In this episode, Laura engages in a thought-provoking conversation with parenting expert Rachel Schofield to explore the complexities of parenting in blended families. Rachel provides valuable insights and practical strategies to help parents navigate the challenges that arise when it comes to parenting in a blended family, including the role of a stepparent when it comes to parenting, the most important thing you can do as a parent in a blended family and the importance of keeping your cool when emotions run high.
Rachel Schofield (00:00): We keep kind of in our parenting lane. So the parent takes the responsibility and the stepparent is there as a caring babysitter – that’s particularly important for the stepparent to really focus on – building connection.
Laura Jenkins (00:15): In The Blend is a podcast series that helps parents navigate life within a blended family. Join me as I speak with experts and guests to get practical advice on how to have a harmonious blended family life. This series dives deep into the unique dynamics, logistics and challenges of raising a blended family. From new partners to juggling mixed finances, we will help guide you through it.
Welcome back to another episode of In The Blend, where we dive deep into the complexities of blended family life. Joining us today is Rachel Schofield, a parenting expert who has dedicated her career to supporting families with simple, practical strategies to turn chaos into cooperation. I like the sound of that. In this episode, we’ll explore the common challenges faced by blended families when it comes to blending parenting styles, the parenting approach new step parents should take, and how they can develop a positive relationship with their stepchildren. So if you are a stepparent in a blended family, wondering what your role is or if you’ve ever wondered how to navigate parenting in a blended family, this episode is a must. Listen, before we dive into our conversation with Rachel, just a quick reminder to please subscribe if you’re enjoying our podcast, and also to sign up to our monthly newsletter, which we have just launched, to stay up to date with all things in the blend. Alright, let’s jump right into our interview. Well welcome Rachel, and great to have you here. Rachel, you’ve got professional qualifications in parent coaching, you’ve coached hundreds of parents over the last 15 or so years, and you’ve also been featured quite predominantly in the media with your expert advice, so I am very much looking forward to our chat today.
First up, Rachel, no doubt you’ve worked with families in all shapes and sizes. In your experience working with blended families, what are some of the most common issues that arise when it comes to differences in parenting styles?
Rachel Schofield (02:25): Yeah, so I think like the biggest issue that arises is, is really the, adults arguing about the differences. And so it’s more about how the differences are handled. And then what happens in the aftermath of the arguing or losing it with your partner, losing it with the kids. And so it’s the tension that arises that is the biggest issue, not so much that there are in fact differences. And I kind of would like to zoom in on that a little bit because differences in parenting styles are really common in, in all families not just blended ones. And with all families, different parenting styles lead to conflict. And being on the same page in your parenting is, it’s, it’s like one of those really big narratives out there. That’s something you should be doing. You go and read stuff about being on the same page as your parenting partner, but I think it’s much overrated and I think it’s actually really healthy for each parent to parent their own way. Because children need genuine relationships with their parents. Like what matters is how the differences are handled rather than the fact that there are differences.
Laura Jenkins (03:45): How can parents in blended families work together then to establish those consistent rules and expectations for their children?
Rachel Schofield (03:55): Yep. So there is so much in this question. There are kind of quite a few assumptions, so I’m gonna kind of just pull it apart a little bit and have a little sort of dive into it. So we, we’ve kind of touched upon how no two parents are exactly the same and you know, some parents are more lenient, others are stricter, and kids can actually handle really well the differences between parents. They’re actually adept at doing this. So, you know, if you think about it, kids can handle the fact that the, the rules at school or the rules at daycare are different to the rules that you have at home. And they can also handle how it’s okay to jump up and down on the couch, but when grandma’s visiting, we don’t do it because that just doesn’t go well. Like, kids are really, really smart at understanding different rules, applying different places and with different people.
