Successful Step Parenting: Consider The Impact Of Divorce On Children

Posted at 01:00am on 29th May 2009

Continuing the series on Stepfamilies, this revised and updated excerpt from Mel's book examines the steps that can be taken to avoid some of the problems that may arise for children of divorce.

MARRYING AGAIN used to be the only alternative to remaining single after a divorce but, with a shift in benefit payments in the UK, that is no longer the case. Nevertheless, despite a fall in remarriages since a peak of 141,00 in 1988, they still account for nearly 40% of all marriages, and more than 10% of families with dependent children are stepfamilies.* Sadly, many of them are not destined to succeed.

So, in the interest of successful step parenting, it pays to think carefully, before you marry again, about how you’re going to break the news to your children and prospective step children. The temptation may be to think that they will greet your decision with the same enthusiasm that you’re experiencing. But before rushing into an ecstatic declaration, you need to show a little sensitivity to their feelings.


It’s easy to convince yourself, in the euphoria of having found someone new with whom to share your life, that this automatically ensures that the offspring on both sides will welcome the change as much as you do. You may even be convinced - perhaps with some justification - that it is to their benefit. But unless you take time to listen, to be honest about their reactions and open to their deeper feelings, the sad fact is that you may, unwittingly, be storing up trouble for the future. It behoves parents – adults – to be open about what’s going on in their children’s minds, and to make every attempt to heal their damaged emotions.

“Where parents stay together, 15% of their children will grow up with serious problems. When parents separate, that percentage doubles,” says Professor Michael Lamb, Professor of Psychology at the University of Cambridge

In America, according to Dr Debra Moore, 1,300 new stepfamilies are formed daily (though it is unclear when these statistics were compiled) and two out of three of them will fail.

When my book Stepfamiles (pb Lion) was first published, the estimates of professional bodies indicated that by the end of the 20th Century, approximately 2.5 million children would be growing up in stepfamilies. Many, if not most, will have been the innocent victims of their parents’ divorce. So how do we go about understanding and helping our children – not simply to survive – but to thrive?

  • Children need to be encouraged to express their feelings in a non-threatening environment ie: in the privacy of their own home and, initially at least, in the absence of the prospective step-parent.
  • Promote a concept of openness and honesty without hostility. As trust is built up between a child and prospective step-parent it may be helpful to include the latter in these discussions.
  • Address your child’s fears. Some children may be reluctant to talk about their feelings for fear of hurting their parents, or because they are afraid that there may be recriminations. In this case, a trusted friend or professional counsellor may be better able to help than you.
  • Many children believe that they were in some way to blame for the divorce of their parents. Guilt and fear needs to be addressed and, where appropriate, gently demolished.
  • Give reasons for the divorce. Explanations which are easily comprehensible to a young child should be given as to why the parents split up. For instance, a correlation may be drawn to show that sometimes friends at school develop different interests which pull them apart.
  • Never run down the absent parent. It is incredibly painful for a child to be confronted with the idea that parents are less than perfect. No matter how acrimonious your divorce was, never, ever, make your child take sides – one parent against the other.
  • Children often suffer a sense of disloyalty. It's important to make them understand that becoming fond of a step parent does not diminish or threaten their love for their absent biological parent. Make sure they know that you are not in competition (with the absent parent) for their affection.
  • Reassure your child that their other parent still loves them. It’s important, for the sake of their future development, that they know this: especially in the realms of the relationships that they will ultimately form. (Obviously, a different line would be needed for the child who has been abused, and you would need to be guided by professionals.)
  • Stress that when you marry again that doesn’t mean an end of that love. The child needs to be reassured that the remarriage of either parent will not mean an end to that love; nor to access with the ‘absent’ parent (unless, of course, there is either a Court Order restraining access, or the absent parent chooses to sever all ties).
  • If at all possible, the child needs to be assured of the continuing love and availability of the wider family. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins are crucial in establishing your child’s identity, within the natural network of a clan.


Of course, not all children in step families are going to encounter the same set of emotions. Very young children, who understand little of the nuances of adult relationships, may welcome the concept of a ‘new daddy’ - as Isobel found when she met Terry.

“It was the children who proposed to him,” she told me. “For a couple of years I was the only one on the scene after their father left, and both girls wanted to be a family again. When Terry came along, they kept asking if he was going to be their new daddy. Every time Claire got a new pair of shoes she kept asking, ‘Are these my bridesmaids shoes?’”

The fact was that both little girls had had a chance to get to know Terry on their own terms. Whilst their mother was back at college qualifying as a teacher and the children were in the charge of an au pair each day, Terry, who had recently returned from a stint overseas, had a spell of unemployment. He put it to good use: mending bicycles, building rabbit hutches and generally making himself indispensable. Isobel was quietly delighted.

“It meant they built up a relationship with Terry which didn’t include me. In a way, I was the odd one out.”

Isobel’s children welcomed Terry into the family as someone they had become fond of - rather than as someone who had intruded upon their mother’s affection for them.

And this, really, is key to successful step parenting. The more chance that children in step families have to build their own relationship with a step parent, the better. If this occurs prior to you marrying again, better still. It’s human nature to dislike anything foisted upon you. But if there’s no alternative, at least make sure that your children have plenty of opportunity to air their grievances in a loving and trustworthy environment.

* Information taken from One Plus One



Author of a number of books, one a No 4 Bestseller, Mel Menzies is also an experienced Speaker at live events, as well as on Radio and TV.

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