Tips for making second families work

Children's feet in a circleSecond families are on the increase in the UK and it's estimated that one in three people are involved in some kind of stepfamily situation. There are many different kinds of second families, some big, some small, some part time and some very, very full time - and each of them presents challenges.

Dos and don'ts for step-parents

  • Do set clear roles and responsibilities with your partner
  • Do be consistent - whatever rules you agree, it's absolutely essential that children know you're a team
  • Don't try and discipline your stepchildren until you've built a relationship with them
  • Do make time to be alone with your children, with your stepchildren, and with each other as a couple
  • Don't take negative feelings and behaviours from stepchildren too seriously - remember it's what you represent, not you as a person that they dislike
  • Do be ready to adapt - whatever type of family you live in, life does not stand still so be ready to change as the needs of your family do
  • Do take time out for yourself to do the things that you enjoy - the more fulfilled you feel as a person, the happier home life will be

Dealing with unfinished business

Whenever a second family is formed, it means a first family has broken down, and before you can move on healthily, you need to be sure that you've dealt with any unfinished business.

While many couples enter a second relationship feeling wiser and better prepared, inevitably there are also doubts and insecurities. Often there are feelings of sadness, guilt, anger and regret about the ending of the first relationship and when an ex is still on the scene, there may be jealousy.

And even when a previous relationship ended mutually and amicably, it's common to worry that history might repeat itself.

Another difficulty can be accepting the continued role of the ex in co-parenting arrangements. While the old couple relationship may be left in the past, the ex will probably never leave the scene. When these concerns are left unsaid, they can fester and grow into bigger problems. But when couples share their fears and anxieties, they can work together to overcome them.

These concerns are also true for children who have seen the break-up of their parents' relationship. It can take a long time for them to trust that the new relationship will be permanent and that often means that the new step-parent is kept at arms' length until a child can trust that they're going to stay in their lives.

Working on your couple relationship

A strong second family starts with a strong couple relationship. And while it may be tempting to believe that children's needs must always come first, sometimes it's best for them that yours do.

A step-couple usually have little time to build their relationship before children enter the scene. And if both of you have children, then both of you have other priorities and commitments competing for your attention. This often leaves couples struggling with divided loyalties and jealousy as you try to split your time and attention between each other and the children.

It's a cliché but quality time, rather than quantity time, really is the basic building block of any intimate relationship. So, whenever possible, grab time to be alone together - even if it's just one evening a week, or a few hours after the children have gone to bed, or before they get up.

And whatever the age of your children, let them know that you need and enjoy time alone together because doing this will not only set them a good example, but also demonstrate that your relationship is important and that you're committed to each other.

As well as juggling multiple family relationships and being strapped for time, many step-couples also have to juggle the practical and financial resources of daily life.

Wherever possible, you should agree the rules and roles of the home before you live together, but if you haven't done so, it's not too late to do it now. Put some time aside to consider the following questions together:

  • How will you manage access between children and exes and your relationship to them?
  • How will you ensure there is special time for each family relationship to develop?
  • What will be your rules about bedtimes, mealtimes, housework, homework, going out, TV and computer usage, pocket money and so on?
  • How will organise your living space so everyone can feel at home?
  • Who will be responsible for discipline and how will it be handled?
  • How will you budget and organise your finances?
  • What arrangements will you make for visiting, or being visited by non-resident stepchildren and extended family members?
  • What will you do about special occasions such as birthdays, Christmas etc? 


  • Get more information about second families from the Relate guide, Step Families - Living Successfully with Other People's children, by Suzie Hayman, available from the Relate online bookstore
  • Struggling with step-parenting? Chat to other step-parents

Last updated: 5 months ago