The ‘do’s & don’ts’ of supporting a stepparent who is having a tough time

Do you have someone you care about who is or is becoming a stepparent?

Do they turn to you for advice and support, but you feel a bit out of your depth when it comes to stepfamilies and feel a bit confused about how to support a stepparent who is having a tough time?

Then, this post is for you…and anyone else who cares about someone involved in stepfamily life.

‘First supporters’ or those people we turn to first for the support, advice and reassurance we need when we face difficult times are key to our wellbeing. Research shows having friends and family members to confide in is a buffer against poor mental health. We all need first supporters and it also has a positive impact on our own life outcomes when we can be a first supporter to others. If you haven’t already, you may find yourself becoming a ‘first supporter’ to someone involved in the stepfamily life.

Stepfamilies are the fastest growing family type in most Western countries.

People with kids divorce or separate. It’s a fact. Given the stats it’s bound to happen to someone you know. The question really is not IF you will be a first supporter to a someone involved in stepfamily life, but DO you feel equipped to provide the support and perspective to a friend, colleague or family member is seeking?

If not, you definitely are not alone. Most people, even those living in stepfamilies, aren’t well versed on the dynamics and relationship development involved in forming a stepfamily. But what any stepparent will know from their own personal experience is that stepfamilies differ significantly from first-time families. The standard solutions and relationship advice they tend to receive just doesn’t fit their stepfamily circumstances.

Unlike for first-time couples or new/expectant biological parents, there isn’t the same level of collective wisdom surrounding stepfamilies for those involved to draw on.

This can leave many stepparents feeling isolated and alone wondering why no one seems to really understand what it’s like for them as a stepparent. To avoid this, we’ve listed some tips and information below to help you better support the stepparent in your life who may be going through a tough time.

Research shows there are four key actions that make someone a good confidant to anyone in need no matter what the issue – grief, work conflicts, financial dilemmas and/or stepfamily dynamics:

1. Listening isn’t nothing. In fact, when being a first supporter listening is everything. People who turn to you to air a problem want space to talk. You actively listening is just what they need.

2. Most people don’t want to hear about a similar situation you have been in. Great news for those of you who don’t have any experience with stepfamilies. But, it is also true in all situations – whether you have similar experiences as the person confiding in you or not. People seeking support generally feel the person they sought out for advice telling them about their experience with a similar issue is pretty unhelpful. What they are seeking is acknowledgement of their unique circumstances and how it impacts them as an individual.

3. Show up. Attention heals the soul. Many times it’s not about what you say, but what you do. Showing up and being available for the drink after work, the Saturday early morning jog or afternoon coffee makes a hell of a difference all by itself.

4. Open ended questions are always the way to go. Instead of listing a number of fixes to the problem that has your friend/relative feeling low, try asking open-ended questions. Questions like the ones below are definitely worth a try:

• How are you managing that?
• What does that look like for you?
• That must be tough. How are you coping?
• How is it going with co-parenting… the new mother-in-law… the teenage stepdaughter?

What a stepparent (or anyone for that matter) won’t find useful when turning toward you for help and advice is criticism or judgement. Open-mindedness and acceptance always. No matter what.

When it comes to stepfamilies, there is also a great deal of well-intentioned but useless advice out there for public consumption.

You may find you having been steering your friend or relative down the wrong path without even realising what you were doing.

It is also important to acknowledge that being a stepparent is hard. Any stepparent turning to you for support is not dramatising. It is absolutely normal for a stepparent to feel overwhelmed, uncertain and anxious – especially in the early years of their stepfamily forming. Academics and researchers have been studying stepfamilies for decades and have found that not only is forming a stepfamily a complex process full of conflict, but it also can negatively impact on a stepparent’s mental wellbeing.

Helping a stepparent find her or his way through the numerous myths and unrealistic expectations held around stepfamilies is some of the best support you can provide.

Myth: Being part of a stepfamily is uncommon and something to be embarrassed about.

Reality: According to the Australia Bureau of Statistics, approximately one in ten couple families contain resident stepchildren. The Pew Research Center reports that more than 40% of American adults have at least one step-relative in their family. Being a part of a stepfamily is far from uncommon or anything to be embarrassed about.

Myth: We should be ‘blended’ or feeling a happy family within a few months, or at least a year.

Reality: Research shows that it generally takes several years (like 5 to 7) to truly establish trusting relationships and family ties. This is especially true when the kids are between the ages of 9-15. This doesn’t mean your friend/relative is doing something wrong. It’s just that stepfamily formation is complex and really are a marathon process not a sprint.

Myth: I love my partner, so of course I will love their children (and, vice versa).

Reality: There is no instant love in stepparent-stepchild relationships. Loving someone does not mean we automatically love every other person they are related to. Just think of your in-laws! It is completely normal for your friend/relative not to feel close to their partner’s children—certainly at first and maybe ever. Stepparents do not need to love or even like their stepchildren to have a successful stepfamily. Working towards cooperation, civility, and respect key to stepfamily success and many times to a stepparent’s sanity!

Myth: Once a stepfamily forms, the Ex no longer matters.

Reality: Barring abuse, kids do best when their biological parents are involved and an important part of their lives. All adults should work to make maintain the children’s relationships. Unresolved feelings about an Ex won’t just disappear because someone has fallen in love or remarried.

Myth: Stepchildren should immediately accept a stepparent as an authority figure in their lives.

