In the first chapter on blended families we reviewed the major causes for divorce in second marriages and saw that child-rearing and family related problems were near the top of the list of causes for divorce. This is why much of the counseling for blended families centers on integrating the whole family and not just the two individuals who are getting married.
I shared some ways to prepare for a subsequent marriage: know your future mate and children; pay attention to children's special needs; build a new relationship; include everyone in the wedding.
We also talked about ways of achieving the unity necessary for any family to succeed but especially difficult for blended families to arrive at: avoid co-conductor system; give up old roles; establish ground rules.
Finally, we saw that true unity in any family can only be achieved through Jesus Christ. The Lord can heal and bring together a blended family into one single unit under His Lordship.
For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
- Galatians 3:26-28
Let us continue in this series with more discussion on the child's reaction to a blended family situation and how to deal with it, especially as a stepparent.
Since much of the success of blended families rides on how well the children are integrated and accept the new situation, it is important to discuss how they react to the blending of a family.
A. Grieving children
When a family falls apart for whatever reason, children mourn and, like any period of mourning, they go through a grieving cycle for not only the parent they have lost but also for all of the family times and lifestyle that they once knew (whether good or bad).
For children, the grieving process is exactly the same as for adults except it is worked out in a new environment, the blended family:
1. Denial. Children have a hard time accepting the finality of divorce. This sometimes motivates them to sabotage the new marriage because they do not accept it (behavior, rejection, indifference). Denial is tough because kids do not tend to talk things out. The best way is to lovingly point out the truth of the new situation and give them time to adjust.
2. Anger. When children realize that dad is not coming back or that this is the new mom, the new home, there is an angry reaction. Kids take it out on teachers, siblings, self, even parents. If possible, the biological and stepparent need to help the child get in touch with his feelings and identify what he is angry about, trying to match the feeling with the cause.
3. Bargaining. This is where individuals will try to manipulate people or events to change the past. In divorce, the children dream about the parents getting back together again and may suggest it. Do not give children false hope, let them go through this stage at their own pace and help them understand that this family is the family that will now be permanently established, there is no going back.
4. Depression. The roller-coaster nature of blended families is what leads to depression. In death, the loss is final. We get over the sadness and reminders and go on. In blended families the loss is always there and your children are reminded of it every other weekend. Eventually the loss is mourned out when new relations take hold in the blended family and children resolve feelings about biological parents and create new and meaningful relationships with them (when possible). If they are unavailable, this is very difficult.
5. Acceptance. Acceptance is the realization that the blended family is not a nuclear family. It is not my original family but it is a good family and there is a place in it for me where I am loved.
Peter says, "Love covers a multitude of sins." (I Peter 4:8) In blended families where there is faith and Christian love, the sins of the past are covered and a chance for a peaceful and joyful family experience is there for each member.
B. Development levels
Just as there are specific reactions of children to divorce and the re-forming of families, there are also specific needs of children at each age group when they find themselves in this situation:
0 to 2 years. Need a lot of touching and nurturing as a way of reassurance that everything is okay despite the changes.
3 to 5 years. Children at this stage are old enough to know that something is wrong but too young to process all the information. At this age kids have a short memory. It helps to explain things over and over again and be patient with regressive behavior. Allowing them to bring comforting objects to the new home helps.
6 to 12 years. This is the age group where there is a feeling of responsibility (it is my fault, I should try to bring them back) and/or a sense of adult grief. Do not use children this age as a sounding board for your own fears, anger or blame, etc. Their fear is one of abandonment, powerlessness and distrust (adults leave you, they cannot be trusted, etc.). They need to know that they are okay. Talk and encourage them, allow them to make small decisions for themselves, be kind to ex-spouses and keep your promises. They have already been disappointed enough.
13 and up. Adolescents struggle with growing up in the most stable of nuclear families, so it is normal that in a blended one the problems are increased. The main issue is independence. In a nuclear family the issue is negotiated with biological parents to an eventual conclusion. With the blended family, teenagers have to cope with the independence issue and work it out with a single parent, work it out with new parents or work it out with the separated parent. In each case the rules are different and the standards change. This leads to confusion and discouragement. The goal is one standard that all can agree to.
Children react, and children at different ages react and need different things. If a blended household is going to serve them (and not just the adults) as a home, the things mentioned here have to be taken into consideration.
Life in two homes, parenting styles
At least when the divorce is finalized, the spouses no longer have to live with each other which, unfortunately, is not true for the children. Children of blended families have to learn to cope with living in two households when both parents want to share custody.
