Planning a stepfamily

Becoming a step-parent can be one of the most challenging and rewarding things a person can do. And when you join a family where one or more of the children is disabled, you may soon find that good planning is one of the key ingredients to making your new family’s life a success. Different sets of values, attitudes and feelings can lead to stress for children and conflict for adults – but these risks can be reduced with proper planning [1].  

Because routines can be so important for disabled children, in the beginning, it’s best to try and settle gradually into the existing way of life of your new family, watching and learning how things are done, and offering help where needed. Your partner and their other children (if they have them) will have spent years looking after the disabled child, working out what works best, so may not appreciate you coming in trying to change things, no matter how well meaning you are.

Where possible, try to make sure the children are involved in any decisions you make with your partner. Children who feel they have a say in the transition are more likely to accept a new step-parent, rather than seeing them as a threat to their own parent’s attention [2].

It’s good to talk

Your role in the first instance should be to learn the ropes, but it’s important to talk openly with your partner about what your involvement will be. Parents who form new relationships tend to be more likely to avoid talking about relationship and family issues than couples entering their first marriage [3], possibly due to past experiences of marriage and parenting [4].

However, while it can be scary to tackle difficult issues, open communication can minimise the risk of conflict, and better prepare you for the unique challenges that your new life as a step-parent is going to bring [1].

Sit down with your partner and talk clearly about any questions you have about your stepchild’s care. In the long run, clear communication will help you get through tough times.

Follow your partner’s lead

It’s likely that your partner will have a good understanding of their child’s needs, alongside a number of care routines. Even if you have wildly different opinions about how things should be done, it’s best to try and fit into existing routines, at least in the beginning.

You may end up providing a lot of care for your new stepchild and, as you get to know each other better, it may become natural to suggest little changes. In the beginning, however, it’s going to be a lot simpler to follow your partner’s lead until you have a strong sense of why things are done the way they are.

Planning and prep 

When forming a new stepfamily, it’s very important to take things slowly, plan things properly, and keep lines of communication open. Keeping everything out in the open can help prevent arguments later down the line.

Talk about how you are going to handle certain situations, and identify any issues that you might encounter so you can be ready to deal with things together. This can help the whole family to adjust slowly and handle the changes more confidently [5].

Be patient

Your partner may want to introduce you to the family gradually, and this can help ease the transition for you. Children cope better when they have a chance to get to know their new step-parent slowly [5].

You may find that taking on the caring duties of a disabled child is more stressful and tiring than you’d first thought, and there may be times when you wonder if you’ve taken on more than you can handle. It’s important to be patient with yourself and your step child, and to remember to take some time for yourself to rest and relax, and to be a partner and a lover as well as a step-parent. The better rested you are, the better equipped you’ll be to support your stepchild, so try to take some time for yourself to pursue your own interests, spend time with your partner, your friends, and your other children if you have them.

While it may feel like a luxury to look after yourself, you’ll be better able to look after your family when you’re taking good care of yourself. It’s sometimes possible to get outside help to allow you to take respite breaks. Your partner may have information on this already or, if not, you can find information through your child’s social workers or medical care providers. 

Being a step-parent is not always going to be easy. Many step-parents talk about having to do a balancing act, where they fulfill the role of a parenting figure, without stepping too far into the domain of the natural parent. Step-parents who try to exert authority before the children have accepted them can often come up against resistance, so you may have to defer certain issues to the children’s primary carer, at least in the beginning [6] [7]. In time, though, you’ll find your patience pays off, as you settle into your new role as a partner, caregiver, and step-parent.

For information on how to get a short break please see Contact's information on short breaks. 

All family members, including step parents, are welcome to contact the freephone helpline to talk about any questions you may have about caring for your disabled step child, including education, finances, and information about your child’s condition. They also have information for siblingsgrandparentsfathers and looking after your relationship. You can call them on 0808 808 3555, or email helpline@contact.org.uk

References 
 

[1] Pace, G. T., Shafer, K., Jensen, T. M., & Larson, J. H. (2015). Stepparenting issues and relationship quality: The role of clear communication. Journal of Social Work, 15(1), 24-44.

[2] Visher, E. B., Visher, J. S., & Pasley, K. (2003). Remarriage families and stepparenting. Normal family processes: growing diversity and complexity, 3, 153-175.

[3] Afifi, T. D., & Schrodt, P. (2003). Uncertainty and the Avoidance of the State of One's Family in Stepfamilies, Postdivorce Single‐Parent Families, and First‐Marriage Families. Human Communication Research, 29(4), 516-532.

[4] Sweeper, S., & Halford, K. (2006). Assessing adult adjustment to relationship separation: The Psychological Adjustment to Separation Test (PAST). Journal of Family Psychology, 20(4), 632.

[5] Cartwright, C. (2010). Preparing to repartner and live in a stepfamily: An exploratory investigation. Journal of Family Studies, 16(3), 237-250.

[6] Hetherington, E. M., & Kelly, J. (2002). Divorce reconsidered: For better or worse.

[7] Kinniburgh-White, R., Cartwright, C., & Seymour, F. (2010). Young adults’ narratives of relational development with stepfathers. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 27(7), 890-907.

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