And similarly kids know which parent to go to. Like if they want a chocolate biscuit, they, you know, they, they, they’re really smart. And so what kids need is a genuine relationship with each parent. Like that’s the thing that matters most. It’s also okay for there to be different rules with different children. And, and this is really common in all families. Like, so if we just think about it kids of different ages actually need different expectations. They need different rules. And then kids with different temperaments also might require slightly different boundaries. Like if we’re really tuning into that child, there may be different rules happening. And we also know that like different families have different values and this is really, really pertinent when it comes to blended families because often in the attempt to kind of bridge parenting style differences, it’s very, very common for to sort of stuff the blended family into the nuclear family mindset.
And it really just does not work. It, it’s important to acknowledge that the children are not the ones that are kind of in love so to speak, that they’re very much, they’re not the ones to, you know, be in love with the new parent. They’re the tag alongs. And so, yeah, so what’s significant in blended families is the context. So in a nuclear family, everybody’s got a biological link, but in a blended family many of the connections are only emotional and, and those take a really long time to develop and they also develop in the context of kinda competing loyalties that you need to accommodate. So in terms of parenting style differences, what matters is taking ownership of who is dealing with a particular situation and who is responsible for which children. So let’s unpack that a little bit. So in a nuclear family that the couple have two kind of relationships.
They have the relationship where they are a parenting team and they also have the relationship with the children. And it’s really important that a new partner doesn’t pick up any parenting roles and responsibilities that might change over time, but in the beginning it’s a really good golden rule to go by. And, you know, children will react to a newcomer taking on parenting roles like in the place of the absent parent. You can kind of guarantee that that’s gonna bring conflict. So a really good direction for the new partner to take is the role of being like a caring babysitter. And so you think about a caring babysitter and they, they make decisions that that need to be made, but as soon as the parent comes back, they kind of hand handover responsibility to the parent.
And so if you take this, this kind of role, this kind of view that the, the new partner is the caring babysitter and the biological parent is the one responsible for the children, you’re going to avoid so many ugly scenes. You’re going to, I mean, I’ve had stories of parents who are like, the child refuses to eat lunch because it was made by the stepparent. Like this kind of stuff is common and happens. And so being really clear about your role can really help those kind of things. Yeah, so kids kind of do that kind of stuff because what they’re doing is putting the stepparent back in their rightful place and, and kind of like, no, you’re not going to be my parent. And so they will react to it. So kids have a really accurate radar of when this happens and they will pull rank on a stepparent when that’s going on.
So if a parent manages to stay out of the parenting, a new parent managed to stay out of the parenting role, it, it kind of allows that their contribution to the, to the stepchildren is one of a gift. Like it becomes something that’s extra, it’s a gift. And it’s like, it’s a bonus and not something to be counted on. So rather than consistent rules, what I think matters is that each parent takes responsibility for their own children and then you support your partner as they parent their children. Like that way you’re kind of avoiding the whole consistent rules thing and doing what really matters.
Laura Jenkins (09:23): Yes, I like that. And I identify with what you’re saying around having the, the stepparent initially take a backseat in terms of those parenting roles and responsibilities. Rachel, I’d love to know, what strategies do you recommend for helping children adjust to different styles between the biological parent and the stepparent then?
Rachel Schofield (09:47): Yeah. Yeah, great question. So really the, the key is that we keep in our parenting lane. So the parent takes the responsibility and the stepparent just as you know, is there as a caring babysitter. And then, I mean, this is good for both parents, but it’s particularly important for the, the stepparent to really focus on building connection. Children need to feel safe, they need to feel safe with the new partner. They also need to feel safe with their parent too. So everything we’re about to say, I’m going to kind of focus on the new parent, but it totally applies to their biological parent. So they need to keep feel safe and their whole world has changed. It takes quite a lot to feel safe and it takes time, but one key part of feeling safe is that they feel connected.
