Supporting stepchildren when a biological parent has died can be difficult. It’s impossible for a stepparent to fill the void that is left; however it is possible to create a family structure that supports, includes and welcomes everyone.

Accept that people are grieving

Forming a new family can be challenging as not all family members will be grieving the same way, and some may not feel ready to accept a new situation. 

If your partner’s bereaved children do not live with you, there may be practical considerations such as: who will the children live with?, will they have to move away from friends and family?, will they need to start a new school? This can create extra difficulty and stress.

Whatever the situation, trying to form something new when everyone is holding on to what they had, can be difficult. As a stepparent the first thing is to recognise these losses and take things slowly. Take time to listen

Make time for children to talk about and remember their parent who has died, but also be aware of when they might not want to talk. Children can feel overwhelmed by strong emotions and may not always feel able to express them through talking. Doing a workbook together, making a memory jar or just going for a walk can help to alleviate the pressure, and give a child space to express what they think and feel.

Allow anger

Some children may direct their anger and resentment towards you when their biological parent has died. Let them know that it’s normal to feel angry but it’s not OK to hurt themselves, you, or anyone else. Help them find safe ways to release their anger such as physical exercise.

Dealing with difficult behaviour

It is important to maintain usual boundaries of behaviour and respect. Challenging behaviour is not unusual, such as refusing to do something and saying, “You can’t tell me what to do, you’re not my real mum.” Try not to rise to this; instead, respond calmly, and acknowledge the situation.

You might say:

I understand how difficult this is for you and that you loved your mum. I am never going to replace your mum, but I am here for you and I want the best for you.

Keep to routines

Daily routines can be helpful to a bereaved child who may feel that everything is out of control, particularly if their living arrangements have had to change. Maintaining some structure can help a child feel more secure, for instance keeping to their bedtime routine, continuing social activities, or having usual time with grandparents. 

Help children remember their parent

Remember that you’re not replacing their parent, but adding someone new to their family who will support them. Your home doesn’t need to become a ‘shrine’ to the parent that has died, but make sure there are reminders and avoid removing all trace of them. You might like to do something to help the children mark their parent’s birthday, or any other special occasion, for example by making a card or their favourite cake or meal, or visiting a place they loved.

Build new memories together

Don’t be afraid of making changes, but do so cautiously. It’s important to involved children in changes that will affect them. For instance, if you’re redecorating, you could ask the children to help choose colours or designs.

Recognise family traditions and don’t try to start from scratch – for example if they have particular Christmas traditions keep some of them, but also make some new ones. 

Take it slowly and build memories together that incorporate the past. Be aware that friends and other family member such as grandparents, might be feeling left out. Let them know that they can visit or call and feel connected to and part of the new family that’s forming. 

Stepbrothers and sisters

If your partner’s and your own children live together, there may be resentment if your children feel their bereaved step-siblings are being treated differently. They may also worry that you, or someone else close to them, might die too. Make allowances for these difficult feelings and talk about them with your children, addressing their concerns honestly. 

Talk to your partner

Open communication is key to supporting bereaved stepchildren in a way that works for everyone. Make time to talk about how things are going and discuss any difficulties or resentments. It is important that you and your partner try to be on the same page with regard to setting boundaries with the children and communicating as a family unit.

Acknowledge that it takes time

Try to be patient in your role as a stepparent and know that it can take time for everyone to adjust, including yourself. Supporting grieving children while also coping with changes to your own life can be physically and emotionally exhausting. Try not to expect too much of yourself.

Seek support

For further information on supporting a bereaved child, call our Helpline: 0800 02 888 40. Or use the Live Chat function on this website.

For specialist advice about being a stepparent: www.happysteps.co.uk


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Stepparenting where a biological parent has died

Author: Child Bereavement UK 

© Child Bereavement UK