Stepfamilies come in all shapes, sizes and scenarios, but with as many as one in five Australian families including children from previous relationships, they’re one of the nation’s fastest-growing family types.
About to join the ranks? You’re in good company. Feeling a little fraught at the prospect? Don’t panic. While no two families are exactly the same, we sought expert advice about how to make the transition as plain sailing as possible.
Ditch the great expectations
Stepfamilies can be wildly successful family units – given time. But when it’s a new arrangement, be realistic rather than overly optimistic about what to expect.
“It’s fair to say there’ll be an adjustment period no matter how well balanced your children are,” says child psychologist and co-founder of the Quirky Kid Clinic, Dr Kimberley O’Brien.
“Depending on the situation, you’re bringing two family cultures together with different house rules, so teething problems are common.”
Acknowledge that, know you’re not doing anything wrong when hiccups occur, and give it time.
Make team decisions
This will depend on the age of your children, but making decisions as a group is a great way to create ‘buy in’, insists Relationships Australia National Executive Officer Nick Tebbey.
“Kids may not get much, if any, say about the decision to blend with another family, so by allowing them to contribute to decisions about new family routines, rules or plans they’ll naturally feel more on board,” he says. Think of it as one of the most important family bonding exercises you can do.
Have one-on-one time
While family time benefits everyone, Dr O’Brien says it’s vital to spend some alone time with your biological children.
“Stepfamilies are about adjusting to the new, but giving time to the past is important, too, because you’re not trying to erase that,” she says.
“Taking time out together to revisit some old memories and activities will ensure that your parent-child bond remains strong.”
Check in with each other
When it comes to talking to family members about how they’re adjusting, Tebbey suggests making this a regular, structured ‘thing’.
“Open communication in every family is important, but when it’s a new family, it’s even more so,” he says.
Set aside time and encourage your children to identify and share how they’re feeling and do the same with each other as parents.
Dr O’Brien believes showing your kids some extra attention is also key. “A bit of extra supervision during this adjustment period,” she says, “helps them feel heard and reassures them that you’re interested in their perspective.”
Go into problem-solving mode
Once you understand what your children are finding difficult, work out practical solutions.
“For example,” says Dr O’Brien, “if step-siblings are a similar age it can deliver more jealousy, competition and sibling rivalry.
“Plus, just because children are the same age, they may have very different interests. Encouraging them to set up spaces they can spend time in separately and even role-playing things they can say to a step-sibling in challenging situations can help.”
Call in the professionals
Feel like you need help? “Ask for it,” Tebbey advises.
“Given the adjustment required around coming together as a step or blended family, I can’t think of a better reason to use one of the counselling services available.
“Counselling isn’t something that’s reserved solely for relationships that are falling apart. The reality is stepfamilies can be tricky, so seeing a professional who can help you as an individual or a family communicate better or resolve issues is the smart thing to do.” Relationships Australia offers family and relationship counselling nationwide. You can also check out Stepfamilies Australia’s tip sheets.
Focus on the future
You may not be able to time travel, but Dr O’Brien says remembering that things will get better can help during challenging times.
“If your children have your support and you’ve put strategies in place to address areas of conflict or competition, these things often tend to resolve quite quickly,” she explains.
“Blended and stepfamilies can work very successfully and when they do, it means a child has up to four parents who are invested in them, can provide extra opportunities and bring different life experiences to the table.”