The breakdown of a relationship is undoubtedly going to be hard on children caught in the crossfire, but sometimes the hardest change comes later when parents move on and find new partners.
These new partners may already have children of their own they want to bring into the household, in fact statistics show one in nine families in Britain is now ‘blended’ or incorporating children who have different genetic parents.
Lizi Jackson-Barrett, 40, split from the father of her eight-year-old twins in 2012 and in the six years since has remarried and acquired a stepbrother and stepsister for her kids. She told HuffPost UK that her twins found getting used to a new family dynamic tough.
“At first they found it upsetting, but as time has gone on it’s actually helped them learn to be more resilient,” she said.
“With plenty of reassurance from me and my husband, they’ve learned it is okay for families to argue and that it doesn’t mean we’ve stopped loving each other.”
If your family is going through a similar process, there are ways to make sure that the whole thing runs as smoothly as possible, which will ultimately help your children adjust to their new circumstances.
Make Sure You Are Certain Of Your Situation
It’s not very romantic, but Rose Stone, head of advice and information at Gingerbread, the UK charity for single parent families, says before you go any further with this plan, you need to look into how becoming a blended family will affect you financially, to avoid any unforeseen issues that could unsettle your kids.
“Think about your housing – it’s worth checking your rights and responsibilities. Your status may change once you’re living with a new partner,” explained Stone.
“Your finances will also change. In particular, benefits and tax credits you receive will need to be recalculated to take into account that you’re in a couple family now. Be sure to check your situation if you’re receiving tax credits or universal credit as there are new rules for families with more than two children, for example.”
Be Open With Your Children
Once you and your partner are certain you’d like to become a step-family then don’t delay in telling your children your plans.
“It is important to talk openly to your children about what this means and how things will be different, so that you can support them through this transition,” explained Stone
By keeping them in the dark for a longer period, you might feel like you’re protecting them, but they’ll only end up feeling left out and as thought changes have been sprung on them.
Understand That This Might Not Be Good News
Although this is an exciting time for you and your new partner, you cannot expect that from day one your children are going to be on board with this idea.
Cathy Ranson, editor of parenting video community ChannelMum advised: “Understand there maybe upset. Some blended families form as the result of death, divorce or relationship break-ups. There may be baggage and pain from both the adults and the children, so give everyone the space and support they need.”
Reassure Your Children About Your Relationship With Them
Starting in the earliest conversations with your children, make a special effort to focus on how much you love them, and that becoming a blended family doesn’t change that at all.
Ranson advised: “Be clear and explain they are your number one priority before you think about introducing then to a new partner and the other children.”
This reassurance will need to continue as your relationship progresses.
Jackson-Barrett said: “My children have struggled to learn to share me and my husband (who they call dad) with two other children.”
“We work hard to try to give every child some attention, and to make sure no-one feels left out. We also try to make sure we have ‘family time’ when they’re here – it might be a walk in the local park, or sitting together to watch a nature documentary.”
Take Introductions Slow
Try to be aware of getting caught up in your new relationship, and don’t instigate meetings or suggest moving in together until everyone has had time to think about this, advised Nicola Booth, who runs a London-based single parent support group.
“Introductions and the moving in process should be slow, I would not introduce the children to the new partner until the relationship is stable so possibly eight to 12 months down the line,” she said. “What you don’t want is another relationship break up so you need to make sure 100% that it’s stable.”
Ranson added: “Don’t rush it, no matter how in love you are. Kids come first.”
This won’t happen overnight, so listen to what your children are telling you about how they feel and act accordingly.
Make The First Meeting As Relaxed As Possible
Once you have decided you want to take this to the next level, you might think you need to make the introductions a formal occasion, as there’s no doubt this is a big moment in your children’s lives, but actually that could just make things more difficult.
Ranson advised: “Make the first meeting relaxed and informal. A playdate for young children away from home so you are not one someone’s ‘turf’ is ideal. Or try a cool restaurant teens will love for older kids. Add in some sweets and naughty treats so it’s remembered positively.”
Think Carefully About Sharing Space
It might seem the logical next step to you and your partner, but moving in together is a huge change for your children and requires a lot of thought.
“Moving into a shared space needs careful management,” advised Ranson. “Ensure all children are treated equally - there can be no favouritism. Work out who gets which bedroom carefully as a smaller room or sharing with a sibling when you had your own room before can be seen as a slight which wounds deeply.”
Jackson-Barrett said her children have struggled somewhat with having to share their home when their stepbrother and stepsister come to stay every second weekend.
“We have to move everyone around a bit to fit the whole family in, which means giving up their own space in their own bedroom sometimes,” she said.
Celebrate The Small Wins With Your Partner
At each step, tensions are probably going to be running high, so respect boundaries and understand that small wins are just as important as major breakthroughs for long term success with your new partner.
You should also make time for the two of you and remember why you started this process.
“Your partnership may come under pressure. Accept that the ups and downs of blended family life comes as part of the package,” advised Ranson. “Laugh, cry if you need to, and remember with love and understanding, even the most difficult of situations will work out.”