Stepfamilies are complex and it may take some time for family relationships to form.

Stepfamilies have complicated sets of relationships to manage. For example, one of the parents will not be the natural parent of one or more of the children. There are likely to be grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings and a parent living outside the family with no links with other members of the stepfamily. Stepfamilies need to address two important issues:

  • coping with the past
  • negotiating relationships in the new family.

Coping with the past

It is important to allow for past experiences as much as possible. For example, children who were exposed to violence in their original family may take a long time to be able to really trust a new step-parent. This has nothing to do with the step-parent, but is a legacy of the past.

It is often tempting to not talk about the past as it holds painful memories. Yet it is best for the new partner to know about past difficulties. Children should also know if they are old enough. This helps to minimise 'secrets' and 'keep out' topics of conversation, both of which can lead to tension and difficulty. The stepfamily will also need to work out ways of coping with contact between children and their other parent.

Negotiating relationships in the new family

Relationships in stepfamilies take time to develop and have to be negotiated in ways that are often not necessary in the original family where relationships can evolve over time.

For example John and Maria marry, and form a stepfamily with the two children of Maria's first marriage, Natalie aged 14 and Peter aged 12. John's first two children aged 4 and 6 years old are with his first wife and her new partner.

How is John to relate to his two stepchildren in terms of affection and discipline? He will have his own assumptions, but these will be coloured by the fact that his own children were much younger. Does he have any experience with teenagers, and does he have a realistic expectation of what they will want? How will his ideas fit with Maria's expectations?

Maria's children, Natalie and Peter, will have their own ideas of what they want from John. These are influenced by their experience with their own father. How is John to cope with being affectionate with his 14 year old stepdaughter whilst respecting her growing awareness of her own sexuality?

What is an appropriate role for John's parents towards their new step-grandchildren? And where does that leave the parents of Maria's first husband in their role as grandparents? If John's children by his first marriage come to live with him and Maria, a new set of relationships need to be worked out between the stepbrothers and stepsisters.

Stepfamilies are complex and the family relationships take time to form. Learning to live in a stepfamily is a process that takes years rather than months. Don't expect an instant family.