Certainly Walt Disney has a lot to answer for, with his caricatures of ‘the wicked stepmother’ featuring so strikingly in many of the classic fairy tales. The demonized cold-faced, heartless and cruel women who makes life so very harsh and difficult for her stepchildren, has many youngsters shaking in their seats!
Have those stories shaped our beliefs? Is this what children imagine will happen when an incoming spouse joins the blended family picture today?
Perhaps now more than ever, it’s important to put down those myths and rewrite the scripts, because the number of stepmothers is on the increase. According to a recently published book (Penelope Leach’s Family Breakdown) fewer than half of today’s children will celebrate a sixteenth birthday with their parents still together.
Undoubtedly, the introduction of step mums to stepchildren is going to trigger emotions for all concerned, and there would be something very unusual and unhealthy if that wasn’t the case. Everyone has, and should be expressing feelings about the changes.
Children, at any age, may assume their stepfamily will be a re-creation of their first family, sometimes resulting in expectations that are impossible to fulfill. Often what causes children difficulty or upset, is not always to do with the new stepfamily arrangements, but rather the leftover conflict between their biological parents and the loss of the first relationship. Paradoxically, children can be preoccupied with internal conflict, worrying that they are somehow being disloyal if they develop positive feelings towards their step mum. They may struggle not to upset either parent, but particularly the one who may not do so well after the divorce.
Here are some of my top guidance tips for step mums, to help ease themselves into the new family unit as seamlessly as possible:
- Take things slowly. Your stepchildren need as much time to get used to you, as you need to get used to them.
- Encourage and allow your partner to spend time with his/her children alone, as well as all being together as a family.
- When it comes to disciplining, be confident and clear about who you are. Let your partner discipline his/her children, and when he/she is not around, adopt the role of ‘adult in charge’, maintaining agreed ‘house-rules’ for guidance.
- Model respectful behavior towards your stepchildren. You can set the example of how you want to treat others and wish to be treated yourself. To develop trust, be mindful to not make negative comments about their biological mother, or their siblings.
- Accept that your feelings for your stepchildren and the feelings they may have for you will be ‘good enough’. It’s not unusual for stepmothers to feel pressured that they must love their stepchildren deeply, immediately. It will be easier just to be nice to them in a genuine way, by providing kindness, compassion and respect – which can eventually lead to love.
- Explore ways to spend private, one-on-one time with each of your stepchildren. Developing some common interests, activities or hobbies together will help you get to know them as they learn more about more about you, and who you are.
- It’s not at all unusual for stepmothers to feel isolated, disappointed, rejected and hurt. If you feel this way, remember that you are not ‘the only one’ and make sure you don’t bottle up your feelings. Talk to your partner, so he/she knows how you feel.
- Make time for dates with your partner. Having fun together strengthens your relationship and makes it easier to get over any difficulties when they occur.
Undoubtedly, with this new role there will be many things to learn. However, my main piece of advice for step mums is to hold in mind that every family member is learning as they go along too and it is one thing that could unite you, as you all learn new ways!
Our next blog in this series will consider changes from a father’s point of view.
Separation Matters are independent Family Consultants, based in Brighton and working across Sussex, offering a fresh new approach to separation, divorce and civil partnership breakdown.
For further information visit the Separation Matters website: www.separationmatters.co.uk
Other useful reading:
- Family Breakdown
Penelope Leach (ISBN: 978178352097) Unbound Books – available 19.6.2014
Written for separating mothers and fathers, their extended families and prospective new partners, and for the professionals who support and advise them. It is full of ways to minimise the impact of separation and, often in their own words, children of different ages describe what they understand and feel about the process.
- Help Your Children Cope With Your Divorce: A Relate Guide
Paula Hall (ISBN-10: 0091912830), Vermillion
When parents decide to separate, their children’s lives are changed forever. This sensitive, accessible guide includes clear advice and guidance on how to minimise the impact on your children.
- Association for Shared Parenting – www.sharedparenting.org.uk
- Gingerbread – www.gingerbread.org.uk
- Family Lives – www.familylives.org.uk
- National Association For Child Support Action – www.nacsa.co.uk