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Q&A with Paula Hall of Relate about being a step-parent: please post your questions here- ANSWERS BACK

(55 Posts)
KateMumsnet (MNHQ) Thu 17-May-12 10:56:11

This week we're inviting you to put your questions about step-families to Paula Hall from Relate. Paula is the author of Relate's How to Have a Healthy Divorce and Help Your Children Cope with Your Divorce, and has extensive experience working as a relationship psychotherapist with couples in second relationships.

Whether you're in the early stages of a new relationship, or struggling to combine two families with quite different ways of doing things, forming a new family can be a real challenge.  Relate can offer support to help family members settle into new roles - if you'd like to know more, this video explains how family counselling works. 

In the meantime, Paula's very happy to answer any of your questions - from when to introduce a new partner, to dealing with loyalty issues and helping children adjust - so do post them here before the end of Monday 21st May, and we'll post her answers up the week commencing 28th May.

If you read or posted on the thread, we'd be really grateful if you'd tell us what you think by filling out this very quick survey.



NatashaBee Thu 17-May-12 11:26:41

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

MsIngaFewmarbles Thu 17-May-12 14:40:14

Hi Paula,

As both a mum and stepmum I would liketo ask at what point do you stop trying to have a civil relationship with the other parent when 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 sjould 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?

Lots of questions sorry!

NotAgainAndAgain Thu 17-May-12 14:55:28

Being a well aged step-family (15 years) with ups and downs and all sorts at the beginning, we have reach some plateau which I have learnt to accept.
My DH has maintained the notion of 2 units (four of us and another three kids, 29-28-27) and even though we overlap and cordial and normal on the surface, my hopes that we will gel in some time in some happy big family still remain dreams. My attempts are not completely brushed away - I we play Family Tennis Cup , obviously dinners and birthdays, but it always end up as them and us in some not obvious but palpable way.
May be I should have prioritised it differently at the start, may be it is now too late to rock the boat, but sometimes my resentment surface and I do not like these feelings. I do not share them because my DH would take it as "why complicate if it worked so far".
I have had no grudges agains ex, she created no problems for me as such, only her problems with 3 kids were reaching me, but not too many to be fair.
My MinLaw went out of her ways to keep things for kids as they were, therefore some grudges are there (she did not include my elder daughter in her Nanny "circle", she specified her boundaries with the little one when she was born - there was never a case when she was with her one-to-one).
Our set up is not bad, but I still feel as "second family". Will it always remain?
I am a believer that if one wants a change - one should start with oneself. What can I start with? Even a talk (with DH) I see as an attempt to change his perceptions and find it frightening of likely re-affirmation what I feel as a result of it. Or should I count my blessings and be content that a second family will never become like first?

chelen Thu 17-May-12 15:37:04

Hi Paula,

Thanks for doing this Q&A.

My question is:

How would you advise resident parents and step parents 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?



CC2B Thu 17-May-12 16:55:43

Hi Paula

To counteract Chelen's question, I'd like advice on how to support my partner (non-resident parent) when his ex partner refuses to allow reasonable contact with his 7 year old and 3 year old. She claims it is inappropriate and unrealistic to extend his contact time (from 9.30am Saturday to 6.30pm Sunday every other weekend and every Thursday between 5pm and 6.30pm) saying the children are too young and that they've had too much change. My partner moved out last May and they've been doing overnights since September, with me in their lives since January. We moved in together to a new place in February. Therefore when this was first said in March, we thought it was fair enough. But the children have been really happy and seem pretty comfortable with everything and stayed for four nights over Easter, so we now don't understand the objection. I understand that she doesn't want to lose the children for another night but this way, they see their father for only 2 nights a month and never for a full day morning til bedtime. Surely that's not fair but how to persuade a still-angry and bitter ex? My partner has tried to point out what a court order could look like but she hasn't reacted to that at all in her responses. And how can I be a useful support without getting dragged into the emotional side of this too much?

coffeeandcake Thu 17-May-12 17:19:32

when do you introduce a new boyfriend to your children? my boys are 8&5, and i share their care with their dad. at the moment i seem to be living a double life, and although i don't have any plans NOW on introducing the parties (we've only been dating 3 months!), i don't think i'd know when the time WAS right!
i did try it ver early on in a previous relationship, and when that ended the children lost someone that they had developed relationships with.

chocolatebiscuits Thu 17-May-12 17:32:30

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 9-15, and I have two aged 8 and 12. We've told them already and 5 of them are happy and excited about it but his 13 year old son is less so (he's not a very sociable child who prefers computers to company really). 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. But I'm also looking forward to it a great deal - how can we help everyone to get the most out of the new household?

