How to be a happy stepfamily

The proportion of stepfamilies in the UK is growing fast, with one in three people now involved in a stepfamily situation. We suggest ways to help you make it work for everyone.

It takes time to build a family. Good relationships don’t happen overnight and getting to know each other is a gradual process. Most people take on the role of stepparent by default after falling in love and moving in with a partner. Children, however, often don’t have a say in the practicalities and may be brought into a new family or acquire a new stepparent so they will need time to adapt to the situation. Slowly does it.

Make a plan and present a united front

Living with other people’s children isn’t easy, so before attempting to blend your families, talk to your partner at length about how you plan to parent your children together.

It’s important to agree about the big stuff, such as discipline and house rules. Vow to support your partner in challenging situations and never undermine each other, however you really feel. (There will probably be times when you have to bite your tongue when your partner does or says something you disagree with, but make sure you discuss these issues when the children aren’t around.)

The age-old parenting maxim: ignore the bad, praise the good, rarely fails. Some things aren’t worth arguing about, so when you feel your hackles rising, try taking a deep breath, counting to 10 and reminding yourself that as long as it’s not life-threatening, it doesn’t matter. Let it go.

Resolve to remain neutral when referring to your former partners in front of the children. Nothing is more likely to ruin your relationship with them than slagging off their mum or dad. Don’t do it.

(Try to) love them as if they're your own

Without the biological bond that makes you love your offspring no matter how badly they behave, it can be difficult to implement that tried-and-tested rule of parenting: follow your instincts. In the absence of blood, all you can do is get to know each other as individuals – with all the sweat and tears that entails – and try to treat everyone fairly.

Be flexible

Family dynamics change all the time but this is particularly true of stepfamilies, where children may spend varying amounts of time with each of their biological parents. They may also have to get used to spending time in different homes and possibly with other children who they may not otherwise have chosen to mix with. Be open to negotiation and try to facilitate reasonable requests.

As a stepparent, it can be difficult to understand what your role should be, especially if your stepchildren are older and have firm ideas about family life and may resent you for (as they see it) disrupting their lives. Never forget that this situation is not of their making.

Expect nothing, especially thanks

While there’s nothing wrong with wishing to create one big happy family, you may find it easier to cope with the conflicts, tensions and disappointments that inevitably arise when two families come together if you lower your expectations.

Although your stepchild may never thank you for the hours you spent teaching them to ride a bike or reading bedtime stories, one day – albeit not until they have their own children – they will remember. But don’t expect thanks.

Five top tips to get children on board

1 Listen to them Really listen. Ask questions, make sure you understand what they mean and respond in a thoughtful, supportive way. Some families find it helpful to hold regular meetings – perhaps around the kitchen table – at which everyone gets the chance to say what’s on their mind, both to discuss major issues, such as problems at school; and smaller gripes, such as disliking the spicy food enjoyed by the family in its previous incarnation. Giving younger family members a voice will help to empower them.
2 Embrace their input If something is important to the children, it should matter to you two as well.
3 Have fun (together and in twos) From picnics in the park to cinema trips and holidays, it’s a cliché but also true that the (step)family that plays together, stays together. Also make time for one-to-one relationships to develop.
4 Involve them in family events For example, if you’re planning a wedding, make sure each child has a role they’re happy with: bridesmaid, ring-bearer, best (young) man.
5 Make memories When families change, children can lose their sense of shared history. Over time, you can add to their bank of childhood memories, which can include special events such as an annual Easter-egg hunt or birthday breakfast; as well as winter walks, days out and nightly bedtime stories.

Useful resources and links

The step-parents’ parachute: the four cornerstones of good step-parenting by Flora McEvedy
An honest, down-to-earth book that’s packed with helpful insights and anecdotes, plus practical solutions.

How to be a happy stepmum by Dr Lisa Doodson
Learn how to develop healthy stepfamily relationships.

Family lives (formerly Parentline Plus) is a charity which aims to help people who are involved in raising children. If you’d like to talk to someone about any parenting issue, contact its trained family support workers by email or call the free helpline on 0808 800 2222.

Relate offers advice and relationship counselling, face-to-face, by phone (call 0300 100 1234 to book an appointment) or online.

Childline is a free, 24-hour helpline (0800 1111) for children and young people.

Find out how it feels to become a stepmother.

Pick up some stepparenting tips from a woman who's been there.

Read our logart about how one couple began to blend their families here.

Come and chat on Logarty talk.

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