When you fall in love and enter into a new relationship it is easy to look at things from a rose-coloured, loved up perspective. You have a positive mindset. You’re focused on the brighter side of life and you expect positive results. That you and/or your partner have children from previous relationships, whilst a consideration, is not a biggie. It’s not a deal breaker. You anticipate that if you treat his/her children kindly they’ll respond well and be accepting of your presence in both their and their parent’s lives. You further assume that because you and your partner love one another so much, any problems that might arise in creating your home and uniting your stepfamily will be easily overcome.
The reality however, tends to be different. Besides the fact the moving house can be one of the most stressful things that anyone can do, when a couple – one or both of whom already have children – begin to live together they do not have the luxury of getting to know each other before becoming parents and stepparents. They have no choice but to try to manage a complex transition while facing the challenge associated with trying to further develop their personal relationship whilst also simultaneously attempting to establish a new household and bring together a number of adults and children (some of whom may really not want to be there).
The new partnership has to deal with multiple changes, not only in their lives but also in the family structure and lives of the children involved – changes that require adjustment time for everyone. The emotional and relational dynamics that accompanied your and/or your partner’s previous divorces or separations will likely continue even though the family living arrangements are being restructured. Even with all the good intentions in the world, moving home and bringing your stepfamily into existence is a hard task, at the end of which there is no guarantee of creating one big, happy Brady Bunch family.
When it comes to moving in together, both parties have to make a conscious choice to make it work, even more so when there are kids involved.
So what can you do to make the transition as smooth as possible and help the children absorb and adjust to any and all changes? There is no magic formula, but we do think that there are a number of things that you (and your partner) can do to reduce the stress and anxiety of the move and give your stepfamily the best chance of a successful beginning.
Smart stepparenting means planning and parenting together.
Successful stepfamilies acknowledge and accept that stepparenting is a two-person task that requires cooperation and unity along with a commitment by both the parent and stepparent to making it work. Stepparents and biological parents do not function in a vacuum, isolated from one another. How you and your partner work together in your roles as parents, stepparents and your co-parenting relationship is crucial. This is especially true in the early years when the parent and stepparent have differing levels of authority with children and everyone is adjusting to the changes in family structure.
“Before anything else, preparation is the key to success” ~Alexander Graham Bell
Before you and your partner move in together and are trying to absorb the implications of the changes in your own daily life, talk together (and in private) about how you might parent and care for the children and what parenting changes might have to happen. Work out roles that complement one another and play to each other’s strengths. Clarify the stepparent’s role. Try to reach agreement with your partner about how you intend to parent together and then, if possible, both try to make any necessary adjustments to your parenting styles or even household rules before you set up house together. It’ll hopefully pave the way for a smoother transition as well as possibly temper any anger in the children towards the stepparent who they will likely hold responsible for any unwanted changes to rules and routines.
Think through “what if” scenarios.
Sit down with your partner and try to think about all the things that could go wrong. Then do some creative problem solving and think about how your might handle different scenarios, before you are knee deep in moving stress and completely out of your comfort zone.
Preparing the Children.
Too many changes all at once can unsettle and overwhelm children. And lets face it, no one, not even children, will cope well with change that is sprung on them. With this in mind, the moment when you and your partner are unpacking boxes and deciding where to put the toaster, is not the best time to tell them that you are moving in together. Nor is it the best time to make any major adjustments in family’s rules and routine.
When contemplating moving to live together, perhaps the one of the most important steps that a parent and the soon to be stepparent can do, is to talk to the child about what is going to happen, before it happens. Be as honest and direct as possible. It is not about asking the child’s permission for the move to happen or you relationship to progress to the next level, but more about giving the child age appropriate information, as accurately as you can, about what the child’s life and routine might be like once the move to live together occurs. In this discussion, it can be helpful (for the child) if you emphasise all things that will remain the same during the period of change.
Remind a child who is moving that they will still have their parent with them; remind them that they will still have two parents who love them; and remind the child who is having another adult and possibly other children move into their home that they will still have a space to call their own and will not have to share ALL their toys.
Same same but different.
Any kind of change, whether good or not so good, brings with it varying degrees of stress in everyone’s life, and children are no exception. When a parent re-partners and a stepparent enters the family scene, change is unavoidable and can be confronting an difficult for children. Even if they don’t show it, family change can leave children feeling powerless and vulnerable. Children are likely to feel out of sorts in the lead up to, and following, the move.
While the change in home life and family structure is occurring, it is important to try to create as much predictability and consistency in the child’s life as possible. The more things that are predictable, the safer the child will feel. Make sure rules and expectations are clear, and, most importantly, be consistent in their implementation. Where possible allow them to continue to participate in their extra circular activities and spend time with their friends. Encourage them to express and to talk about what they are feeling. Allow them to grieve any losses that might come with the change. Acknowledge their feelings and recognise any loss (as identified by them) as significant and real.
When the stepparent’s arrival into the household results in, and influences rules, routines and behavioural expectation changes, children often struggle with the stepparent’s authority to make those changes. They can resist. They can complain and protest. They can direct an enormous amount of anger and hostility at the stepparent, laying all the blame for their changing circumstances squarely at the feet of the adult interloper. Remain mindful that their resistance to change can dramatically affect the level of stress in all members of the stepfamily household. Stepparents who are struggling with this need biological parents who will step up to the plate.
Never underestimate the power of communication and working together as a team.
After the big move, continue to make time to have regular discussions about parenting matters and other issues as they arise. As a couple, decide how (and when) to communicate the changes to the household and to others. Be willing to review a decision if you think its not working or, the practical realities of the change in rule or routine means that it really isn’t working.
Stand together and demonstrate unity in any new rules and expectations, especially when the stepparent’s opinion has obviously contributed to the change. The biological parent must take seriously how they support the status of the stepparent to their children. Just as in a two-biological parent home, parents and stepparents must present as unified in goals and work together as a team in order to facilitate change.
Where possible and appropriate communicate changes in rules or expectations to the children together. Think about the language (and tone of voice) you use when communicating to the children, and to others, the changes being implemented in your household. Use phrases such as “we have decided…”, “it is our expectation that…” or “between the two of us, we think that [insert your own rule here] should happen”. It is often best in these discussions if the biological parent steps up to the plate and takes the lead in sharing the change, with the stepparent standing beside them. This is particularly important in the early years of establishing your stepfamily. The stepparent can certainly add to the conversation but the biological parent’s voice should be clearly heard by the children and also by the parent’s extended family members, who may or may not remain in contact with, and think positively of, the parent’s ex partner.
Remain mindful that there could be some circumstances when it might be appropriate or preferable for the biological parent to communicate a change in rule or expectation privately (without the stepparent being present) to their children or their extended family. For example, if a child continually challenges new rules or the family is likely to question the proposed change and try and pressure the parent to reverse the decision. Another situation that might be best handled by the biological parent alone is where a change has come about because of a highly sensitive issue or a child feels on display or embarrassed about the circumstances. For example, restricting computer use because the young person visited inappropriate web sites or working through boyfriend/girlfriend issues. Again, it is important that the parent and stepparent set some time aside together as a couple to discuss and determine the best way to handle these situations.
Remember that it might take some time for your new house to feel like home. It will be unfamiliar and confusing for a while, for everyone, which is to be expected and perfectly normal. As you unpack, and as the next chapter of your life unfolds, remain mindful that for all the hurdles you and your partner may have to face and overcome, each day you are one step further on your journey to creating a stepfamily and life you love.