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It's one step at a time when you parent other people's children...

RONAN Keating flew back from Australia late last year with his new girlfriend, Storm Uechtritz, causing speculation as to whether or not he was bringing her home so she could become more acquainted with his children Jack (13), Missy (11) and Marie (7).

Although the TV producer met Keating's children earlier in the year when they visited their father Down Under, she is unlikely to try to replace their mother, Yvonne, who was married to the Boyzone singer for 14 years.

Fellow Australian Simone Callaghan, the ex-wife of cricketer Shane Warne, recently spoke out about how confusing the presence of English model Liz Hurley was in her children's lives.

In an interview with Woman's Day magazine, the mother-of-three said it was not a good idea for their future stepmother to be encouraging her children to treat her as a second mum and it was disrespectful of her to expect them to call her 'Mummy Two'.

Mature

Having a relationship with someone who is a parent can be tricky and emotions will often run high. But for the sake of the children, it is vital that all the adults in their lives remain civil and adopt a mature attitude to handling a very difficult situation.

Ireland has the lowest divorce rate in the EU, but numbers are rising and last year almost 90,000 couples were legally separated.

So the issue of step families is fast becoming very relevant to Irish people.

One woman I spoke to, who we will call Mary (not her real name) recently moved in with her partner of two years. Although she has no children of her own, her partner has two daughters from a previous relationship. "I can understand why any mother would feel anxious about another woman playing a part in her child's life, but becoming a stepmother is also a very nerve-wracking experience," says the 31-year-old.

"My partner, Bill [not his real name] parted on bad terms from his ex-wife and she really resents the children spending any time with him, particularly whenever I'm around. She even told her eldest daughter, who is only nine, not to talk to me unless John was in the room. That was an awful burden to put on a little girl who blurted it out after realising she had gone against her mother's wishes and answered a question I asked about school."

Mary realises her partner's ex is feeling insecure about the impact her presence may have on her daughters' lives, but says adults should put their feelings aside and never make children take sides.

"Bill's ex has become really possessive over the children and seems worried that I am trying to take her place," she says.

"But I'm not like that -- I know that I am not their mother and never will be and I wouldn't dream of trying

to get them to take sides.

"I'm not planning on muscling in to secure a place in the girls' affections, but I guess there will be times when I will have to discipline, more as an involved adult rather than a parent, and I am dreading that.

"I am hoping their mother will realise that I wasn't the reason she and Bill split up and as I'm going to be around for a long while, she should lose the resentment for the sake of her children and do what she can to make them happy both in her house and ours."

Rules

Solicitor Anne O'Neill specialises in family law. She says new families can face a minefield of emotions but it is important for adults to discuss potential problems in advance and establish a few home rules.

"Step parents need to sit down with their new partner and find out what is expected of them," she says. "In some cases, the other biological parent may not want them to have any hand in disciplining their children and this should be established from the start.

"From the child's point of view, there is a huge conflict of loyalty so all the adults involved must have a clear plan of where each of them stand in relation to the children. When there are children involved, everything needs to be clear cut without ever involving them as a go-between for the adults."

Peadar Maxwell is a senior psychologist specialising in children and family issues. He says while it is important for step parents to become involved in their step children's lives, they should understand both the boundaries and the limitations of their relationship.

"As a rule, step parents should become involved in their partner's children's lives," he says. "But the parents should hold off on introductions until there is some level of certainty in the relationship.

"Children should not meet their mother or father's every date -- it's confusing for them and blurs important boundaries."

But once it has been agreed that a new partner will be involved in the children's lives, the step parent may find the transition just as difficult as the children.

"Step parents can experience difficult challenges," warns Maxwell.

"Research suggests that step mothers tend to have a more difficult time in their role than step fathers. And step parents who don't already have kids of their own or who have little or no experience with children may find the new responsibilities overwhelming.

"It may be the first time they have had to share the other person with children who have significant needs.

"People who are completely new to parenting will need as much help as possible from their partner and other friends and family with experience with children.

"Also, step parents often put immense pressure on themselves to love and get on well with their new partner's children.

"But in reality, it may be impossible to ever love a stepchild as if it was your own and this can leave many new step parents feeling guilty and inadequate."

However, the parenting expert says it's not all bad news. "Partnering with children is not all negative and blended families often do very well if everyone is realistic about their expectations."

Visit www.onefamily.ie or call 01 662 9212, or see www.familylawireland.ie and www.hse.ie