And so just simply spending time with the new kids at their level goes a really, really long way to accepting that new parent and accepting their style of being with the new kids. So you can reach in like a great things to do a rough and tumble play. That goes a long way be particularly with younger kids and one-on-one time where you’re doing stuff that the child wants to do rather than following your own agenda. It can be little pockets of time. It can literally be five, 10 minutes down on the floor. Or if it’s with a teenager just hanging out, like kind of, and being with them somehow one-on-one time, something that they’re interested in, like maybe it’s something on their phone, you know, you’ll find a place to connect with them.
And I think the other piece is realising that it’s really natural and normal for kids to have big feelings about a new partner. It’s very, very rare that a child will be pleased about the fact that their parents have separated. And the most helpful thing to do is to just hold space for those hard feelings. And so if you try to tell a child like not to be upset, and they might be upset about the way you are relating to them, but if you try to tell them not to be upset or tell them to stop being angry you know, they actually have a lot to feel angry about. And particularly both parents will cop this, but the new parent in particular will cop hard feelings in any which way. So keeping holding space for those feelings, allowing them to happen because if you don’t, if you shut them down, you’re actually creating distance.
And the key thing you need is this connection, but that’s so important. So when, when a kid’s unhappy, upset, you just simply move in, you, you listen whilst they get rid of those yucky feelings. So they might be having a meltdown, they might be crying or they might be saying something like, “I hate you, I don’t like you” – it might be verbal. It’s so important to keep your cool. And you can respond with, “I know, and I hope one day we can be friends”. Like it’s your job as the adults to kind of hold that direction and keep strong and kind as best you can. But you know, of course that can be hard. It’s so easy for us to get triggered as adults. But it’s really essential for, for both parents, but particularly the stepparent to manage their feelings and not dump it on the new kids. Yeah, I mean losing it, like if only it was like a magic wand that was really simple to do, but losing it can really erode all that good work you’ve been doing building connections.
Laura Jenkins (13:44): I think that’s spot on. And we had another guest too, Joseph Dreissen who talked about connection before correction in a podcast interview I did with him. And I think that aligns really nicely with what you are saying. If the stepparent disagrees with the parenting style of the core parent, coming back to developing that positive relationship with their stepchildren, what are some other ways that stepparents can go about doing that in particular if they’re in a new relationship?
Rachel Schofield (14:23): Yeah, so in, in a nutshell, it’s build connection, play, play, play. And don’t try to be the parent <laugh> be the caring babysitter. So I kind of mentioned before that rough and tumble play is just a fabulous way to kind of reach in with kids, particularly younger ones, one-on-one time doing something that a child wants to do, like they’re really, really good go-tos. But also stuff like sharing like an interest that you have, this is where you can be that gift to these children, like bringing extra things into their lives that they wouldn’t otherwise have been exposed to. So you, you might, you know, maybe you’re into fishing or forces or football, whatever it is, finding ways of sharing your interests and sharing your genius. There’s, you know, everyone has like a place where they shine, so maybe you’ve got a wicked sense of humour. I’ve seen that as a really common way that a stepparent will bond with, with the new kids is like having a wicked sense of humour that can kind of diffuse tensions when, when tensions rising in a family playfulness, what whatever it is that’s your genius.
Bring that to the kids, bring that to the family and to not get triggered when the kids are rejecting you. You can guarantee that you will get rejected – I can’t think of one blended family where that has not happened. Like that’s going to happen. Your job is to not take it personally. It’s a really natural part, like particularly to begin with, your job is to kind of remain strong and kind even though the kids are rejecting you, your job is to hang in there. They really need to be reassured that you care and that you are in there for the long haul and that you are not ruffled by their reactivity, which is really just the hurts coming up from all that’s been before.
Laura Jenkins (16:18): In a blended family I know there’s always all sorts of emotions like jealousy, especially if there might be a new baby between the new couple or there can be resentment among the children that there’s a new stepparent on the scene. How can parents in blended families navigate some of those complex emotions that might be coming up day to day?
