Step families and FIFO: how to survive and thrive

By psychologist Angie Willcocks

I’m no stranger to step families: I grew up in a bit of a jumbled family myself. (I have a full sister, a half sister, two half brothers, a step brother, a step sister and two “ex” step sisters!) As a kid I certainly wasn’t always over the moon about how my family looked (mostly because I thought it made me too “different”) but I can honestly say that I now really value my family structure and all that it’s given me. I know it’s a cliché but my life is so much richer because of all the extra people who have been part of it!

When I was in primary school, step families were certainly not the norm. As the years have gone by (for lots of different reasons, including changes to divorce laws) blended families are becoming increasingly typical. In fact, some demographers predict that blended families will outnumber nuclear families by the year 2020. The number of FIFO families is also growing, so it’s safe to assume that blended families (with one or more parent working FIFO) are becoming increasingly common too.

Psychologists and other researchers really need to get busy figuring out what these families need in order to stay happy and healthy, despite all the challenges they face! In the meantime, I’ve had a bit of think about what might help all of you FIFO blended families out there.

Let's start with some general tips...

It’s not the structure of the family that matters, so much as the relationships within the family. Each individual relationship is important and needs a particular kind of attention. It’s hard work because there are so many relationships to maintain, but I always encourage the adult members of a blended family to look at each relationship individually. There’s the new partner, the ex partner (and their ex’s new partner if they have one), your own kids, your step kids, your kids from the current relationship. And each one of these people will need a different approach from you. A good exercise to do here is draw yourself in the middle of a circle. At various points around the circle draw (or write the names of) each person in your new blended family (yes, this includes the ex as well!) Now slowly draw lines from yourself to each person on the outer circle. As you’re doing each line, think about the particular relationship you have with that person: what is expected of you? What are the easy and difficult parts of this relationship? Think about what you can do to improve or maintain this relationship (or to stay sane if improvement is not possible). Ideally you would write an ‘action plan’ for each of those relationships. For example:

Realise that it takes time to build a ‘new’ family. You can’t expect the kids to be over the moon initially. Just because you’ve found new love, it doesn’t mean your kids have! You also can’t expect your new partner to automatically love your kids. Be patient. Create opportunities to spend time together, but also make sure you have one-on-one time with your partner and your own kids.

I know it can be very hard to agree on issues related to expectations and discipline of kids, but you have to keep working at it as a couple. In my opinion the biological parent has the ‘main say’ when it comes to general discipline and rules, especially in the early days. The step parent needs to be willing to respect their partner’s views and parenting styles, even if they don’t agree with them 100 per cent. Having said this, step parents have a right to speak up about things that directly affect them, like rude behaviour or how their personal belongings are used. Family meetings can be useful here. The aim of the meeting is to get a list of household rules. If the kids don’t want to participate in a meeting, sit down with your partner and create rules and expectations (for yourselves as well as the kids). Nut out who is responsible for what and when. If you find yourselves having lots of arguments about rules, expectations, discipline or responsibilities seek counselling sooner rather than later.

If you find that you really don’t like one or more of your step children, spend some time trying to figure out why this is so, and what you can do about it. You might need to consider some professional counselling for this – not because it’s your fault or there’s something wrong with you, but because your life will be so much easier if you can find a way to either start to like the child, or manage your dislike so it doesn’t ruin your life (and your step-child’s).

It probably goes without saying, but try not to argue about the kids in front of the kids. This is not to say that parents shouldn’t argue in front of children at all – just that disagreements that are actually about the children are best had behind closed doors.

And now onto FIFO blended families:

The working away parent:

The home parent:

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