Q&A with Paula Hall of Relate on step-parenting
Sexual and relationship psychotherapist Paula Hall has been working with couples for nearly 20 years. She has a private practice in Leamington Spa and represents Relate as a member of its media team. She joined us in May 2012 to answer your questions about step-parenting ranging from difficult step-children to interferring exes.
Paula has completed Relate training in couple counselling and psychosexual therapy, and now works more with cognitive behavioural and systemic techniques.
MsIngaFewMarbles: As both a mum and step-mum I would like to ask at what point do you stop trying to have a civil relationship with the other parent if all you get back is abuse? Also when joint residency is in place, how should we cope with another parent who refuses to discuss and agree parenting decisions?
Finally, how much information should be shared between parents? For example, does the other parent have a 'right to know' if a new partner moves in with parent and child? Is it helpful to communicate changes/issues which may affect the child in both homes, or is it better to keep homes as separate as possible?
Paula Hall: Although it's difficult to maintain politeness and courtesy when your ex seems determined to be difficult, never give up on being civil with them, regardless of how abusive or uncooperative they are.
Remember that you're modelling for your kids, children learn what's right and wrong from their parents, so if one of you is behaving badly that makes it even more important that you do the right thing. So whenever you're tempted to give as good as you get, think about your kids and what you want them to learn about you and from you.
When it comes to agreeing parenting decisions, all you can do is be open and transparent and, again, think about the impact it has on your children. That includes sharing information that might affect them. Ex-partners may not have a 'right to know' about a new partner, but the last thing you want is for your children to be in a position of feeling they have to keep secrets. So share whatever information you think might affect your kids and continue to seek joint decision-making.
Unfortunately, you can't change your ex, but hopefully over time they will change themselves if you continue to demonstrate that you're putting your children first.
Chocolatebiscuits: What advice would you give to me and my partner on moving our families in together? We've been together two years, and the kids have known each other most of that time. He has four kids aged nine to 15, and I have two aged eight and 12. We've told them already and five of them are happy and excited about it but his 13-year-old son is less so.
My partner's kids come every weekend, whereas mine are with me in the week and just half the weekends, so we'll have a fluctuating household size. We're moving into his house. We've agreed on house rules, but I'm worried about enforcing them, and also about general fighting and chaos with so many kids. How can we help everyone to get the most out of the new household?
Paula Hall: First and foremost you're both going to have to accept that keeping six kids happy all the time probably isn't ever going to happen! Listen to the 13-year-old's concerns, make sure he feels heard and adapt if possible, but ultimately he may have to realise he lives in a democracy and the majority rule.
Talking of rules, the most important thing in stepfamilies is to try and agree house rules as a family and leave enforcement and discipline to the birth parent whenever possible. This can ensure that you don't get caught up in the 'What right have you got to tell me what to do?' type disputes that often arise.
Having said that, of course it's not always possible or realistic to wait until the other parent is there. I always suggest that you're totally open with kids about the fact that you're going to try and leave discipline to the respective parent because that's what you've agreed is best. But if an urgent decision has to be made, or if the issue is around the safety of one of the kids, you have agreed that it's OK and right for the other to step in. The Relate Guide on Step Families by Suzie Hayman has got lots more tips and advice on step-parenting.
DRD: I struggle to find positive things on which to build a relationship with my teenage step-kids. I can't see how to move forward when they delight in lying, stealing from me and conducting a lifestyle which their father has no issue with, but I feel is heading for disaster.
Meanwhile, my own children watch knowing I have different values and wanting to know what I'm going to do about it. Life in a blended family is really tough for all of us and often results in sterile silences in what is supposed to be a home.
Paula Hall: To be honest, this sounds like a case for couple counselling, and then possibly referral into family counselling. From what you're saying, your husband and you have very different views on parenting and this is affecting not only your relationship, but your children and the whole atmosphere in the home. Children of all ages need to know that parents are in charge, but unfortunately it sounds as if you're saying that your stepsons are.
I'm curious about the 'sterile silence'. Is that because neither you nor your husband wants to rock the boat? Or are you sick of the arguments that talking about it creates and have given up? Either way, this situation is not good for anyone. My advice would be for you and your husband to go for couple counselling and try to agree some ground rules. And if he won't go, go on your own so you've got somewhere to air your concerns and consider your options.
Plumbuddle: I've done the step-parenting thing with my husband. His three children are now adults and not around much. We have two sons together, still at home. I am fond of two of the adult stepchildren but disengaged from the eldest. However, that's hard on my husband who wants everyone to be one big happy family, something that both the stepchildren and I understand cannot happen.
