Lots of change takes place in a child‘s life when their parents‘ divorce and remarry/enter into a new relationship and it is often difficult for them to cope with this effectively – especially when they do not understand why the change is taking place and when they have not been adequately prepared for it.
Recognise and be sensitive to the fact that there is probably nobody in your household who has experienced more loss than your step children. Furthermore, realise that your marriage/new relationship is likely to be yet another loss to them as it brought about changes that they didn‘t necessarily want and may have destroyed the hopes they might have had of a reconciliation between biological parents.
It’s important to note that second marriages have a higher failure rate than first marriages and often for good reason. If you have adequately addressed most of the factors listed below, then it is highly likely that your remarriage will survive and be successful:
- Emotional baggage from prior relationships or marriages has been resolved and processed and the respective individuals have taken and applied sound life lessons from the experience vs. harbouring past hurts, resentment and issues from a previous relationship / marriage i.e. both individuals in the new relationship are emotionally healthy.
- Divorced adults with children are in an effective and healthy co-parenting relationship with their ex-partner(s).
- Anger and resentment towards ex-partners has been resolved, processed and forgiven and ex-partners are able to be civil and amicable in front of the children.
- Adequate time has passed between divorce / death and remarriage. The guideline commonly suggested by psychologists is at least 2 or more years.
- Maintenance agreements, finances and custody issues have been adequately resolved and visitation, holidays and financial responsibilities are clear and run smoothly.
- The step parent is able to build an amicable / civil relationship with the same sex biological parent.
- The children‘s emotional needs post divorce have been recognised and adequately addressed. Regular and open discussions are held with the children regarding their feelings and emotions and channels of communication are appropriate, open and clear.
- Step children have been appropriately introduced to the step parent and the biological parent has facilitated the introduction at an appropriate pace and kept communication channels open throughout the process.
- Step parents and biological parents have spoken and agreed upon the role of the step parent, support structures, discipline and general boundaries within the home etc and these have been communicated to the children.
- Step parents recognise that they will have to share their partner and are content with this arrangement.
- The new couple is focused on making their marriage a priority and are not child-centric in their approach.
Furthermore, with all the changes taking place in your step-child’s life, there are some ways in which you and your partner may be able to assist them in settling down and accepting the new family structure more effectively. Some examples are as follows:
- Open channels of communication are critical where enough and appropriate information is shared with the child experiencing the change. Children should be given concrete reasons why the marriage failed and why reconciliation will not occur. Do not put the blame on the other parent or belittle the other parent in any way when having this discussion. Children need to be reassured that both parents love them and that they are not responsible for the divorce.
- Provide them with as little change and as much consistency as possible. Introduce change at a gradual and acceptable pace monitoring the outcome at all times. Share as much detail as possible e.g. where they will live and with whom, when they will see each parent etc.
- As a step parent you need to allow your step children one on one time with their biological parent to mitigate their insecurities. Try not to compete for time or feel threatened by or jealous of their relationship with their biological parents. Just as one on one time is important, it is just as important to do things together as a family too and you need to ensure that a balance exists.
- As a step parent, you need to try and not be oversensitive to the responses of your step children. One needs to remember that children are sometimes insolent and behave poorly towards their biological parents and biological siblings, yet they love their biological parents and siblings. Therefore the same applies to you as the step parent, if your step child is cheeky to you on occasion, don’t think your whole world has fallen apart and that you will never succeed. This is normal – children act out their feelings rather than talk about them. It doesn’t mean that insolent behaviour needs to be tolerated – you and partner need to have discussed and agreed upon the rules in the home and the consequences when children step out of line – these rules and consequences should also have been discussed with all the children in the home (see article on Yours, Mine, Ours – Finding the Balance).
- Let your stepchildren take the lead in the type of relationship that would developed between you and let them set the pace.
- The manner in which you as the step parent are introduced by the biological parent and the manner in which the biological parent communicates with the children throughout this process cannot be emphasised enough. This needs to be done in a non-threatening, open and honest manner to minimise the amount of anxiety they are feeling. Parents need to explain what’s happening and also make their expectations clear regarding the manner in which the step parent is to be treated. Children need to know that they are just as important and loved as they were before. It’s important that your partner is open with his / her children and discusses your relationship openly and honestly with them and addresses their concerns and fears. Children need this reassurance and it is critical to the success of the relationship.
- Keep as much routine and consistency in their lives as possible. For example, if it was traditional for father and son to go on a bike ride every Sunday, try and continue doing so.
- Form your own unique bond with the children by being approachable and trustworthy. Develop your own special time together where you do something with your step children that they enjoy without the biological parent present.
- It’s important to reassure your step children that you are not trying to take their mother or father’s place. They need to see you as an adult role model, someone they can respect, trust and confide in. Encourage them to for example, make their mom / dad a card for mothers / father’s day and help them do this; encourage them to phone their parents if they are missing them etc.
- Be yourself. Don’t try so hard to be accepted and liked that you end up being someone you’re not. Just as a step parent is adjusting to having a step child and getting to know him or her and understand their personalities, so too are our step children getting to know us, our mannerisms, the things we enjoy, the type of person we are etc. This takes time and cannot be forced or rushed.
- Be open about the situation. Discuss your fears with your step children and the type of relationship you’d like to have with them. Encourage them to discuss their fears with you. Reassure them that you’re not attempting to take their mom or dad’s place, discuss the issues around divorce with them and the complications that are often as a result of this and discuss ways to handle this and cope with it.
- Keep your emotions in check. Never bad mouth or gossip about your step children’s other parent. This type of behaviour will not only hurt their feelings or anger them, but will also result in your relationship being strained. Never vent about your step children if there is any possibility that they might be able to hear you. This is obviously hurtful and upsetting and will certainly hinder your ability to form an effective relationship with your step child.
- Neutral territory. There’s a lot to be said for limiting change but sometimes, moving into a new home or “neutral territory” signifies a fresh start and can help you in feeling like less of an “intruder”. It is very difficult for step parents (and their children) who move into a home filled with memories of the previous family structure to form relationships and bond with their step children effectively.