Janet107 Thu 17-May-12 17:56:01

I too find myself in this position, often it seems and almost impossible. Am interested in any advice.

herfs Thu 17-May-12 18:30:22

my ex is now in a relationship and decided to stop paying our daughters schoolfees.Our divorceorder states he`s responsible for it.I`m scared if they should move in together he will say he cannot afford it due to expenses for his new household.His girlfriend gives her daughters old clothes to our daughter but I have never met her or know anything about her.I told my daughter not to accept it as I don`t want this to be a habit when he starts his new family and I also find it unacceptable and disrespectful of her.
How do one handle this potentially stressful situation
I cannot afford a lawyer again and I just want to move on with my life but it seems this is not possible when there is children involved.

prettyfly1 Thu 17-May-12 19:19:17

Great idea for a q and a. I would like to know what you suggest for how to manage behaviour with step children. Kids are kids and they need to know boundaries but this can be a really tough area for steps. Disney dads overcompensating for being away from thier kids, not wanting to over step the mark with the bio parents and as you know in many of these situations, the step becomes the target of the childs anger and confusion make it a minefield I think most of us could use some advice over.

auntiep Thu 17-May-12 19:20:55

I'm in a rather unusual position in that my partner's son has always lived with him since his sons mother left when he was a year old. We have been together since his son was a year and a half and have been living together for four and a half years now, with me taking on the role as my step sons primary carer. I have changed my job so I work term time, changed my hours so I can pick him up from school, take him to all the after school activities, GP, dentist, hairdresser etc. appointments. I have absolutely no problem doing this as I love him as if he were my own, however I worry should something happen to my partner, I would have no rights to how he should be cared for in the future.
My partner's ex has never acknowledged that I do all these things for my step son, and instead demands to see her son whenever it suits her (she seems to think that as she only seems him alternate weekends and 1 night midweek, that she ought to have Christmas, Easter, Bank Holidays and his birthdays). I don't believe she would be reasonable in allowing me access to see my step son should the worst occur.
Is there anything I can do to protect my rights (or don't I have any!)

Pedigree Thu 17-May-12 21:11:40

My ex refuses to communicate with me in any way other than using our young child as a messenger. I oppose to that, as I think this is completely unfair on DS and has caused already a lot of pain to him.

Ex has since stopped contact and said to DS that the only way he would agree to see him is if he doesn't have any contact whatsoever with me. Unfortunately, DS has some considerable medical problems so an update on handover is, most often than not, necessary. I have offered to put a note book on DS' bag with notes about medications, health updates, etc but ex refuses to use it, I cannot contact him via text, phone, email, or letter unless it is through a solicitor, which is not only impractical, but completely unaffordable to me.

Is there anything I can do for contact to be reestablished other than play to be the invisible woman and pray for ex not to accidentally kill DS? (yes, it is that bad) or, should I just give up, accept that DS's dad won't take an active part on DS' life? sad

And no, mediation is not an option as... never mind, he attacked me during a session. I don't qualify for legal aid and I don't have the resources to defend my case in court.

Should I just give up hope that one day they will have contact again, in order to protect DS's health?

somanymiles Thu 17-May-12 21:11:42

My DH (step-father) is resentful of time I spend with my DS and DD and has very low tolerance for normal childhood behaviours eg squabbling, playing piano badly, forgetting to close doors etc. This has become so much worse since we had our new DS (of whom he is the biological father) who is just a year old. DH sees any time I spend on my big kids, helping with homework/music practice, talking through any problems they are having etc as time taken away from him and DS2. He is a lovely man, has made a huge effort with the kids in the past, and admits fully to his feelings but I just don't know what the solution is. It's much worse with DS1 (who is 12), who can seem to do no right in DH's eyes. What can I do to diffuse the tension? I would love us to be one happy family.

allnewtaketwo Thu 17-May-12 21:26:18

My DH has 2 sons aged 16 and 12. He had to go to court for 'access' when they were 3 and 7 respectively. Until this day, his ex refuses to deviate from the court order, to the exact minute.

