By Maathangi Iyer, staff writer for The Attached Family publications
It is an understatement to say that step-families have many challenges to overcome. Step-families often are formed out of loss – demise of a partner, a broken marriage. If such events are recent, bringing about a change by getting married again might create a bigger challenge: Children can experience difficulty in adjusting to their new family, although it is no less a testing time for the children’s parents and their new partner.
Through discussions with others who have gone through this challenging time, I have gathered several tips for coping with the change a remarriage gives to a family.
Introducing the Step-Parent and Step-Siblings to the Family
It is important that you and your partner, while planning the future, remember that first you are parents. Both of you should keep your families in perspective before making any important decisions regarding your own future together. Your children will be going through a major change in life, and as parents, it is important that you understand this. The emotions your children and your step-children will feel can greatly affect your relationship — or attachment potential, as in the case of your step-children. Major change in family structure and dynamics is unsettling for children, and their attachment relationships with you and their siblings can suffer.
Your children may become angry, withdrawn, or anxious because of it. You may suddenly find your outgoing child having difficulties with separation anxiety, or your normally laid-back child becoming easily stressed and lashing out. Your children may start having trouble sleeping or at school. These are signs that your attachment with your child is suffering, and you need to re-focus your efforts on rebuilding that bond while helping her adjust to the new situation.
The apprehension and anxiety for everyone starts with Mom or Dad announcing the inclusion of a new family member. Needless to say, this part has to be tactfully handled:
- Brief the children before the actual meeting — While you have your reasons to re-marry, it is important to listen to their point of view, as well. Their view is important, too, and this is a way to let them know that you understand this.
- Your children will react to this situation uniquely — For some children, the change may be relatively smooth, while it may be more difficult for others. Some children have an especially tough time if they believe the step-parent is trying to take over the missing parent’s role. One woman I spoke with told me that, as a child, she never did “warm up” to her step-mother because she couldn’t bear the thought of her mother being replaced. Your son or daughter may go through a lot of emotions — insecurity, apprehension about the future, frustration, helplessness, and feelings of unimportance. As a parent, it is important that you recognize and acknowledge these emotions.
- Arrange the rendezvous in a neutral place — The woman I mentioned above said the tension in the family began immediately, as her father introduced the soon-to-be step-mother to his daughter during a family dinner at their home. Disagreements between the daughter and the woman began immediately, first with the seating arrangements and then having a pet in the house. While these problems may eventually arise, it is better to avoid them at the first meeting.
- It may be better to have a meeting with the step-siblings after your children meet the step-parent first — Don’t rush them into too many meetings with the new family. Take it slow. Give them time to digest the fact that they are going to be a part of your family.
- Be prepared to handle questions about the future — Children often have plenty of concerns, and their questions need to be answered thoughtfully, whether it’s regarding “Where will we stay after the marriage?” or “Do we have to change schools?”
- Include your child in the wedding plans — The idea is to show them that they still matter.
The New Family
When Beth’s children moved into their step-father’s house, there was an argument between the step-siblings and her children as to which room they should take. This is probably just the beginning of the challenges that Beth might have to face in the future. Here are a few things that you can do to promote a smooth transition into a blended family:
- Understanding the new family — Get to know your step children. Talk to your husband about them, what they like, what they don’t, what is their favorite food, where do they like to go for a vacation.
- Give them the time they need to understand you — Do not force yourselves on them. It is very important to talk to your step-children, but if they are in a mood for playing baseball and not talk, respect that.
- Do not compare — Some of the major problems arise because we are all individuals and do not see the world in the same way as others. Each one of us is our own unique selves. We each behave in a certain way, react to a situation in a particular way, and think the way we think because of our experiences in the past and because of our upbringing. There is going to be a huge difference in the way your step-children behave versus the way your children behave. Do not make any comparisons.
- Work on the step-parent/step-children bond — Your involvement in the day-to-day affairs with your step-children cannot be avoided. As a step-parent, you do not know necessarily when you should or should not discipline your step-children. For example, Ted was home with his wife, Rachel’s, children one night. Although his wife had a specified bedtime for the children and they were still awake several hours past it, Ted wasn’t confident in knowing whether he could tell them to go to bed or not. His wife was OK with him enforcing the rules, but because he was new to the family, the children didn’t respect Ted enough to listen to him. This might be a difficult situation you are in, but remember that respect comes in with trust and it can take a long time to build that trust.
- Understand that you’re being compared — It is natural for children to compare you with their parents. Take it in stride. At the same, let them know subtly, that you have not taken their parents’ place and, more importantly, you cannot be like their parents. Give them the assurance that you are trying your best to adjust, but you cannot succeed unless you have their cooperation.
- Re-enforce the positive points — Take time to talk about the positive things about the new members in the family to your children.
- Discuss differences in parenting with your spouse – Your new partner may be more or less lenient than you. It is OK to have a difference of opinion, but discuss how you’re going to handle a situation before you encounter it if possible, without the kids present. Don’t argue about the children in front of them.
- Make time for family time — It is important to spend time with your new family. For example, Rachel had a lot of problems relating with her step-children and her children relating their step-children. She said the easiest way to avoid problems was for them to not cross paths with each other, but that this is not the best way to deal with the problems. Spending time together helped everyone adjust and get to know each other.
- But don’t expect too much too soon — Another couple I spoke with said that as soon as they got married, they planned a vacation for their new family. Both have three children. The vacation did not go well. So, while plenty of family time is important, it may be better to start off slowly. You and your partner need to sit down and talk about such things.
Share Your Experiences!
If you have been one of the families who have successfully blended in, write to API by e-mailing Editor Rita Brhel at firstname.lastname@example.org. There are a lot of families who would benefit by reading your experiences.
A Reality Check
Here are a few questions to ask yourself to help you sort through your emotions and to help you understand the feelings of the other members of your new family:
- What kind of problems are you facing with your step-children?
- What kind of support do you think you need from your partner?
- Is your partner getting defensive when it comes to his children? If yes, what can you do to positively affect the situation?
- What do you think is your step-child’s perception of you? Are you a friend, just another person in the house, a parent? Do you feel you need bring about a change in these perceptions?
- Do you give your step children the space they need?
- When is the last time you did something special for your step-child?
- In what ways do you think you can bridge the gap between your step-child and you?
- What are your boundaries as a step-parent? Are you too involved or not involved at all?
Do not hesitate to seek help, if needed. Rachel and Ted had tried their best on their own but in vain. It came to a point where no one seemed to be happy, and it was causing a strain in their relationship. Ted decided to talk to a therapist.
It is not a sign of weakness if you need to consult a family therapist; in fact, that you’re asking for help means that you care enough about your new family to seek out change. Blending two families into one can be a very difficult task, and an experienced, attachment-minded therapist can be of great assistance.