The Continued Growth In Step Families

Is it time to rethink the "wicked step mother" myth?


Stepfamilies comprise one of the largest and fastest growing demographic groups in Australia, with research suggesting that one in every four families is a stepfamily. These figures are emulated in most western cultures including the USA, England and Canada. It is a growing population.

The negotiation required to make a newly formed stepfamily work successfully is complex. If done correctly, it can assist the new family to thrive.
The issues within a stepfamily are vexed and varied.  Parenting styles, methods of discipline, eating habits and even bedtime routines can cause problems, particularly if they differ from the stepchild's biological parent's routines.


It is important to let stepfamilies know there is nothing wrong with stepparents seeking support to help make their new family work effectively.

One of the main reasons stepfamilies can fail is the misunderstanding many have regarding their role as the stepparent. Parenting differences rank as the number one reason for step family conflict.

Coming to an agreement on parenting is crucial to a successful stepfamily. The different parenting styles can add another burden to an already hard and challenging transition. Children usually have their mother's rules and boundaries set when they become a part of dad's new family. There are often new and different boundaries now at dad's, particularly if he has partnered. This can leave children confused, angry or distressed.


How to help positively shape your new stepparenting role:

1. Allow the biological parent to discipline their own children.

The stepparent is not and never will be the main parent. Disciplining the other partner's child is often cause for dispute between the children and the stepparent, as well as between the new couple.

2. Never denigrate the child's other parent to them or the new partner.

Children love both their parents and find it very stressful to hear either their biological or stepparent speak badly about their parent. This leaves the children feeling upset. Children should have no real idea of the difficulties the biological parents are experiencing. Keep any discussion about the other parent away from the children at all times.


3. Spend time getting to know your step children.

It is important that the stepparent spend some time with their stepchildren without the biological parents always being there. It allows communication and the relationship to develop between the new parent and the child as they get to know each other.

4. Don't try to step into the role of their mother or father, they have one already.

Even if, as the stepparent, you believe you could guide or direct the child's behaviour or decisions; this is best left to the biological parent. Make suggestions as to what you feel could be beneficial, however always leave it up to either the child or the child's parent to make that decision.


5. As the stepparent, invest in being the child's mentor, not their parent.

Understand that you will never be the stepchild's parent. While you may even be raising them fifty percent of their lives, it is safer for all if you mentor the child, guide them, assist them and support them without parenting them.

As a stepmother and someone who specializes in working with blended and step families, I often explain that being a stepparent can be a lonely existence. Friends and extended family often don't realize just how hard it can be for a stepparent, particularly in the first few years, when they need support the most.

We are plunged into having these new children to care for and at the same time, we are not allowed to cross that shaky line in the sand of overstepping our mark. Children will quickly jump on you if you attempt to parent them or discipline them. If there is animosity with your partners ex, which unfortunately there often is, this can exaggerate the situation. If the biological mother is against the relationship of the new partner, the children already view you with apprehension.


Stepparents often do not receive the recognition they deserve for all they do in raising their stepchildren. They undertake the daily duties of the parent thanklessly. They can feel unappreciated if the new couple dosen't have clear lines of communication about how to structure the newly formed family unit.

Experts agree that one way to beat the odds of step family failure is to seek out professional help as studies have shown that this type of help reduces the anxiety step parents often feel and it can assist to set the new family up for success rather than failure.

Reaching out for assistance not only helps the new couple, but can also dramatically aid the children to readjust and feel like an integral part of their new family. Many new stepparents find their role very difficult to adjust to and this is because there are no rules to follow, you are left to resolve it all.  Setting the ground rules early and understanding each person's role in relation to the children can really assist.


Top tips to assist children feel more secure and part of their new family:

1. Be realistic. Help the children recognize their family is now different.
2. Ensure the children know that it is not their fault their family has changed.
3. Ensure each parent spends some quality time with their own biological children. They can get jealous of the attention their parent is spending on the new step-parent and step children.
4. Spend time together as a family unit
5. Have the children talk with a counselor about their feelings. They can find it difficult to disclose deep concerns to parents.

Let's ensure we support all our stepparents for the great job they are doing for the children that many have just met.