Rachel Schofield (16:42): Yeah, great. Yeah, that’s such a good thing to think about. So the most important thing is not to get caught up in them yourself. Like emotions can be really con contagious and if, and they, they are really big feelings that can so easily kind of pull us in. So if a child’s feeling jealous or resentful, we can find ourselves getting really emotionally kind of activated too. And it’s almost like we’re joining them in that feeling and it starts to take over the whole family and you can feel, you know, you can feel the tension rise in a family when that happens. So, so back to not getting triggered, not getting activated, managing yourself when you notice that you are and just realise. I think just having really realistic expectations that it is very, very common for children to have big feelings.
And those, when those feelings touch, so when, when we get triggered by them, it’s like touching on places in us where we feel hurt. It reminds us of times when, you know, we felt jealous or resentful, like that they kind of went from when we were little and times that haven’t really been resolved in this. It’s like the touching on old hurts, we hold hold inside and they’re getting stirred up. So keeping ourselves anchored, it’s good to notice that you can notice, “ooh, that really <laugh> that really touched a spot” and you can figure out / work on that at another time, but not in the moment where the child’s experiencing those feelings. So really back to like managing your own feelings in the moment is the good first step. It’s also good to have really realistic expectations, like it’s completely normal and healthy that those feelings are going on.
Like it’s completely predictable that a child will experience jealousy with a new baby in between a couple. Like that is just predictable. So there’s nothing wrong with your child, there’s nothing wrong with your family that these feelings are happening. So when, when feelings are flaring like that with a child, the most helpful thing you can do is hold space for those feelings. So the child’s feeling jealous. It’s like you don’t have to persuade them out of that. Like that is what they’re feeling and you can just be with them and acknowledge. They won’t necessarily say, I feel jealous. It’ll come out in their behaviour. Or they’ll say stuff like, I hate you or whatever it is, and you can hold space for it whilst keeping everyone safe, you don’t want anyone getting hurt or harmed. You keep people safe, but you don’t try to persuade them out of it.
And if you are able to kind of meet a kid with, with warmth and anchoring, they will drop into some sort of deeper feelings, like they will have a good cry or a meltdown and that is really helpful for them. They’re just offloading the, the really raw feelings underneath the resentment and jealousy and every time they get to do that, they’re just clearing out a whole load of junk in their mind and they’ll be able to think more clearly. And then you’ll be clearing out the jealousy and the resentment like every time you’re able to hold space for, for those, for deep cries and meltdowns.
Laura Jenkins (19:47): Great advice. With your experience, Rachel, you’ve probably got quite a toolkit of different skills and resources that you would share for parents in general. Can you recommend any in, in particular that you would suggest for blended families who might be looking to improve their communication and or their parenting skills?
Rachel Schofield (20:09): I think the single most important thing that any parent can do, and this is particularly important in blended families, is to self-regulate, is to keep you calm. And I have a free pocket guide for parents on how to stop losing it with your kids. And there’s an audio version that you can listen to as well and a pdf and it really gives you a trail mat so that you contain your temper and be a more relaxed parent, be a more relaxed stepparent. And you can find that in the show notes and rachelschofield.com/free.
Laura Jenkins (20:40): Fabulous. Rachel, finally, what are some of the key takeaways that you would like listeners to remember when it comes to addressing differences in, in parenting styles in blended families?
Rachel Schofield (20:52): I’ve got three takeaways. One is make sure the biological parent is in charge of their kids. Keep in your lane. Secondly, focus on building connection. Like keep your focus on the connection with the new kids. Don’t worry about the parenting style, worry about the connection, and thirdly, manage your own triggers.
Laura Jenkins (21:11): Very good. Great advice. Thank you Rachel. Well that is all we have time for today, but I’ve certainly taken a lot away from our, our chat and we’d love to have you back another time.
Rachel Schofield (21:23): Thank you so much.
Laura Jenkins (21:25): Thanks Rachel. Thanks for listening to the In the Blend podcast. The show notes for this episode are email@example.com and if you like what you heard, be sure to subscribe and please rate and review in your podcasting app. You can also follow me on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.