Blended Families — 14 August 2005
How to help children adjust to the blended family

A remarriage is a joyous event for the new couple. However, if the new family includes children from prior unions, the joy may not be fully shared by the younger generation. Parents and stepparents need to help their children with this transition to minimize confusion and pain and maximize ease of adjustment.

Parents who create a blended family often envision it to be an extension of their love for each other. They know that the transition may be challenging for the children but hope for an eventual harmonious blending. What parents sometimes fail to consider is that as thrilling as it may be for them to be together with all their children, that for the youngsters this new situation is un-chosen, foreign, frightening and emotionally unsettling. Moving to a new school or neighborhood can be cause for additional trauma.

Resistance to change is a normal human reaction at any age. Abandoning the known for the uncertain is challenging. Children thrive on stability and feel most vulnerable when their surroundings, routines, familiarity and especially the people they love do not stay constant.

Children have a deep attachment to the original family. They are often less stressed by or may even be unaware of their parents’ marital difficulties, but are attached to the consistent love and security they know. What youngsters understand is the impact of divorce on their lives. Accepting their parent’s new partner, remarriage, and a new family is often overwhelming to children, some of whom may not have completed the grieving for the loss of their original family.

Aside from grief, loss and adjustment to the changes of the divorce, children deal with confusion about attachment and loyalty. “How can I love the new man in my mother’s life, who is not my father?’ “Wouldn’t Mom be upset and hurt if I like my new stepmother?” “What does it mean if my mother dislikes my stepmother, do I have to feel the same way to keep my mother’s love?” These emotions are often not verbalized, but may be acted out through rude behavior, crying, stubbornness, or insubordination to either parent, which is hard on everyone in the family.

Part of children’s resistance to embrace the new blended family is caused by their refusal to abandon the hope of their parents’ future reunification. They hold onto this dream by resisting the permanence of their new family and by avoiding new emotional ties.

As they resist bonding to the new parent youngsters still need to matter enough to him or her in order to gain attention and benefits. They have to devise new methods to earn caring from the stepparent to assure their safety, survival and well-being.

An additional challenge children face is the demand for creating new relationships with stepsiblings. If some of the original sibling rivalry between the children of the first union has subsided, it is now reactivated by the need to incorporate stepsiblings into the mix. Each child becomes vigilant in ascertaining his or her primacy to the biological parent and is on the outlook for any conduct of the stepparent that may imply favoritism to other children.

All this is very upsetting and confusing for children. They did not create this new situation-but need to develop new tools to survive within it.

Parents often take the children’s adjustment struggles too lightly. “Well, it is hard for them, but they will adjust sooner or later.” Or, “Why is it so hard for them to live in a better environment with kids their own ages?”
Some parents are impatient with their children’s slow process and refer their children to therapy to expedite their acceptance of the new blended family.

What parents need to do is understand the children’s plight more clearly and use some words and actions to facilitate the child’s transition to the blended family.

Parents need to understand:

• That though you (the parents) fell in love and are excited about blending your families, the children may not have fallen in love with your new spouse. They may need time to reorganize their thoughts and feelings prior to new attachments.
• Your children may need more time to grieve the demise of their original family than may be comfortable for you.

• Change is very hard for all people, particularly for children who are attached to their other parent, their original home, surroundings and routines.
• That for children developing a respectful and close relationship with your new partner may take months to years. Moving together may be the defining event for you, but only the beginning of the adjustment process for your children.
• All the children, regardless of their genetic makeup, want to be liked, cared for and appreciated by both of you, as well as by their other parents.

Then Act:

• Create with your new spouse rules of conduct, rewards and consequences that apply equally to all children in your family. You actually delay family cohesiveness if you favor your children over their stepsiblings.
• Avoid language such as “My children” or “Your children”. Choose “Our children” to enforce inclusiveness.
• Be a fair and good parent to all the children- it helps them adjust more quickly to their new life.
• Behave in a way that helps the children feel that they did not lose a parent but gained in you an additional adult friend and mentor.
• Support your children’s love and connection to their other original parent.
• Ask your children how they feel, listen respectfully, tell them you understand their concerns, validate their feelings and reassure them of your love.

Blended families can work well and teach all their members lessons about earned love, compromise, sharing, cooperation, goodwill and acceptance. Children will be helped to feel safe and secure in the new family at their own pace and through your patience, understanding and love.

August 7, 2005

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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