We can come together occasionally with respect, but they couldn't really live in my home long-term any more. My husband and I have had a couple of rows lately and it's come to the point where I think it is time for counselling or therapy for us as a couple going forward. I want a marriage counsellor who will help us to communicate and strengthen our marriage but not someone who will insist I try to be a blended family with the stepchildren. What agency would you recommend we go to? I don't want further guilt-tripping and pressure.
Paula Hall: Relate - it has to be Relate. Not just because I work for them, but because they are the specialists in couple counselling and family relationships.
I'd like to reassure you that there'll be no guilt tripping and no pressure, but a counsellor will ask you questions that might leave you feeling a bit uncomfortable. He or she will want to know how and why you both came to have the views that you have. And then work with both of you to communicate those views in a healthy way and hopefully find a resolution.
Couple counselling is almost always about helping couples to communicate and resolve differences - what those differences are about is often irrelevant as there are rarely any absolute rights or wrongs. So my advice would be to definitely go along for counselling and be prepared to explain your views, but please don't feel being asked about them means that the counsellor thinks you're wrong. You're perfectly entitled to your views and in this day of the boomerang generation, there are many parents who do not want adult children returning to live at home.
You might want to watch the Relate video series on YouTube about what couple counselling is and how it can help, starring yours truly.
Mouldyironingboard: My adult stepchildren refuse to have anything to do with me, so now my husband sees them on his own. I've been married to their father for four years and met him after he'd been single for several years. Do these situations ever change once stepchildren meet partners or have children of their own?
Paula Hall: This can be a tricky situation, sometimes 'yes' and sometimes 'no'. Unfortunately, the circumstances of a break-up or the reaction of one of the parents can leave children of any age with significant feelings of bitterness and betrayal. Most likely your husband's adult children are refusing to see you either to punish their dad, or to protect their mum and it's probably the latter if they have a good relationship with him.
If his ex has been unable to come to terms with the break-up, then the kids may see meeting you as betraying their mum. It's not about you personally, but about the fact that you're the woman that replaced mum in dad's life. As the years pass and they go through transitions such as marriage and children of their own, this may well change. Or, hopefully, mum will meet someone else and the kids will no longer have to feel any divided loyalties about having a relationship with you.
Thrownintothis: My partner's son is 14 and his mum decided not to take a part in his life some years ago. Every so often she pops up when she decides she wants to see him, and he says he doesn't like it, has even said he is frightened that she will take him away. I'm confident that won't happen, and we try our best to reassure him that he is safe, we've told him all his teachers know that she is not allowed to take him home from school etc (she no longer has parental responsibility). At 14, is it too late for him to trust that a female can play a positive role in his life? I worry what role I will ever be able to play in his life, and also whether he might find it difficult as he gets older forming serious relationships with girls. I want to be supportive but worry I'm over-analysing everything. Is there a manual?
Paula Hall: The greatest gift of second families is that it's a chance to prove that relationships can work. Not only can you provide your stepson with a model of female care and stability, but his dad's relationship with you is also a living testament of how special and rewarding a relationship with a woman can be. Keep up the excellent work. Introduce him to some of your girlfriends and let him spend time with you and your husband and other couples, too. It's never too late to learn about love. Oh, and the manual? You're writing it now.
ProbablyjustGas: If you end up in a situation where a stepchild will be left out of a family event (eg a holiday abroad), because your partner's ex-spouse won't allow that child to attend, can you recommend an approach for breaking that news to the child, understanding that you don't want your stepchild to feel as though they're not included in dad's family, but also don't want to create bad blood between your stepchild and her mum.
Paula Hall: If it's mum that's saying 'no', it really should be mum who's explaining the reasons why. And then dad, and you, need to be seen to support those reasons, even if you don't agree. So, ideally, you should be saying something like, "As you know, your mum thinks... And so this time we don't think it's right for you to come."
Even if you don't agree with her reasons, you might agree that, for the sake of family harmony, now is not the right time for arguments. I'm wondering if mum would agree to a consolation of some kind. For example, a daytrip to the zoo or theme park, perhaps with a friend? Then you can say "But what we have decided to do instead is..." Hopefull,y then a good family time can be had by all and next time the situation arises, perhaps mum will be of a different view.
Curtain: I'm separated with two girls of junior-school age. How do I introduce a new girlfriend to my children?
Paula Hall: It really does depend on the age of your girls and how much experience and knowledge they have of dating. Either way, 'slowly' is best. Start by telling them you've got a new friend or girlfriend if that term feels appropriate. Tell them a bit about her and say that she'd like to meet them some time and you'd really like them to meet her. Then start dropping her name regularly into conversations.
