Family dynamics are complex in situations of divorce and remarriage. Combining households, kids and possibly different parenting styles can leave everyone involved feeling stressed and overwhelmed. Although you and your new spouse feel connected and comfortable with each other, it can take some time before all of your children feel the same way. What can you do to help your families gel together? We spoke with Bonnie Parish, executive director of Family Services Association in Dayton, and Dr. Joy Miceli, child psychologist at Dayton Children’s Hospital, for their suggestions on helping your children through this complicated period.
Laying the groundwork
It should not come as a surprise to your children that you are getting remarried. Kids should feel that they know your fiancé relatively well by the time you’ve become serious. Parish says that being honest with your children during the process is key – they may be more aware of what is happening than you give them credit for.
Despite the inevitable changes that will occur in their lives, help kids see the positive effects that can happen. “It’s important when talking to kids about this that they understand that this is going to be an exciting time,” says Dr. Miceli. “It’s going to be a positive change, because kids don’t always necessarily see it as completely positive.”
Dealing with mixed emotions
Having a new step parent and possibly step siblings is a major upheaval in your family’s dynamic and different days will bring about different emotions from kids on the subject. They may really want to see you happy, but be upset about what this change means for them. Dr. Miceli says the key to dealing with those mixed emotions is being sensitive to their fears and concerns. “Reassuring and normalizing that response—that it’s ok to feel that way” can help kids see that their feelings matter to you. Miceli also says that while kids may express disapproval, make it clear that ultimately it is their mother or father’s decision to remarry.
Take kids’ maturity level into account
Adjust how you support your child depending on their developmental stage. “Generally preschoolers tend to be a little more accepting and more open to new parents,” says Miceli. She says that kids this age may also be more influenced by negative things an adult might say, for instance, comments made by an ex-spouse not supportive of the situation.
Regarding older children, Miceli says, “Kids in that 10-14 kind of preteen/early teen [range] tend to be a little more likely to give attitude about things. And so it’s important to really to build those relationships first and to lay that groundwork. Teenagers will react most to different parenting styles. If they’re used to being out late and their step-parent wants them home at eight, they’ll rebel against that.”
Defining your partner’s role
A blended family means new territory for everyone involved, and figuring out the boundaries of its new members takes time. “It’s really important for the step-parent to focus on building those relationships first before they step into that disciplinarian role,” says Miceli. And this process requires time. Research suggests that it may take blended families anywhere between five and ten years to hit their stride as one unit. Be patient. As Miceli points out, it can be discouraging or upsetting when your kids don’t display the same excitement as you do about your remarriage, but these reactions are normal and should be expected.
See the big picture
Let your child’s relationship with your spouse develop naturally and don’t force kids to try and feel connected before they are ready. In time, a closer bond may develop between everyone. Miceli reminds parents that not every problem a child has is a result of being in a blended family. “Sometimes conflict happens just because that’s the developmental stage a kid is at.”
Combining kids and remarriage successfully is not an overnight process. Taking it one step at a time, and getting professional help if you feel in over your head, can make each day together as a blended family better than the last. As Parish says, “If you get stuck, get some help. There are so many of us therapists out there, and we just want to help.”