The responsibility for making this work belongs to both parents, not simply the custodial parents. The author of the book "Blended Families" describes some typical tactics.
The "star" parent. This is the parent who assumes that they are the better, more responsible parent and makes sure that the kids know it. This may be true but stars need to realize that they need the other parent, even with their lessor skills, to provide some wholeness for their children.
The "glue" parent. Cannot let go. When kids are ready to leave for visiting, they are sent off with a picture of a parent who will worry and not live properly until they return safely. Glue parents only create anxiety in their children by showing their over-protection and distrust of the other parent.
The "distant" parent. The distant parent wants as little to do with the other parent as possible so all communication is done through the children or on voice-mail. Schedules are off, there are mix-ups and missed dates as a result. There needs to be an understanding that the other person is not a mate but a parent.
The "sometimes" parent. This is the one who is there sometimes but you are never sure when because they are only around sometimes, for whatever reason (there is always a reason). "Sometimes" should be there at the times that this type of behavior affects the emotional health of their children, this would motivate them to be there.
The "ruthless" parent. Still fighting, still getting even by putting down the ex-spouse, new partner, or sabotaging any chance of peace so they can keep the war going. Everyone here is hurt and in the end even "ruthless" will feel rejection from the ones manipulated because kids know what is going on.
The "parent" parent. Recognizes that the marriage is over but their role as parents are not. They strive to be good teammates with ex-spouse and new blended families even though it hurts. They do this for the love and happiness of their children.
Jesus said that true love is when we lay our lives down for others (John 15:13). This is what is needed.
Helpful hints for the weekend "visit"
Visitation is a normal part of blended families' routines that nuclear families rarely encounter. For example, his son comes over from his ex-wife's home; his present wife's daughters leave to visit their father.
Even though this might seem strange to a nuclear family, visitation and the peculiar challenges and problems attached need to be dealt with by blended households. Here are some helpful guidelines to make these run a bit more smoothly.
1. Take the initiative
If visiting children are left to arrive and flop in front of the TV or left to decide what to do, they will invariably be under-motivated (I am bored, I am mad, I do not like it here) or over-demanding (let's go to Six Flags). Plan their visit, especially the first night. Something that has been planned out where the child is immersed immediately into the activity of the home will allow them to integrate more naturally and safely into the weekend and the family. There will be plenty of time to "veg" in front of the TV later on.
2. Provide structure
Even though yours is not the custodial home, it is a home and children will feel safer, happier and more integrated if they know and are expected to stay within the structure (meal times, bed times, preparation for church, etc.; includes proper conduct and dress). A visit is not a vacation, it is a time to experience the "life" of the other parent and share a bond with them. This is more easily done in a structured environment, and one that is consistent from visit to visit.
3. Be accepting
Receiving visits from non-custodial children is not like a visit from a friend or an aunt. You are offering more than hospitality, you are offering an "equal" place in your family for a limited time. Children who visit need to feel that they are important and have the same rights and protections as the other children, as well as the same advantages.
4. Provide a home, not just a room
Visiting children will accept the situation as well as the other family if they are given their "own space" in the home. The goal is to help them deal with the loss of their nuclear family and its dreams. This can be done by reassuring them that they have ownership in the new home and family that has been established by the non-custodial parent. The parent and the new spouse need to help the child know and develop relationships with other children and institutions in the neighborhood.
5. Give them permission to love
Parents (biological and custodial) feel threatened when their children are showing more love or loyalty to the other parent or set of parents. This is especially true when the custodial parent feels the "weekend" parent is cheating by buying their child's love with leniency or gifts. Making snide remarks, suggesting that the other parent is unworthy of love, only confuses them into thinking that they do not have permission to love those important to them! Granting them permission to love enables children to mature emotionally and work out these issues in their lives. They will eventually figure out who did what. If you make them choose sides, you stunt their growth and create resentment.
6. Help smooth out transitions
Arriving and leaving can be emotional moments. Try to understand and deal with these accordingly. Children tend to withdraw at departure in order to lessen the pain. Do not see this as rejection or a sign that they did not enjoy themselves. Send them off with love and assurance that you look forward to next time. Try to resolve conflicts before they leave. Realize that when they come home, they have been in a different, not better or worse, world. Do not snoop or inquire. Share your time first, give them space and welcome them happily.
Visitation is not the best way to parent, but not an impossible way to parent.