When that's comfortable, either arrange for her to pop round or meet you somewhere just for a few minutes - perhaps to collect something, or say hello via Skype. This allows them to put a face and voice to the name and make her real. Then arrange a one or two-hour meet-up somewhere neutral, such as at a park or café, or do something together you know the girls like - 10-pin bowling or swimming. Then build from there.
Be ready to answer their questions and for the fact that they may each respond very differently. Make sure they know that your new relationship is not a threat to your relationship with them but that parents need to have relationships of their own, too.
XEDing: I have been seeing my partner for a year. However, he hasn't left his wife because he is afraid she will be obstructive and controlling over his contact with this children. How can we get her to see sense and accept that I'm going to be an important part of their lives, whether she likes it or not? And what rights do we have to enforce the contact that we think is appropriate?
Paula Hall: One of the hardest stepfamilies to set up is when the children know that their parent left mum or dad for the new step-parent. And it looks as though this is the situation that you have found yourself in. It can be especially difficult if the other parent is angry or upset about it, which perhaps his wife is.
My advice would be that you need to take this very slowly and be patient, or there is a real risk of damaging both yours and your partner's relationship with the girls for years to come. Ideally, he should leave his wife and build a relationship with his girls as a separated dad before introducing you. That may feel like a bitter pill to swallow, but if you're in love and are planning on spending the rest of your lives together, investing a few months, or even a year or two on helping his children adapt to the separation before meeting you will be more than worthwhile for everyone concerned.
Chelen: How would you advise resident-parents and step-parents to respond to/support children who genuinely feel let down by their non-resident parent? So much co-parenting and step-parenting advice is based on an assumption of 'two committed parents who want to do everything they can to support the child' when the reality is sometimes very different. Is there anywhere resident-parents can seek support to deal with non-ideal co-parenting situations?
Paula Hall: When separated parents are committed to putting their kids' needs first, then there's no doubt that life will be easier for everyone - especially the kids. But as you say, this often isn't the reality. If part of the reason you split up was because of problems in your communication and differences over parenting, separation is unlikely to have improved that situation.
But whatever happens, you have the power to continue to be the best co-parent you can be. If your child is feeling let down by their resident parent, then make sure they know it's OK to talk about it. And encourage them to speak to your ex about it too. If the situation isn't changing, then the most important thing is that you reassure your child that it's not their fault and help them not to take it personally. Empathise with their feelings and support them in trying to address the problem.
But if nothing changes, help them to accept that sometimes parents make mistakes and make the wrong decisions, but that doesn't mean they're not loved. You can get more advice on helping kids going through divorce and separation from the Relate Guide - Help Your Children Cope with Your Divorce - written by yours truly.
Ukuleila: In the UK at which age can a child decide which parent he wants to live with?
Paula Hall: For legal advice you really need to speak to a solicitor. However, whatever the legal age may be, you need to consider what's in the best interests of the child. Many young people, especially in early adolescence, will say they want to live with the other parent. And unless there's a very good reason why they shouldn't, often it's best to agree to their wishes.
Most often, wanting to live with the other parent is a protest against something they're not happy with at home and unless handled wisely, it can become an emotional threat. The sooner they realise that it can't work - either because you don't mind who they live with, or because it's not practical - the quicker you can turn as a family to resolving the issues that underlie the request.
CC2B: I'd like advice on how to support my partner (non-resident parent) when his ex-partner refuses to allow reasonable contact with children aged seven and three. She claims it is inappropriate and unrealistic to extend his contact time from every other weekend and one evening per week, saying the children are too young and that they've had too much change. We thought it was fair enough at the start, but the children have been really happy and seem pretty comfortable with everything now so we now don't understand the objection. How can I be a useful support without getting dragged into the emotional side of this too much?
Paula Hall: Your partner's ex might have a point when it comes to the three year old, although the usual advice for young ones is little and often, rather than extended separation from either parent. I wonder if it's a possibility to extend contact for the seven year old alone. Perhaps starting just with an extra evening or a few hours after school? And perhaps she might agree to a few extra hours a week with the three year old round at her home, perhaps putting her to bed one evening while she goes out for a while?
Often separated parents assume that the kids should go to the other parent together, but most children love to have some special individual time alone with each parent. If his ex won't consider this, perhaps all you can do is try to secure a timescale of when contact can be extended. Try to focus on what is possible and is OK with her, rather than on the limitations. Hopefully, it will naturally change over time.