Given that 50% of all marriages end in divorce; 75% of all divorce persons eventually re-marry and about 65% of remarriages involve children from the prior marriage– there are many parents and children trying to blend into new families.
If recognized, “ Time” can be a crucial resource. Blending a family is a process that takes place over time. If you keep time on your side, you may be able to suspend expectations, appreciate small steps and trust the power of love, flexibility and take out food.
Blended families generally begin with two adults who have had a loss by the death or divorce of a partner, decide to marry and want to blend their children together. Sometimes blended families involve a partner who has not been married before and is without children.
According to Dr. Weiss-Wisdom, psychologist, stepparent and author of Wisdom on Stepparenting, there are two goals to keep in mind when blending families-commitment of all adults to the care of the children and commitment of the adults to their new marriage.
Is that easy?
Not always, which is why giving yourself the time to understand how and why things unfold, providing each other with ongoing feedback and being open to changing plans makes blended families work.
The Children’s Perspective
A teen comments “Why do I have to spend time with him, I don’t really know him?”
A grade school child blurts out “ You’re not my mother!”
While it is certainly not easy for a parent or stepparent to hear, a consideration of the child or teen’s reality may put such reactions into perspective.
- Whereas adults who have suffered the death of a spouse or fought through a divorce are thrilled with a new love and excited to blend families, children need time. Emotionally they are in a different place than adults.
- Most children, who have lost a parent by death or the loss of the family by divorce, need time to grieve before accepting or loving a new parent.
- Often the very presence of the stepparent is a reminder of loss or a reality check that there is no hope for their parents’ reconciliation.
- The re-emergence of feelings of loss often fuels anger as well as guilt in children. We might even consider that the archetype of the wicked stepmother in age-old fairy tales and all too many Disney movies is a projection of the rage and pain a child feels with the loss of the mother/parent.
- Competitive loyalties
How does a little one know how to hold on to the good feelings of being with Mom’s new husband when Dad is sad?
One stepparent reported that she would see the children play with her own children and clearly have a good time but refuse to take anything home.
How do teens who have a difficult time with anyone their parents like get comfortable sharing space with another adult, much less other kids?
One teen told me that she felt that she was being forced to love people she didn’t even like – ‘It’s like a pre-arranged marriage.”
The Parent’s Reactions
The best reaction for everyone is for the new partners to trust each other to know and respond to their own children. The groundwork for a positive blended family is maintaining the safe bond with the natural parent.
- When we consider that the children have no choices in the loss or divorce of a parent and no choice in the re-marriage and blending of families, the angry mood or silence of a child or teen is understandable.
- That said, if the response is extreme, it can be very provocative and frustrating to a parent trying his best to get his new marriage and this blended family to work.
- From the beginning, it is strongly suggested that the natural parent remain the confidante and disciplinarian of their own child or teen-regardless of gender.
- Of course it often happens that it is the stepparent who ends up the favorite cool one; but prematurely handing off your child’s discipline to the new stepparent often equates to a loss of safety and care.
- Instead, as the parent, validate the child’s feelings even as you make a request or ask for your youngster’s opinion.
“ I know this is hard for you, I am just asking that you not be cruel.”
“ I know sharing the TV is not great-let’s talk about what you think might work instead of fighting.”
Consider that taking the discipline of your children out of your new partner’s hands actually fosters a more positive future relationship for your child and that new stepparent.
During this adjustment time, make special separate time for you and your child alone so that he/she knows that there is room for your special bond in this new family.
The Stepparent’s Reactions
Often stepparents feel like they have the most difficult role. Excited about the prospect of embracing the children of their new loving partner, they end up bracing themselves for rejection.
“ I am trying to show love and care but I am being ignored-it is a terrible feeling.”
- While you will have the urge to complain to your partner about his/her kid, think twice about making the instant adjustment of anyone’s kid a criteria for you and your partner’s happiness.
- Continual complaining not only strains the relationship with blame and tension, it rarely changes anything in a positive way.
Lessons for stepparents:
- Stepparents need to leave their expertise and expectations at the door.
- While younger children may warm up quicker-most children don’t want another parent; but most children are accepting of an interested caring adult.
- Take it slow with kids. They may need to keep their distance and maintain their boundaries.
- Show an interest in what they are playing or doing etc. Ask if help is needed. Ask for feedback on the best way to approach them.
- If you share a sport or hobby, be authentic – your goal is to be an interested adult. Don’t add pressure. Let it unfold.
- Often in a caretaking role, a stepparent is upset or concerned about the neglect or problems of a child’s natural parent.
- The rule “ I can talk about my mother but no one else can” applies here. Our very basic unconscious needs compel us to protect even the most dysfunctional parent as a lifeline. Added to that is the identification. When you criticize a child’s parent-you criticize them and create shame.
- Essentially, stepparents can decide on how they want to behave and the attitude they bring but it is worth accepting that they have very little control.
- Stepparents do well when they look for opportunities to make a positive contribution, proceed with caution, accept feedback, have outside networks of support and trust that things change with time.
The Blending of Children
- When not forced upon each other, children find a way.
- Often they are bonded by a mutual annoyance about having their lives disrupted.
- Often their cohesion is fueled by their lack of patience for all parents.
- Video games answer the problem of parallel play at any age level.
- It is worth having some time where everyone is together – functional time like eating take-out food selected by the children is often a good step.
- Being open to the children’s friendship and respecting the privacy of their friendships is a great buffer to dealing with new family attachments.
- Children are never static…enjoy the moments…be fair about the chores…look forward to the changes.
The Importance of the New Marriage
The children need you to have a positive relationship as much as you do – although it may not seem that way. Often they worry about one parent more than another but they don’t need to deal with more marital strife or loss. They need to see adults function well. It makes them feel safer.
Be patient with each other and the romance you are trying to hold- don’t miss the moments and the efforts.
Trust that time can be on everyone’s side.
Podcast on Blended Families from professional writers who share their personal experiences as stepparents and stepchildren on Psych Up Live with Host Suzanne Phillips