At their current ages (particularly the 16yo as I believe indeed that court orders for access expire at this age) the court would deem that they are old enough to decide for themselves when to see DH. Yet their mother is fiercely controlling and she simply would not allow this. In reality, they are terrified of her and there is continual evidence of emotional abuse.

Having been a regular member of the SP forum over many years, I have come to realise that this is not unusual. In my case, I strongly believe that the result of this is 2 extremely damaged children who will find it very difficult to grow into the world as adults.

My questions are:
- Is there any official recognition of the damaging effects that emotional abuse by a PWC can cause, in using the children to 'punish' an ex partner, consistently, throughout their childhood?
- What can the system do to address the issue of a PWC controlling 'access' well into the teenage years through emotional abuse?

mouldyironingboard Thu 17-May-12 21:26:20

My adult stepchildren refuse to have anything to do with me and completely ignore me so DH sees them on his own. I've been married to their father for 4 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?

kitty19b Fri 18-May-12 08:07:06

My husbands ex wife continues to use his two boys aged 13 & 14 to hurt him. She messes him around seeing them and at the moment seems intent on stopping them from going to school (she didn't) as she knows he cares about their education. We try and avoid her but have seen her sitting at the end of our road in the dark, she is obsessed with my husband and tried to get back with him after cheating on him. What is the best way of dealing with this, what age will the children stop being brainwashed by her and is there any help for fathers like him please? I can't believe a mother could use her children in this way. I could write a book on the nightmare we have!

nongenderbias9 Fri 18-May-12 09:04:12

Yes it's funny how these stories reflect the kind of skewed society we live in. One in three children do not live with their birth father. 93% of children after separation end up living predominantly with their mother. Why do we disrespect the relationship between a father and his children? It is no wonder that in this country we have some of the most unhappy children in all Europe. Behaviour is poor and our prisons are overfilled. Could Prime Minister Camerons parenting classes be the answer?

Janiee69 Fri 18-May-12 09:11:57

Hi, I'm a mother of 7. 4 girls-14-20, 2 stepdaughters-16&19.have been primary carer 4 5yrs. Been tog 7yrs, married for 3yrs and have a son tog=4yrs 2 girls now not @home. Prob is we disagree about the kids!! My girls have no contact with their dad & the step girls do have contact with their mum now. She did disappear for a few years.My husband has been gr8 to my girls but in the last 18 months he has made it clear that his girls are priority. Whilst not with words, more with actions.When i question him he denies it but my girls now feel its no point asking him for help etc as its all about his. He drives his daughter to college, when everyone else gets a bus, she won't eat @ home now as she says she "can't" & when she is in a mood, no one can say a word. I am not allowed to discipline, have an opinion, mention anything but am ok to cook, clean, sort presents etc. Whilst I don't mind as I have always done so it has got to the point now that it's breaking the home unit. The eldest daughter makes it clear it's her dad& he jumps when she calls, despite her being nearly 20! My girls aren't perfect but i feel as a couple we should deal with the problems together.I adore my husband but his idea is that "I'll do my kids a & you do yours" I find this so hard & feel his kids play on this opinion. I prob was niave thinking we could all be a happy family but really want it to work for us all.He is also really strict on our son & yet falls over b.wards for his girls & never says no to them. I prob sound really childish but really need to know how to move 4ward as step mum &to get my husband to listen/talk to me cos I am at the end of my patience....... Sorry if I've gone on a bit too !!!

ArcticRain Fri 18-May-12 09:33:28

Hi ,

Two questions really. One general and one pets

ThrownIntoThis Fri 18-May-12 09:45:17

Not as serious as most posts but it would be nice to know:
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 custody or parental responsibility or whatever that legal term is). For as long as he can remember, his mum has been a very unstable and volatile person.
My questions is: 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 do what I can to be supportive but find myself overanalysing every tiny thing that happens and getting into a bit of a spin. Is there a manual?

