Being a parent or step parent in a blended family presents its own unique challenges and rewards. Dr Lisa Doodson, the founder of Happy Steps and a psychologist specialising in stepfamilies, gives advice on how to be an effective parent within a blended family, from phones at the dinner table to the role of your children's new step parent
Do you have to rewrite your parenting rules when becoming a blended family?
No, you don't have to rewrite the parenting rules but you do have to have a clear role for the new step parents.
If their role in the beginning is for them to just be a 'friend' to their stepchildren and not be too involved in day-to-day parenting, then it wouldn't be appropriate for them to discipline the children.
However, if the adults have agreed that the step parent should take on a full parenting role, then it’s up to the two of them to define the rules in their own home and family.
How do you effectively ‘parent’ a child that isn’t your own?
It’s important to take your time and build a relationship before you start 'parenting'. However, once you are established in the family then it’s important that the step parent feels they can establish the same rules as the parent in the household.
I would encourage the couple to define what the boundaries are in their home and support each other. So for example, if the rule is 'no phones at the table' then the stepparent should feel confident in reminding the children of this.
What’s the best way to keep consistency for children between different homes/families?
Don't try! You can only control what happens when the children are with you – if you try and impose rules on other families (and exes) then you are likely to fail.
The important thing is to be consistent when the children are with you. So for example, if you have bed time at 9pm but they're allowed to stay up later at their other parents, then you just have to stick to what you believe is fair and keep imposing the same rules.
Of course you can talk to the other parent but unless you have a good relationship (which is not often), they are unlikely to agree with you.
Children are very good at dealing with different house rules – they already cope with different rules at home and at school, it just sometimes takes a little longer to establish the house rules if they are different in each home.
What advice would you give a parent whose children stay with a step parent who has different tech and online rules to them?
Children should be taught to abide by the rules of the house they are staying in. So, if Dad says you can’t go online in your bedroom, even if you can at Mum’s, then that’s the rule.
If one parent doesn’t want phones at the table for example, then they need to tell all the children who are staying in the house and be consistent in applying the rule.
‘It’s really important to have clear rules and boundaries’
If you have your own biological children and your stepchildren come to stay for a weekend, it would be unfair if you let them do things your own children weren't allowed to do, and vice versa. Consequently, it’s really important to have clear rules and boundaries and be consistent and fair to all the children.
If possible, separated parents should share with each other their views on what they think is acceptable and unacceptable regarding online viewing/access etc. Hopefully they might then try and keep the same rules for the children, but in my experience this is often not the case and we find that one parent is more liberal than another.
One thing I would say. Be careful that you aren't doing something to 'win' points in any way and make the other parent look bad. Try to understand why the other parent has made a rule, and decide if there might be a good reason before you overturn that rule in your home!
What if one parent doesn’t want their child to have an underage social media account or to play video games that are too old for them, and the other parent lets them?
This is incredibly difficult to deal with. I would suggest explaining to your children why you have the rule and that you don't think it is safe for them.
I would also speak with the other parent and try to reach a compromise but this can often be difficult, particularly if there is still bitterness and anger following the breakup.
It is the same with games. If you are concerned, then you will need to talk to your ex about this. If things are still difficult between you then it might be worth considering a mediator who can help find some sort of compromise.
Are there any organisations other than your own that you can recommend to give specialist advice for parents and step-parents?
There are very few organisations which provide specific help. However, Relate are often a good start and offer support across the country.
Happy Steps offers advice and support to stepfamilies and professionals.
How To Be a Happy Stepmum and Understanding Stepfamilies - A Practical Guide for Professionals Working with Blended Families by Dr Lisa Doodson are available now.
The advice published on Parent Info is provided by independent experts in their field and not necessarily the views of Parent Zone or CEOP.
First published: March 2017
Checked: May 2018