband seems to be no help in making things right. If he really won't listen, then I think you may have to deal with the daughter yourself.

I don't know that there is a lot you can do about her lack of financial contribution, because - presumably - her Dad must be willing to pay for her keep. However, you can do something about her laziness. Tell her, quietly, without losing your temper, that if she doesn't take her share in household jobs, you will no longer do anything for her. Leave her bed unmade, her clothes unwashed, her food uncooked. If she complains, refer her to her father. Let him deal with her.

Your husband's responsibility is to you, his wife. If he complains to you, tell him that you are being a responsible parent in trying to educate his daughter in caring for herself and, one day, for her own family. I shall be thinking of you, and wish you well.

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