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Family Law Solicitor on the difficulties and rewards of step-parenting

We live in an ever-changing society. We hear so much about the family being a pillar of that society but it, too, is constantly changing.

The idea of the nuclear family, of Mum, Dad, 2.4 kids and the dog, is no longer the reality for an increasing proportion of the population and research suggests that around a third of people in the UK now live in “step-families”.

The change in this dynamic can be very difficult to cope with for adults and children alike. This morning, I spoke to a number of national and local radio stations about the issues that step-parenting and the tensions that it can cause within a family unit throw up from a Family and Personal Matters legal perspective. This follows some research that Slater and Gordon have undertaken which has shown that around two thirds of step-parents feel that they will never be accepted by their new families.

A step-parent’s role is a very difficult one. There is a tension between building a relationship with a new partner on the one hand, whilst trying to be an adult and parent as part of a new family group. There is a need to get to know their partner’s children and learn to live with them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, children can be wary and difficult towards the new partner, especially if that new partner has their own ideas about discipline or how children should be brought up.

Indeed, discipline can be a common flashpoint. It raises the question as to whether a step parent should be the one to discipline their partner’s children. In turn, this can have an adverse impact on the new relationship between the adults. This can be a significant factor in the breakdown of “second time around” relationships.

One other factor which is crucial to understand is the feelings of the parent whose place has been taken in the family home. They may feel that their role is under threat and, as a result, may seek to undermine the new adult’s role. Feelings of jealousy, paranoia and resentment can all come to the surface and lead to a further downward spiral in relationships, causing increased tension.

So how can people overcome these difficulties and tensions? As ever, good communication is the key. Parents (and indeed children) need to be able to talk freely about what is acceptable and what they can expect from each other. This can help to avoid the stroppy teenage outbursts of “I hate you – you’re not my real Dad/Mum, so why should I listen to you???!!”. If, at the outset, the new situation is introduced with sensitivity and roles are clearly defined, step parents can enjoy a strong relationship not only with their partner but their partner’s children. In turn, the children can benefit from having another adult to confide in and see as a friend and ally.


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