Service with stigma?

Family units are increasingly diverse and being part of a
stepfamily no longer causes eyebrows to rise.

But being part of a stepfamily brings its own dilemmas, as
highlighted in a report from charity Parentline Plus.
Stepfamilies: New Relationships, New Challenges is based
on a study of 14,500 calls to the charity’s helpline from parents
wanting to discuss stepfamily issues.(1) Of these calls, 3,000
parents spoke about tensions in their family and more than 1,500
callers said they were depressed. The research found that, compared
with other families, stepfamilies visit their GP three times as
often; they are three times as likely to be in regular contact with
schools because of problems; and three times as likely to be known
to the police.

These needs are often overlooked by services working with families.
Parentline Plus chief executive Dorit Braun says: “There are
particular issues that affect stepfamilies that get lost in the
maelstrom of thinking about the needs of parents and children.” She
adds that, when professionals think about the impact of separation
and divorce on families, they sometimes ignore the effects that
setting up a new stepfamily can have.

Of course, all families, whether they include a married couple with
children, a single parent, or a lesbian or gay parent or couple,
have problems. But in some cases seemingly trivial arguments over
who watches what on television can often mask more serious
difficulties – such as the way the adults and children communicate
and get along. Such interpersonal tensions can be particularly
heightened for families who have gone through divorce or separation
and have established a stepfamily.

But, if a stepfamily is having difficulties, it is down to its
members to approach professionals for support as social services
are unlikely to be involved with the family unless there has been a
previous issue. As a result, stepfamilies rarely get the help they
need, says Braun, because they do not want to be identified as
failing again, having already been through one family breakdown.
“They don’t want to go jumping up and down saying ‘look I’m a
stepfamily’ because there is still a stigma attached to divorce and

Stepfamilies themselves may not seek help until it is too late and
they are already in crisis – the statistics reveal that
stepfamilies are likely to break down within their first year. This
situation is something Barbara Sebti, joint programme co-ordinator
of the Parent Plus scheme run by children’s charity Chance UK, is
familiar with. Her organisation provides mentoring services to
children and young people, about 35 per cent of whom are in some
form of stepfamily.

She says: “I know of incidents where children feel isolated – they
cannot get on with their stepparent, who is not as patient with
them as their natural parent. I’ve even come across cases where
there was open hostility between the stepparent and the child from
the previous relationship.”

So how should practitioners reach this client group who may – at
first – not appear on their radar? Braun says it is wrong to assume
that, just because parents are now in a new, more successful
family, they can do without support. “Professionals need to work in
inclusive ways and be aware around the issues of language. If they
are going to say mum or dad they should acknowledge that it could
be step mum or step dad.”

Sebti recommends that professionals work with stepfamilies in the
way they would with any other client. One way to reach them, she
adds, is to offer support in places where families might be, such
as schools and doctors’ surgeries.

But Ann Baxter, secretary of the Association of Directors of Social
Services’ children and families committee, says it is the
“fundamental responsibility” of stepfamilies themselves to minimise
the impact on children. She says: “Blended families require the
adults to be alert to potential difficulties and put the needs of
the children first – certainly not to ignore them or use them as
emotional blackmail.”

This is not to say that professionals do not have a part to

She adds: “The Children Act requires all agencies to work together
across all the five outcomes – and to be proactive rather than
reactive in approach. Hopefully this will result in access to
localised services where parents and children can receive advice
and support.”

If social care professionals are to meet the needs of an
increasingly diverse range of families they need to be flexible
about how they interpret the 1970s pop group Sister Sledge hit We
Are Family.

(1) Stepfamilies: New Relationships, New
, Parentline Plus, June 2005

Stepfamily facts

  • More than half of divorced parents will find new partners and
    form a stepfamily.
  • At least half of remarriages that form a stepfamily end in
  • A quarter of all stepfamilies break down in the first
  • There are more than 500,000 stepfamilies and more than 2.5
    million children in stepfamilies.
  • By 2010 it is predicted that divorce, separation and
    repartnering will be the norm for families.

Source: Parentline Plus  

Annette Mogg
Being part of a stepfamily is tough, says Annette Mogg .
She became a stepmother 16 years ago when she met partner Alan. At
the time she had a two-year-old son, Andre, and Alan had a
five-year-old boy and two daughters aged 13 and 16. Annette and
Andre were not in contact with Andre’s father and Alan’s wife had

A year later, Annette, Alan and the children moved in together and
after 18 months the couple married. Initially things went well but
it all changed when Annette became more involved in disciplining
her stepchildren. “I assumed the role of their mother, which I was
not, and gradually they became more and more angry and upset.” 

In desperation Annette contacted the National Stepfamilies
Association, now part of Parentline Plus, for advice. Things came
to a head when her oldest stepdaughter left home aged 18. Annette
and Alan attended family therapy with the second stepdaughter, who
also left home at 18.

Although Andre and his stepbrother get on well, Andre and his
stepfather do not and this makes Annette feel torn. “Feelings of
guilt and divided loyalties can be very high – I feel torn between
my child and my husband.” Although difficulties exist between Andre
and his stepfather, Annette says they are trying to communicate
more. She has also learned to forgive herself and not be too hard
on herself for her son’s relationship with his stepfather. 

Andre Renson-Mogg
Andre Renson-Mogg is the first to admit he and his
stepfather Alan do not see eye-to-eye. Although he has a good
relationship with his mother and stepsiblings, this is not the case
with Alan. The pair have different personalities and tastes and
Andre says they learned from a young age “how to wind each other

Andre says he does not fully accept Alan as his “actual father”,
instead seeing him as “just Al”. But he does think they have a
“father-son” type relationship, even though neither of them
actually says so. Despite the problems, Andre says he likes being
part of a stepfamily: “It is much nicer having a stepfamily around
than a real family that doesn’t want you. When Al married Mum he
knew what he was taking on and I respect him for that.”

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