It is not uncommon for a stepparent to be seen as a child’s birth parent when he or she has cared for the child since the child was very young. In cases where the absent birth parent has lost contact, or has died the child, and perhaps others, may believe that the stepparent is the biological parent. However, this kind of information is very hard to keep from a child. It is very likely that someone will tell them at some time.
Do I explain to my child that my partner is not their biological parent?
You need to ask yourself a number of questions before deciding what to do. The things to consider will vary depending on the circumstances and the age of the child. You may also want to consider the needs and rights of the child and your own needs and feelings about what has happened to prompt you to ask this question now. Think about what your partner thinks and feels too. It may help to have a think about what the grandparents and other family members know or need to know. You might also want to consider any legal issues e.g. whose name is on the birth certificate or parental responsibility. There is also a risk of doing nothing and the chance that someone else letting your child know abou their biological parentage.
What age is best?
If possible tell the child when he/she is young so that they grow up knowing. This helps the knowledge to be less dramatic. You also need to think about whom else needs to know. Try to avoid asking your child to keep this information secret, as this may cause him/her to feel guilty and ashamed.
How should I explain?
How you explain will be influenced by how well or badly the family normally communicate. If young children hear terms like ‘stepfamily’ and ‘stepparent’ used positively and openly from the start, a comfortable atmosphere will be built up around the subject long before they understand what the words mean.
It can be useful to create a context for telling. For example, you could make a scrapbook which tells the story of how you got here: ‘your family, your life, your work, your children, and your current partner’. This helps you to develop a script. It allows indirect and silent communication. Your child can help to make the scrapbook. Try to gather and prepare information about their other biological parent, and try to think of positive things about them. There is no right or wrong way to tell. Each person’s style will be different. Explaining is an ongoing process, not a one-off event.
What should I say?
Exactly what is told will depend on the circumstances and age of the child. If you have made a scrapbook this will help you decide what to say. You may find it helpful to rehearse what to say and how to say it beforehand. Tell the truth and keep the story brief and concrete. If there are difficult facts to tell make it easier by distinguishing a parent’s actions from your feelings about what happened. Remember to make it clear that the child is not to blame; it was the adults who could not keep the relationship going.
Who should do the telling?
Ideally the parent and stepparent should tell the child together. You can refer to the other birth parent by their name; or as their ‘birth father/mother’; or biological father/mother’; or ‘Daddy/Mummy (name)’. Try to time it sensitively e.g. the start of a school holiday, so that you’ll be available and aware of your child’s reaction.
What will happen next?
There may be strong reactions. You will need to listen to and take notice of your child. There may be a lack of reaction or withdrawal. There may be good or bad behaviour – both may be ways of coping. The child is likely to feel angry and sad and need to grieve for what is lost. A teenager may react by appearing to reject their family and all they stand for and perhaps idealising or fantasising about their ‘other parent’. Adolescence is often an age of confusion and turmoil and this new knowledge is likely to make the search for identity more troubled.
How can I help?
Give your child lots of opportunity to express their feelings. Listen and validate their feelings e.g. “It sounds as if you are feeling really hurt or angry because of this”. They may wish to speak to a counsellor or friend or independent adult. Be prepared for questions: “Why didn’t you tell me before?”, “What other secrets are you keeping from me?”, or “How can I trust you again?” Help the child come to terms with the idea of being a stepchild by referring to children they know in other stepfamilies, in their own lives or on TV.
How will we all manage?
Everyone’s life will be permanently changed by the disclosure but some things will stay the same. The adults will need to continually reassure the child that their loving feelings towards him/her remain the same. The disclosure may lead to stronger, more honest relationships in the family once the strains and tensions involved in keeping a secret have been relieved.
Making a decision
Do remember that the consequences of keeping a secret are usually worse than revealing the information. Do reassure your child that your love and his/her stepparent’s love remain unchanged. Don’t ask your child to keep secrets. Don’t be surprised by strong reactions and emotions in older children.
We are here for you
It may help to chat to other parents on our forums to find out how they are dealing with this issue within their family life. You can also talk to us online via our live chat service, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on our helpline on 0808 800 2222 to speak to trained family support worker.