Reality: Experts agree that it is often best for birth parents to take the lead on discipline – especially in the early months/years of the stepfamily forming. Connection before correction is the mantra of all successful stepparents. Older children and teens can become quite resentful at a new adult trying to ‘boss them around.’ It can be helpful for a new stepparent to see themselves taking on the role of an Auntie, mentor or adult friend in these circumstances.

Myth: All relationships in a stepfamily should be treated as equal.

Reality: It’s not productive or realistic to pretend that step-relationships are identical to relationships between birth relatives. They are different for a variety of reasons – some of which are listed in the image below:

Myth: First-time families are best for children.

Reality: Researchers have consistently found that family type (first, adoptive, single parent, same-sex or stepfamily) does not determine how happy, academic progress, or social adjustment of the children. What negatively impacts children is exposure to prolonged conflict. It is the quality of relationships, that matters – not type of family structure.

Myth: Having a parenting agreement/custody arrangements in place means there will be no more changes.

Reality: If kids are involved, parenting schedules can definitely change – legally or due to the child’s preference. While this can be upsetting, it’s important to know that it isn’t atypical.

Myth: Stepfamilies must blend to be successful.

Reality: Whipping everyone together until you can’t see where the members of a family start or finish should NOT be the goal of any stepfamily. In fact, what works for developing successful stepfamilies is quite the opposite of ‘blending’. The reality is you can’t force togetherness and expect to get a positive outcome. Members of stepfamilies are much better off celebrating the differences in their family than striving to be tight-knitted. It is also impossible for a child to be ‘blended’ in two different homes – (think two separate blenders filled with completely different ingredients and contrasting flavours) – and feel completely integrated anywhere.

Myth: The kids should always come first.

Reality: A leading stepfamily academic, William Dyer, tells us that ‘children first’ is the starting point, not the end point in stepfamilies. In first-time families, by the time the children come along, the couple has worked out their obligations to each other around loyalty, love, commitment and spending time together. In stepfamilies, the couple relationship forms after the children are born. Working out the loyalties in the stepcouple relationship happens at the same time and sometimes in direct contrast to the child-parent loyalties in the home. Children coming first may be all you need in a first family. But, in a stepfamily it doesn’t stop there. The adults also have to work out where and how the responsibilities to your couple relationship fit in. Prioritising one relationship over another is a ‘no-no’. All relationships in stepfamilies require equal and separate time and attention for a stepfamily to thrive.

In supporting the stepparent in your life there are also some typical responses that are best to avoid:

Avoid: You should love your stepkids as your own. It’s unrealistic to expect or suggest that someone should love their stepchildren or feel for the stepkids as they do for their biological children and vice versa. Stepparents and stepkids do not need to love each other for a stepfamily to be successful. Relationships take time to develop and there are significant differences between the relationship between a biological parent and their biological children versus a stepparent and their stepchildren as summarised in the image below:

Try this instead: Of course, it’s normal to feel different things for different children. Building relationships take time. Is there something you enjoy about or doing with your stepdaughter?

Avoid: Your partner should be putting you first. Many well-intentioned people will say that putting the stepcouple relationship first is imperative for the success of a stepfamily, but that really couldn’t be more wrong! Stepfamilies, unlike first-time families, have additional relationships with contrasting levels of connection and attachment in the immediate family. All of these relationships need to be navigated at the same time and in different ways. Giving priority to the couple relationship, ignores the needs of the children in the stepfamily – who different from first-time families were present prior to the couple relationship starting. For stepfamilies, it really is a case of ‘both/and/and’ (the couple, the parent/child, and the stepparent/stepchild) rather than ‘either/or’ (the couple or the parent/child).

Try instead: Balancing family time versus couple time can be challenging. How are you finding it?

Avoid: Shouldn’t their mother/father be doing that? It’s more likely than not that a stepparent will take on more and more parenting duties as their relationship with the children and time in their stepfamily builds. As the title implies, stepparents are parent figures. They pack lunches, do the school run, attend sporting activities, schedule appointments and play dates and many other parental tasks. Many times, like any other family type, who does what in the home is determined by who is available when the task needs to be done and not because it ‘belongs’ to one parent or the other.

Try this instead: What’s it been like for you becoming an instant parent?

Avoid: You knew what you were getting into. Nope, they didn’t. No stepparent does. Just like you wouldn’t tell a new parent who told you that parenting their newborn was harder than they anticipated, ‘you knew what you were getting into’ is not an appropriated response to a struggling stepparent.

Try this instead: That must be really tough. Can you tell me more about it?

Avoid: Too bad the kids aren’t with you full-time that would be easier. The evidence is clear, barring abuse, kids do best when they have access and opportunity to have a meaningful relationship with both their biological parents.

Try this instead: How is the kids’ schedule working out?

Avoid: The Ex must be freaking out. Maybe. Maybe not. It’s not our place to predict or assume how someone you haven’t even met is feeling.

Try this instead: How are things going with co-parenting?

Avoid: They’re just being kids. For children, all stepfamilies are formed on a foundation of grief and loss. The emotions, behaviours and actions of a child when becoming part of a stepfamily are complicated and complex. Many times their hurt, loss and anger will be directed at a new stepparent in ways outside of typical child development.

Try this instead: Sounds like your stepdaughter is having a difficult time. How about you?

It’s also perfectly okay to say ‘I just don’t know what to say, but I am here for you.

You showing up, providing your full attention, putting down your devices and listening is literally the best way to show the stepparent in your life you care.