As step-parents we are faced with many challenges and complications. Our task is to fall in love with the children of the person we love. At first it might seem easy, especially if the child adores and welcomes the newcomer. However, when the child realises that this newcomer is staying, will stand in as a parent, enforcing parental rules, and will take up the time and attention of the child’s own parent, the difficulties begin.
It is helpful right from the beginning to accept that we will have negative thoughts and feelings towards our step-children and that they will have negative thoughts and feelings towards their step-parents. The natural tie or bond is not there but it doesn’t mean that it cannot be developed. In order to develop a relationship, the two participants need to have mutual experiences of falling out, making up, getting angry with each other, enduring family hardships together, celebrating family events together – in short, all the things that families do. All these things take time and patience.
So what happens if a new child is born between the new couple? It is most likely that the mother will be the one at home caring for all the children and her new baby. The mother, as the primary carer, can become the recipient of all the bad feelings her step-child has. It is very normal for the step-child to resent his new step-mother because he will feel so loyal to his birth mother. He will often idealise his birth mother in her absence, and turn the step-mother into an increasingly evil figure in his mind. The child can become over-sensitive to any sanctions imposed by his step-mother and can interpret her behaviour as meaning she doesn’t like him. The step-mother is then faced with a step-child who is angry and over-reactive with no immediate triggers. This can feed into her insecurities about being a step-mother, and into feelings of guilt about not loving her step-child as much as her birth children. In this way, a negative pattern of relating is established between a step-mother and her step-children that can escalate and become very hard to reverse.
Step-fathers, of course, have a similar experience but often less intensively. It can be particularly hard for the step-father in the traditional role of the bread winner coming in from work to find the woman he loves upset by his birth child, who in turn is upset by the woman he loves. And his step-child can feel to him like an unwelcome extra burden.
It is a different scenario if the couple do not have a new baby. Then care of the existing children is more shared, and both step-parents can become entangled in complex relationships and have to carefully negotiate their areas of care. There are many different factors involved in this complicated relationship: whether both parents work; whether children live with the new family all the time; what their relationship is like with their birth parent; the ages of the children; whether one or both partners have birth-children, to name but a few. I will devote more articles to specific aspects of step-parenting in future. However, for now there are some golden rules.
The first is that the adults keep communicating in an open and honest way. Every minute and hour spent discussing your new family constellation will pay huge dividends for the future. Honesty is essential. By this I mean a risk-taking honesty, which might feel like it is pushing the limits of your partner’s love. It is essential to tell your partner if his or her child is driving you to distraction. It may be hurtful but if it is stated, you can both discuss it and understand it. If it is unstated, it is still known and becomes internalised in your relationship together, building up unspoken resentments.
The second is that you invest in your relationship with your step-child and with your new family. Have some quality time together. Go out as a family, and in different combinations within your family. Respect your step-child’s need to be alone with his or her birth parent and try not to feel excluded. Make sure you and your partner claim your own adult time too. Each family member needs to respect other members’ needs for developing different and varying relationships within the family.
The third is that you don’t take it personally if your step-child is hurtful to you in his behaviour. It is nothing personal. The child is probably confused, torn, feeling excluded and upset. He or she might feel so full up with difficult emotions that you, the step-parent, are a useful person for him or her to project them onto. By that I mean that the child will say or do something to you that will give you an experience of how he feels. If he ignores you, turns his back on you, he is giving you an experience of feeling rejected. If you feel rejected, it is usually a clear sign that this is how the child feels. When he sees your pain, he feels better; he is no longer the only one feeling hurt and rejected – you are feeling it too, so he feels a bit better, or even completely better for a while.
The fourth, and last for now, is that you find your own support. You need to remain thinking, and finding a supportive friend outside of your family relationships can be really helpful. Look after yourself. Sometimes you might need a professional ear. For some people, exercise or other social activities are therapeutic. Do whatever you can to find your own support.
In time you will begin to notice improvements in the family relationships. When this happens, you know that a more settled life is achievable. Eventually you will be grateful for the richness brought to you by a step-relationship, where love grows between two people who wouldn’t otherwise have been together. You may even be referred to as mum or dad 2; you will know when you have arrived!
Dr Angela Evans
Child & Adolescent Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Member of the Association of Child Psychotherapists