ArcticRain Fri 18-May-12 09:50:49

Hi ,

Two questions really. One general and one personal.

Has there been any research completed on how family breakdowns affects the nrp, generally the father . I ask because I notice , on both mumsnet and in real life , that there is often a huge amount of animosity generated towards the nrp , who tends to be the father . I think non resident fathers get a terrible press. If you read the post on here , often the father is a non maintenance paying , time wasting, not wanting to see the children , responsibility avoiding individual , while the mother is the hardworking self sacrificing parent . I refuse to believe that there are so many imperfect fathers and perfect mothers . Does separation from your children, and having to abide by visitation rules etc have an affect on nrp that people don't actually consider ?

And how can we tackle the assumption people make that the father is always a nrp and should be the maintenance payer ? We have experienced this numerous times . My DH doesn't pay maintenance . We have the kids 50/50 , split costs, and the mother has a well paid career and doesn't expect it .

On a personal note , we have rules regarding chores etc at our house , but at the mothers house there are little rules , and often a free house because she works shifts . This has resulted in teenage temper tantrums and outburst of 'You're always getting at me , ill go and live with mum , and then how would you like that ' if nagged to keep room clean , go to bed at a reasonable time etc.

How should we handle these threats and implement basic rules ?

Ukuleila Fri 18-May-12 11:58:41

Hello Paula,

two questions. First of all, at which age here in the UK a child can decide with which parent he wants to live? I've read somewhere in a law book that it is at the age of 12, but not sure if that is still correct.

Second question. What do you do when the biological mother of the child shows signs of mental instability (personality disorder) and does quite a big deal of parental alienation to her child? We currently have a 50/50 residency agreement, but the child - now 8 - is unwell. The school points into the direction of the mother, saying she is a mess and the boy lacks in structure and should best go full time with his father (this is an unofficial statement of course, as they are not allowed to take part in a custody fight). But they also warned us that here in the UK mothers are still favoured over fathers and should - by misjudgement of the Court - the mother get the custody back of the child, it would be disastrous to the child. Do you have any strategy or good advice on how to proceed in such a case. Many thanks!

NotaDisneyMum Fri 18-May-12 11:59:33

Hi Paula

My question stems from both personal experience, and reading the many posts from parents and step parents on MN.

What support is available for those of us who are attempting to co-parent with an ex-partner who suffers from mental illness, personality disorder or general challenging behaviour, but who is considered to be able to function independently in society (and therefore has no support network in place)? How can we share care with someone who alienates professionals involved in our childs welfare and education through their erratic behaviour? How can we compensate for a parent who can't make the link between their own behaviour and the welfare of their children?

I've read all the self-help books I can, registered with all the websites, and even attended courses to support separated parents - but at the end of the day I'm left thinking, yes - I've tried all that, but nothing has changed. Now what? Where's the next chapter?

Solicitors, mediators, teachers, social workers, CAFCASS officers, court officials and magistrates are ill-equipped to deal with people whose expectations of society and "the system" varies significantly from reality.
Professionals are bound by ethics, codes of conduct and policies to engage with all parents even if the actions of those parents are not in the best interest of the children, but it is the other parent who is left picking up the pieces and undoing the damage that has been done, both practically and emotionally.

chelen Fri 18-May-12 13:57:01

NADM I think the response to your question is also going to be of great interest to me, what do to support our kids when we know it is nowhere near bad enough for intervention, but it definitely isn't good? Yes, what do we do, those of us who are 'left picking up the pieces'? This is an issue for both resident parents and non-resident parents, what to do when the other person does not put the child first, will not communicate, does things that hurt the child.

Every book I read says 'engage with the other parent' - but what do we do when they won't engage?? 'Work together in the interests of your child' - but what about those of us stuck trying to work with people who won't work with us??

I feel none of the agencies are prepared to accept the reality - sometimes there aren't two equal parents - and consequently I know my DP and I have felt so alone because the only advice we ever get is that we must try harder to engage.

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