The ‘modern’ family structure of single parents, absent parents, step-parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters and step-brothers and sisters has something in common with the extended family that was the norm before the industrial revolution, when people tended to stay put and aunts, uncles, cousins and older generations all lived close together. It was a set-up that must have provided some sharing of the child care and presumably some agreement about how best to bring children up. Intuitively it seems good for kids to have a number of adults around who love them and feel responsible for them. The difference these days is in the stability: instead of the adults being a constant throughout the child’s life it is normal now for children involved in separation and divorce to have to adapt as people come in to and leave their lives.
The effect that having separated and divorced parents will have on the mental health of our children in the longer term remains to be seen, but surely any negative impact will be minimised where the adults concerned are mindful of the children’s emotional needs and strive to put these before their own, and a step-parent can have an important art to play in this. This is not a step-parent manual and there cannot be a prescription for getting things right: flexibility and sensitivity to the individual child’s needs are key, but here are a few tips that may help.
Tip 1: Listen
A good start to building a good relationship with your step-child is to spend lots of time simply listening to them. Most children yearn to be able to express themselves and feel really understood. Some will already be adept at communicating and others will need patience as they learn how to do it.
Confident children may love to have a conversation over the kitchen table and others will find this too intense and you may need to create an opportunity where reflective gaps are more comfortable such as in the car or on a long country walk.
It can really help to feed back to them…’what I am hearing is this’ …and then ensure that you simply paraphrase what you think they have said and give them the opportunity to correct you if you have misunderstood.
Tip 2: Take time to allow the trust to grow
Be careful about how you use your step-child’s growing trust and ensure that you respond to difficult issues tactfully. You may need to take your own feelings elsewhere first. One thing to ask yourself is if this is actually your problem and if you need to act at all. On most occasions the best thing is to simply be a sounding board and keep your counsel. Sometimes it is something the child can deal with themselves, and you might give them guidance on how to do this. And on the rare occasion that it is something that clearly must be shared for the child’s own welfare it can be useful to say something like, ‘This is important. Let me think about it.’
Children who are in conflict with one or both birth-parents may particularly welcome your support …but see tip 5.
Tip 3: Be clear about your own values
If you think it will help your step-child to hear your thoughts on a subject then go ahead and gently let them know that while you hear their opinion your views are different.
Tip 4: Let them be angry
If you get an angry reaction, relax. It is important for the child to learn that they can express themselves and you will still love them, and they will most probably test you with this at some point. This is particularly important in children who feel in some way responsible for the divorce of their parents and believe that they must behave well to avoid driving other people away too.
Tip 5: Work as a team with the birth parents
In most situations it is advisable to show the child that you respect their parents’ wishes. If you strongly disagree with a birth parent talk it through with them in private and decide on an agreed approach so you do not put the child in the position of having to choose ‘sides’. If the birth parents are arguing it is best, where possible, not to get involved or express your own opinions but simply act as a sympathetic sounding board for the child.
Tip 6: Remind yourself that you are doing your best
The role of step-parent can be difficult at times, I have Coldplay’s words in my head:
‘Nobody said it was easy.
Nobody said it could be so hard’
Give yourself a break and recognise that it is OK to get it wrong and that sometimes you have to learn by your mistakes. Apologise! This is a great lesson for your step-child.
Tip 7: Get some support
Step-parenting can be a difficult job, it may involve biting your tongue quite a lot and you will sometimes have to take an uncomfortable line. It isn’t your step-child’s job to support you. It will really help to keep your head clear and your relationships with your new and old families healthy if you can unburden on someone outside of the situation. This may be a good friend who can listen well and will give you some honest feedback. Such friends are hard to find and you may worry about using them too much so it may be better still to get some professional help on a regular basis.
Tip 8: Just love them!
At its best, and when the child has both birth parents taking an active and co-operative role, being a step-parent can be like being a favourite Aunt. You get the fun without the responsibility!
The biggest gift you can give a child is to let them know that they are loved unconditionally. Through this they can learn self-respect and self-confidence and develop the firm foundations they need for building healthy relationships in the future.