Blended families are complicated. They always include drama from somewhere, whether it’s an adjusting child, a bitter ex, family court battles or child support, it’s all stressful and challenges your relationship from every angle.
In our blended family we also have the added complexity of having a child with special needs.
Being a parent to a child with special needs is hard, it not only pushes you to your limits physically and mentally but you also have times of grief, seeing your child struggle with everyday life.
My ex-husband and I both knew that our co-parenting relationship was vital to get both our children through the transition of us being separated, particularly our special boy. I am proud to say that years later my ex and I still work together to keep things consistent and workable for both our children. Most importantly, we both attend the numerous doctors and therapy appointments and work together as a team. That doesn’t mean we agree or even get along all the time, but it does mean that we are both mature enough to always put the needs of our children before our own feelings.
When entering new relationships we both faced different challenges with the children. My ex’s new partner doesn’t have children; my new partner has three. This created different dynamics for each household and the rules differ at times. For my children we are generally on the same page and discuss the “big” things that need us to work together on.
I am a step-mum and as I wrote in my previous article this is a challenging but rewarding role. And although I have said I believe being a step-mum is one of the hardest roles within a family, I believe there are days when this is not the case in our family. My husband is a step-dad to my son with special needs. This has to be one of the hardest jobs, taking on a child with needs you don’t always understand and that you are not naturally bonded too.
It is important for the entire blended family that as a step-parent your relationship with your step children is healthy. This is going to be harder if you have a child with any special needs.
Learn about the special need / disability
When entering a new relationship, it is your job as the step-parent to educate yourself and get a basic understand of the disability your step-child has. To be able to build a relationship with your step-child, understanding their extra needs is a must, you can’t expect to treat them the same as your other children/step-children. If you find it difficult to understand his/her needs, ask for help and information. It can be helpful to attend some therapy and/or specialist appointments if possible.
Teach step-siblings acceptance, empathy and understanding special needs
Having a step-sibling with special needs adds a whole new dynamic to your blended family. Children are naturally kind and understanding so use those qualities to help educate them. The more they understand your child with special needs the easier life will be. We have been blended for a few years now so our children do treat each other like siblings and have a good understanding of their step-brother’s special needs. We will always continue to teach, talk and help them understand. The local library is a great resource, children’s books are a great way to get kids thinking and talking.
Recognise that you both need a support network
As a parent of a child with special needs it is important to have a support network, even an online support group, or close friends or family members that are there to lean on during those hard times. There are many groups that support parents of children with special needs but unfortunately it can be harder as a step-parent to approach these groups and ask for support. Work together to make sure you both have that external support.
Be honest and have clear expectations with your partner about how much involvement you can handle
If you don’t want to care for your step-child alone then be honest. It is okay for you to find this too difficult. Especially if the child has medical needs, communication difficulties or even behavioural problems. Remember your relationship with your step-child is more important than creating that parental relationship so if you don’t feel you can or want to move pass the “friend” isle that’s okay.
If you do want to be able to care for your step-child that has special needs, then start small and work on building up your relationship and understanding first.
At times my son has concerns that means doctors, specialist and/or therapist visits and of course, sleepless nights. This can be hard on the whole family and although I try to continue managing to provide for the other children’s “day to day” care, I can be pretty pre-occupied with my son. My husband is amazing at picking up the slack so the other children are not too affected and is there for whatever support I need. Whether it’s physical support like school pickups and cooking dinner or emotional support like giving me that much needed cuddle at the end of a long day!
Sometimes you may disagree with a strategy that your partner is using with their child with special needs but you must respect that this is their journey. If it doesn’t affect the family in a negative way it is a good idea not to challenge your partner, just let it go. When you’re a parent of a child with special needs, you mess up sometimes, you don’t always get it right and sometimes you have to trial a whole bunch of things before you work out what actually works. I know I put a lot of pressure on myself to get things right with my son (but don’t always), and then feel guilty that I haven’t, or ashamed that I am allowing his extra needs control our family in some way. My husband is great at just listening and only offering advice when appropriate. He supports me with my son where he can, even if it is just listening to me vent at the end of a long day or allowing me to bounce ideas off him. Having his acceptance and trust helps me feel more confident as a parent.
Being a parent to a child with special needs is one of the hardest jobs around so remember as Step-parent to that child, you choose to be there, you choose to help, and you choose to want that relationship. Feel proud that you will bring qualities and love to this little person that is struggling with life.
I feel thankful that my son has my husband and his step-mum in his life, he has 2 extra parents who want to help him and that love him for being him regardless of his disabilities.