This week, BBC 1 aired the documentary ‘Becoming A Step Family’ which told the story of Rio and Kate Ferdinand and Rio’s children’s journey to becoming a step family after the death of his late wife, and the children’s mother, Rebecca, in 2015. It touched on a number of themes: life and love after loss, supporting children through the grief of losing a parent and the challenges in becoming a blended family.
While children of divorce do not suffer the same permanent loss as bereaved children, when their parents separate, they do experience a sense of grief. Their family as they knew it will never be the same again, and the building blocks on which their own lives have been built can suddenly feel very insecure.
Starting a relationship with someone who has young children, and becoming a permanent fixture in their children’s lives, can present huge challenges. It can be an unsettling time for children; with these set to change again. For some, becoming a blended family can come naturally, while for others it can be a much rockier road.
Every family and every child is different, and there is no one approach that will work for all when establishing new family ties unit with a step-parent.
We have highlighted the following principles which could assist those adults assuming an incredibly significant role in their partner’s children’s lives:
1. Don’t fixate on “happy”
All any parent, and by extension step-parent, wants is for their children to be happy. That said, it is important that children do not feel pressure to be happy, or say they are, when they are feeling something entirely different. It is okay for them to be sad, or angry, or confused, and they will need to be able to work through this. The range of emotions they are dealing with will only feel more complex to them as they grow into adolescence.
2. Be there to listen, but find them other avenues to express themselves
The documentary highlighted how invaluable children who have experienced loss find it to listen to, speak and play with other children who have gone through similar experiences, and perhaps more so than talking about their emotions with the adults in their life.
It is equally important for children of separated or divorced parents to know that their parents and their new partners are there to listen to them as and when they might need their support, but they should not feel pressure to do so. There is a plethora of resources available to help parents and step-parents in how to approach these discussions and in an age appropriate manner.
3. Recognise there can be conflict, but don’t feel overwhelmed by it
Children of divorce can struggle with divided loyalties between each of their parents and feel conflicted. They love both their parents. But if they like Daddy’s new girlfriend and show her affection, what will Mummy think? Would she be sad? Or angry? These feelings of confusion can then manifest themselves in challenging behaviour.
Giving children time and space, and building up trust in your relationship with them is essential. They need to be reassured that you are not replacing their mum or dad, but that you are someone that can be relied upon. No one is perfect. You are not expected to know the right thing to say in every situation. Accessing resources and support, whether it be groups, reading materials or therapy will help you grow into the role, and for your family unit to grow in strength with it.