When a step-parent leaves, what happens to the kids?
When celebrity chef Nigella Lawson filed for divorce after photos of her husband holding her by the throat appeared in newspapers around the world, there was no doubting her decision was a sensible one. But, like many step-parents before her have discovered, it’s the relationship with former step-children that can often be the most difficult to negotiate when second marriages end.
The teenage daughter of Lawson’s former husband Charles Saatchi hit out at her former step-mother, describing her as cold-hearted in an interview with the British Press.
“Nigella has not spoken to me since she left our house on that Sunday when the newspaper story appeared. She has behaved in a very cold-hearted way. She has been my mother since I was seven or eight and has just abandoned me. That’s it,” 18-year-old Phoebe said.
The right thing for the kids
So what is the correct and acceptable way for a former step-parent to behave when their marriage to a child’s biological parent ends? Should they keep in touch with their ex-partner’s children, letting them know they still care about them despite the relationship break-down? Or should they keep their distance to save the child from feeling like they are betraying their biological parent?
According to child psychologist Fiona Martin, from the Sydney Child Psychology Centre , there is no one answer that suits all step-families going through divorce or separation.
“If the step-parent has known the child since they were very young and has been around for a long time, then the child could experience many of the same feelings they would if it was their own biological parents breaking up, such as confusion and guilt,” she said.
“So if the step-parent cuts off all contact with them they might feel abandoned and believe they were to blame for the break-up. But on the other hand if the break-up is not amicable then the child might feel torn and pressured into siding with their biological parent against the step-parent.”
Let the kids have a say
But Stepfamilies Australia National Program Manager Daniela Zimmermann says a step-parent often doesn’t have a lot of say in whether or not they continue to spend time with a step-child after a marriage ends.
“It is normally the biological parent who puts a stop to the contact between their child and their ex-partner, so in most cases there is not a lot the step-parent can do as they have no automatic legal rights to see their former step-child,” she said.
“That is a shame because step-parents, particularly if they have spent many years as part of the child’s family, can have a very positive influence on a child. Also, the fact that a child has already been through the breakdown of their biological parents’ relationship means the departure of a step-parent from their life is the second big family upheaval they have been through.”
Sadly, according to Ms Zimmermann, losing a loving relationship with a step-child is a situation faced by many step-parents, with 60 percent of second marriages ending in divorce. She advises parents to consider what is in the best interests of their child before denying them a relationship with their former step-mother or step-father.
“Like in any family breakdown, it is important to ask the child what they want,” she said. “The child can’t make the decisions, as the pressure to do so would be quite stressful for them too. But, depending on the child’s age, their desires need to be taken into account.”
This article was written by Letitia Rowlands for Kidspot.com.au and has been adapted for Kidspot.co.nz