Life in a stepfamily

Helping children adjust to life in a stepfamily

Stepfamilies make up more than 10% of all families in the UK, comprised of either couples with stepchildren, or one natural and one step-parent with children.

Boys seem to find it easier than girls to adjust to stepfamilies

With higher divorce rates and separation of cohabiting couples, stepfamilies are one of the fastest growing forms of family in the UK. In 2009, 19.1% of marriages involved the remarriage of one partner and 15.8% involved the remarriage of both partners.

The actual number of stepfamilies is much greater than this however, as stepfamilies are more likely to cohabit than be married. In 2001, 38% of all cohabiting couples with children were stepfamilies, compared to just 8% of married couples with children.

After separation, children are more likely to stay with their biological mother. In 2010, 78% of stepfamilies consisted of a natural mother, her offspring and a stepfather; 18% of stepfamilies had a natural father and a stepmother; while 4% had children from both previous relationships. However, the number of children living with their natural father and a stepmother is increasing.

Which children find it easier to adjust to stepfamilies?

Studies show that the younger a child is, the easier they may find it to adjust to a stepfamily. Older boys and girls are more inclined to find it difficult to adjust.  Research also shows that boys seem to find it easier than girls to adjust to stepfamilies, particularly if the girl is in early adolescence.

How long does it take children to adjust?

A common problem for stepfamilies is an unrealistic expectation of how long it will take for a new family to establish itself. The OnePlusOne sourcebook for practitioners quotes one authority as saying that “you should tell families it will take as many years as the age of the child at remarriage – e.g. seven years if the child seven.  Although this may be an overestimate, it serves to temper expectations about becoming an instant family”.

The effect of successive stepfamilies

There is also an association between how many subsequent relationships a child’s natural parent has and behaviour problems. These later relationships can become “transitional” periods for the child, where they have to adjust to either living with a single parent, co-parenting, or the introduction of their parent’s new partners or stepfamilies.

The evidence shows that having multiple transitions can affect child behaviour with problems such as disobedience and hyperactivity being common. Some studies have shown that many children find the remarriage of a parent more stressful than the divorce. Other research has shown that children may find it easier to deal with a parent’s new partner if the other natural parent is not establishing a new relationship at the same time. Having a stable family situation in at least one home seems to be important.

The impact of a new baby on a stepfamily

Stepfamilies are often referred to as ‘blended families’ as they can be made up of a variety of step-parents, natural parents and natural and stepsiblings.

Many couples also often choose to have more children with their new partner. Married couple stepfamilies are more likely than cohabiting couples with stepchildren to go on to also have biological children. In fact 57% of married stepfamilies had natural children of both parents compared to 35% of cohabiting couples in 2001.

With the arrival of a new baby, relationships in a stepfamily need time to adjust. The ParentConnection and the CoupleConnection have resources and articles to help with this transition.

Some of the issues stepfamilies may encounter

A new mother in an ‘old family’

When the baby is a first for the mother but not the father, she will have to cope with the stress of new parenthood as well as additional pressures. These may include:

  • being haunted by the knowledge that her partner has been through this with another woman;
  • struggling to feel in control of a process which her partner knows more about than she does;
  • resentment that her partner is spending time with his older children, especially if the mother thought that pregnancy might relax the ties to his first family.

An old dad in a new family

This may also be a difficult time for the prospective father as he feels his own needs are squeezed out. For example:

  • his partner may be anxious about the impending birth and expect 100% attention;
  • his children may well have become angry or withdrawn;
  • his ex may act out her feelings of betrayal and loss by stepping up demands around money or access arrangements;
  • he may be drawn to his ‘new’ family and withdraw from the old one just because it seems like the easier option.

Fathers of a new child may also attempt to compensate for the new baby by lavishing time or money on children from a previous relationship. Relationships might also become more complicated with the ex-partner and grandparents as everyone adjusts to the new baby in the family.

As might be expected, stepfamilies tend to be larger than non-stepfamilies. In 2001, 27% of stepfamilies had three or more dependent children compared with 18% of non-stepfamilies. Both married and cohabiting couple stepfamilies were larger than non-stepfamilies.

For more information

TheParentConnection has further advice and information on what to expect for parents who are separating.

TheCoupleConnection has tips and advice on coping with changes and stages in a relationship and an online course specifically for new parents called Changes for me and us.