With divorce rates in America at upwards of 50%, families in which one or both spouses have children from a previous marriage – such as that typified by the TV show The Brady Bunch – are more and more the norm. Unfortunately, the difficulties presented by such blended families are rarely resolved as easily as they are on television.
Divorce can be especially difficult for children; and having a parent remarry doesn’t make it any easier on them. In fact, if a child is still struggling to cope with the divorce, it’s not at all unlikely that they’ll view a step-parent as trying to either replace their biological parent or steal the other parent away from them too (for example, a daughter may view her step-father as trying to replace her real father or as someone who may steal her mother’s affections away from her).
While major life transitions such as divorce and remarriage are rarely easy, they can lead to as much joy, if not a whole lot more, than any transitory pain they may cause. And, if you’re prepared to make the transition in the healthiest manner possible with the kids’ best interests at heart, everyone involved can overcome the difficulties involved in integrating a blended family.
Starting in the Middle
When you become a step-parent, the first thing you need to do is make sure your expectations are realistic. It’s never easy to start in the middle and jump into a set of relationships that have been playing out for some time.
You must understand that your spouse’s children already have two parents. The kids aren’t going to start calling you “mom” or “dad” any time soon. They’re unlikely to even treat you like a parent and they may not treat you civilly at all.
Regardless of your intentions and aspirations, your step-child is likely to enter the relationship with you full of suspicion and resentment, if not outright anger. As an adult, you’ll need to accept these terms, as well as respect the authority of the child’s natural parents.
With two sets of parents involved in the raising of a child, it’s wise to have all of the parents (both the birth parents and any step-parents) sit down and discuss how they will raise the child, including what rules and discipline they plan to enforce and how. The more everyone agrees, the better it will be for the child, as children need consistency in order to feel safe and secure.
If one or more parents are having difficulties coming to an agreement, you may find it helpful to involve a third party in the process. A mediator or a family counselor or therapist can help make sure everyone’s opinion is heard and respected and that the best interests of the child are kept at the fore.
In the beginning, if at all possible, let a child’s biological parents be the one to enforce rules and discipline.
If you’re the step-parent, this doesn’t mean you should let your spouse’s children run all over you. You should have your own expectations and stick to them. But, if they are not adhered to, the resulting consequences will likely go over easier if they come from your partner.
A step-parent, especially one that becomes the primary caregiver, may have to enforce rules from time to time. But, if you try to enforce discipline on a step-child to soon, it could ruin any trust and rapport you’re beginning to develop with him or her.
Regardless of who enforces family rules, make sure you, your spouse, and your step-child’s other parent present a united front.
There will inevitably be misunderstandings, disagreements, and conflicts. And, if you’re the step-parent, it’s likely you’ll be initially viewed by the children as the cause of all the problems.
Set and keep realistic expectations of what your relationship with your step-children and partner can be and then proceed in ways that are healthy for the children as well as for yourself and your partner. Let yourself off the hook from being a super-parent, and just be yourself. Children want a happy home as much as you do; they just don’t always know the best ways to make that happen. That is where your maturity and patience can make all the difference.
Building a Connection
You cannot force the relationship between your partner and your children, nor can you force the relationship between your spouse’s children and yourself. These relationships must occur naturally over time.
Children may enter the relationship suspicious that it will not last… after all, the relationship between their parents didn’t. Children may also resent a new step-parent and possibly blame him or her for their parents’ divorce. They may even go so far as to try and do what they can to break you two apart. Again, your spouse and you must maintain a united front and let the children know you can’t be divided and conquered.
Bill Cosby used to have a show called “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” but nothing compares to the hurt a child can dish out when speaking to a step-parent. The, “You’re not my mom/dad!” war-cry can be very upsetting and painful. However, this is just the child’s way of expressing frustration and anger. Your best response is likely to be a very calm, “I know I’m not, nor am I trying to be.” Let the child know that he or she is correct in their assessment and move on. They will likely be pleasantly surprised if you treat them as if their opinion matters and this will provide the opportunity to calmly discuss the problem that led to the outburst in the first place.
In order to build additional trust and rapport with your step-child, you should spend one-on-one time with them as often as makes sense. The chances are pretty good that you’ll share at least one or two common interests with your step-child. Find out what they are, and use those activities to build a strong parent-child bond in a healthy, natural, and progressive way. This may be difficult at first, but it will show them that you really want to get to know them better and you genuinely care.
If both your partner and you have children from previous marriages, your spouse’s children may not get along with your children for any number of reasons. They may be too close in age or too different in temperaments. Whatever the reason, try to plan activities and outings where all the children can have fun together. Eventually, they will get along, if only to form an alliance against their parents! Again, allow these relationships to grow naturally.
Raising children under any circumstances can be challenging, and it’s often especially so for step-parents.
Children have very little understanding of why marriages break up, so don’t be surprised when they try to blame themselves, their parents, and new step-parents.
Remember to set and maintain realistic expectations and don’t expect overnight success. It’s going to take some time for everyone to adapt to the new situation. You cannot expect two families to blend well together immediately, and you cannot expect it to happen without some adjustment difficulties.
If there seem to be insurmountable problems between any of the children and parents, seek professional couples counseling, parenting counseling, or family counseling. Getting feelings out in the open, making sure everyone is heard and respected, and working together to come up with solutions will allow your children and your family to create a happy, rewarding new life together.
All children want a happy family that provides a sense of structure and security. So stay positive and relaxed, and practice approaching situations together with an open mind and an open heart. Once children begin to see that their parents are happy, they often start to accept a new step-parent and family arrangement.
You and your new family can create the harmony that you hope for… all it takes is a little planning, some work, and a lot of love.
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