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Dads Dealing With Stepfamily Guilt

15/06/2016 17:14 | Updated 16 June 2016

As a psychologist specialising in stepfamily dynamics and relationships, I see a lot of couples struggling to cope with the unique challenges that stepfamilies bring.

Almost without exception, all couples who bring children from prior relationships find stepfamilies tricky to navigate. Whether it is understanding their role in the new family, knowing when and if to discipline their stepchildren, or dealing with a difficult ex-partner.

All of these issues are common challenges for many stepparents, but unfortunately there's no easy guide that has all of the answers.

One problem which I am seeing more of in recent months is related to dads and their feelings of guilt following the end of a relationship where children are involved. It is still the case that mothers are more likely to have primary care of children following a divorce or separation, although increasingly couples are working together in a shared care arrangement, where they each look after their children for 50% of the time.

Men who subsequently go on to find a new partner, and perhaps have children with them, find it very hard to shake off feelings of guilt for not being able to be with all of their children, all of the time. Often they try and reduce these feelings by always 'being there' for their children.

Some, for example, will phone their children regularly, perhaps daily. Often it makes them feel better and reduces a sense of guilt, but I question the true purpose. Is this for dad's benefit or for the children?

Younger children often find phone calls boring and are easily distracted, especially if something more interesting is happening on TV or their tablet.

This can make dads believe that their children aren't missing them and actually make them feel worse by the end of the call. It's far better to have calls when there is actually something to talk about - perhaps planning exciting things for the weekend when they're next meeting up.

It can also feel very intrusive for the Mum if there are constant interruptions and this can, in turn, increase tensions between the parents.

I've also seen dads snap up any time that's offered to them! So, for example, if their ex phones and asks them to look after the children unexpectedly they'll grab the opportunity. Understandably, they want as much time with their children as they can get. However, they often won't have checked with their new partner, who might be less happy with the arrangement.

She may have made alternative plans which then have to be undone. In some instances this has caused a real problem in the new relationship because the new partner feels that she isn't being considered or consulted while the ex-partner's demands always come before hers.

Dads clearly don't see things this way and often struggle to understand why it's such a problem. All they're trying to do is see more of their children. Often I find that new partners would have agreed to the change in plans, but the fact that they weren't asked makes them feel quite isolated from the family unit.

Just checking with new partners first, before agreeing any changes in access, can really help head-off potential arguments between the new couple.

A final, but crucial, tension point is when dads start a family with their new partner. They begin to feel guilty about the time they spend with the new addition to the family when compared to their older children, who might be spending more time with their Mum.

Often dads try and 'make things fair' by spending more time with their older children when they do see them, at the expense of time with the little one. While on the face of it this can seem reasonable, it can also make the new partner feel resentful of her stepchildren, given that their arrival means she and her child see less of Dad.

It can also mean the children take longer to integrate and get to know one another. I would always recommend spending some time alone with each child if possible, but there should always be family time where everyone can enjoy each other's company and get to know one another.

Feelings of guilt are normal and are to be expected, but it's important to understand the impact they have on future relationships. Being a dad is not about being with your children all the time - it's about making sure that when you are with them you're the best dad that you can be.

Visit www.happysteps.co.uk for more advice for stepfamilies.

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