Beyond the fairytales

Two and a half million children in the UK are members of a
stepfamily, and it is estimated that by the age of 16 one child in
eight will experience stepfamily life. For some children this might
mean occasionally visiting a parent and new partner. For others, it
can mean leaving their own home to move in with a step-parent and
his or her existing children, or making room in their own home for
step-parent and siblings. Some children are part of two
stepfamilies, both with stepsiblings as well as step-parents. When
the new couple has children together, family dynamics become even
more complex.

Family change inevitably involves loss for the child. Some children
resent the fact that one parent has found a new partner, others may
feel guilty and disloyal for spending more time with one parent
than the other, but all will grieve the loss of the familiar, each
in different ways, according to their age and stage as well as
their personality and past experience.

This doesn’t mean that being part of a stepfamily necessarily leads
to any lasting difficulties and most children settle well after a
period of adjustment, according to the charity Parentline Plus.
Stepchildren do just as well at school as other children although
their performance might dip during times of stress and

Dorit Braun is the chief executive of Parentline Plus. “Good
outcomes for children depend more than anything upon the
relationship they have with the parents, with other significant
adults and on the strength of the relationship of the parent with
the new partner,” she explains. “Children who maintain a good,
secure relationship with both original parents are better able to
form affectionate, supportive relationships with their friends and
adjust better to their stepfamily.”

David Secrett is a family therapist at Southdown Health children
and adolescent mental health services (Camhs) and has researched
stepfamily relationships. “When a major change occurs it puts a new
perspective on family dynamics,” he explains. “Many of the problems
stem from the simple, everyday adjustments. Most children want to
talk about the loss of a home, pets and their network of friends
and relations.

“The lack of shared history in a stepfamily means a simple comment
about a past event can make newcomers feel excluded. Having to
evaluate what can and can’t be said is stressful for a child and
can lead to challenging behaviour which the adults just don’t

Honeymoon period

There is often an initial honeymoon period when everything seems
fine, followed by a period of conflict when behavioural problems
are common and some stepchildren experience serious emotional
difficulties which need professional help. Some are withdrawn,
tearful and depressed; others are aggressive, or disrespectful.
Changes need to be carefully negotiated to take into account the
different needs of all the members of the new family.

Step-relationships come with no guarantees. Step-parents don’t
necessarily love or even like their partners’ children.
Stepchildren may loathe the new step-parent. Stepsiblings may
resent or hate each other; old grudges and sibling rivalries from
the original family groups will add to the dynamics, and
negotiations are complex. Some children in the family inevitably
struggle more than others and they will need greater support from
inside and outside the family. The impact of this on their
self-esteem can be enormous and will have repercussions in their
schoolwork, peer relationships and may result in aggressive
behaviour or withdrawal.

Hazel Norbury supervises Childline counsellors and has dealt with
many children experiencing difficulties in their stepfamilies. She
emphasises the issue of loss which goes hand in hand with family
disruption and which underpins almost all their calls on the
subject. “Many children develop a special relationship with the
parent they live with,” she explains.

“They keenly feel the loss of this intimacy when a new partner
moves in: there’s a significant change in the family dynamics when
there are three in the household instead of two. It can be hard for
a child when a parent changes because of a new relationship. We get
a lot of calls from children who feel inadequate because someone
else has succeeded in making their parent happy where they have

She cites adolescence as a particularly difficult time for a child
to experience a parent’s re-partnership. At a time when they are
exploring their own sexuality it is hard for them to be confronted
by that of their parents. Problems often show themselves indirectly
in school performance or challenging behaviour and can lead to
depression or stress.

One case involves a 14-year-old boy who, with his younger brother,
was expected to spend every other weekend and some holidays with
his father and stepmother in another part of the country. He did
not want to: he had no friends there and did not get on with his
stepmother but his brother was keen to go and he did not want to
let him down. Childline emphasised the importance of the 14 year
old’s wishes and feelings. They organised a meeting between him and
his mother, who had not realised how he felt. Once they had
discussed it openly they were able to make compromises. “If we can
help the child talk to the parent this is the first important step
in resolving the situation.”

For some children the problems are repeated when a step-parent
relationship breaks down. “Once a family has been in a stepfamily
it is more likely to separate and reform again,” says Secrett. Then
there are repeated losses of step-parents and extended
stepfamilies, possibly homes and schools as well. “Some will learn
from their experiences, using the same coping strategies at each
change,” he says. “But this will inevitably reduce the child’s
ability to emotionally invest in a new step-parent.”

Emotional difficulties

Children need to feel listened to, and have their feelings
acknowledged. Parents might be caught in their own emotional and
practical difficulties and be unable to prioritise the needs of
their child. They may ask the child about the other’s new partner,
or expect them to take sides, which compromises their loyalty.

There can be benefits for children in seeing their parents in
happier relationships. One is the lesson that good outcomes
sometimes emerge from a time of upheaval. A stepfamily introduces a
range of new people into the child’s life from the new extended
family, and over time step-relationships can and often do grow into
loving, supportive and enduring additions to a child’s world.

– See Children’s Views of their Changing Families, J Dunn,
K Deater-Deckard, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2001

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