How can I support my partner’s children?

If your partner has children from a previous relationship, it can be difficult to know how to approach your own relationship with them, particularly if you all live together.

Whether or not you consider yourself an official step parent, you might wonder what your role is in providing a supportive, loving home for the child.

Whatever your situation, it’s important to know that:

  • It takes time for everyone to adjust and build a level of trust, respect and love.
  • Parenting is a journey where needs change over time. There will be smooth parts and bumpy parts.
  • Talking openly with your partner about your role and everyone’s expectations makes the journey smoother.
  • The needs of a child should be at the forefront, but you also need to nurture the relationship you have as a couple.

Talk to your partner

Problems often happen when everyone has a different idea of each other’s role in the family set up. Having an open conversation with your partner about this means everyone has clear expectations.

When things are going well, notice and celebrate them. When things are difficult, discuss them calmly. Everyone should be able to say how they feel without blaming anyone, and listen to others without feeling defensive or hurt.

The idea is to find a way forward to make things better for everyone.

If there are problems with your relationship, children will often sense these. This can feed into their feelings of insecurity, distrust and distress. Keeping your relationship healthy means a stronger family for everyone.

Find support in maintaining a healthy relationship (IDAS)

Building a relationship with your step children

It will take time to build a strong relationship with your step child. Be patient, and take things at the child’s pace. They need to take their time building trust and getting to know you.

Some children might have already struggled with change from their parents separating. This new change may add to their fears and worries.

Others might be excited about their parent meeting a new partner and throw themselves into the relationship.

Someone they can turn to

It is often best to leave the more serious discipline, everyday childcare and parenting arrangements to the child’s parents.

It can be a wonderful thing for a child to have an adult who is not their parent who they can turn to, and who cares about them.

Setting boundaries

Fair, firm and consistent boundaries, house rules and consequences help your family to respect each other and know where you all stand. This helps everyone to feel safe, emotionally and physically.

Talk to your partner about how these might be addressed, agreed and implemented.

Children will test these boundaries sometimes. They want to see if you’re resilient enough to keep them emotionally safe.

Family life

Children thrive on normal routines, doing everyday things. Try to create a normal family environment. Whether they live with you part of the time or all the time, your home is their home too. They are not a visitor.

Try to create a bedroom or space that they can call their own. Involve them in family decisions and plans, where appropriate.

When things go wrong

The best thing you can provide for any child is loving care, interest, and acceptance.

Allow your step children’s parents to make important decisions about their lives. Be sensitive and follow their lead. If you want to raise something about their upbringing, make sure it is coming from a place of genuine care for the children’s best interests. Respect that the parents might not have the same ideas as you and that is ok to have different views.

Try to understand the children’s behaviour and support your partner in working with challenging behaviour.

If you feel yourself being critical, either openly or to yourself, think about why.

  • What are your feelings behind this?
  • Are you focusing on the negative aspects of their behaviour rather than the positives?
  • Are you feeling left out or overwhelmed?
  • You might find it helpful to explore these feelings with your partner, a close friend or family member, or a counsellor.

Looking after yourself

Take the time to look after yourself and your own mental health. Being a step parent can be hard, and challenging behaviour can have an effect on you.

Try not to get involved in online forums for step parents, unless they are resolution-based. These forums often have a blame mentality and can make things feel worse.

Your relationship with your partner’s co parent

If the child’s other parent is co-parenting with your partner, everyone involved will need to navigate their way in this blended family.

Many parents welcome the presence of another adult in their children’s lives, though this might take some time. Some can find it difficult, and feel threatened or worried about their children having another parent.

The co-parent’s feelings about you will depend on:

  • How long ago they separated from your partner
  • The details of the separation
  • Their own experiences of step parents.

It will take time to adjust and for everyone to feel settled and secure.

Be respectful

Always speak positively about the child’s other parent. Let the child talk about them if they want to, but try not to ask questions or pry into life at their other home.

If the child talks to you about feeling unhappy in their other home, try to just listen. Respect their thoughts and feelings without adding your own negative thoughts.

Encourage good, respectful communication between everyone. Always be polite to the co-parent, regardless of how they treat you.

History of abuse

If the co-parent was domestically abusing your partner, this behaviour can sometimes continue. This is called post separation abuse.

Sometimes ex-partners use children as a form of coercive control. They might also use their children to try and sabotage new relationships and bonds. This is called abuse by proxy.

In this situation, it is important to have very firm boundaries, rules and consequences in place. This will help keep the family emotionally and physically safe, as well as supporting your stepchildren, who are being emotionally abused by this practice.

What to do if you’re worried your child isn’t safe with their other parent

Always model healthy and respectful relationships and have clear expectations for what is and is not okay in the home.

Listening to children gives them the space to work through their emotions, and any confusions they have.

Have fun with your family

Above all, try to relax and have fun.

Children love the feeling of being connected with adults who care about them, having simple fun, feeling relaxed and able to be themselves.

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This advice was written by our experienced Parent Talk coaches. Parent Talk is a free online service for parents and carers, provided by the charity Action for Children. For more advice, message our parenting coaches with our online chat.

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