Blended family issues can be complex at best. Sustaining healthy, intimate relationships over time can be difficult and require work, even without children. Adding children to the mix invariably introduces additional variables. Adding children from previous marriages or relationships often complicates matters even further.
It is not unusual for children, especially adolescents or those approaching adolescence, to have an array of strong negative feelings that get stirred up when their mom or dad remarries. Oftentimes the kids don’t even know what it is that they’re feeling. That’s precisely when feelings get “acted out”: when they are not identified or acknowledged (this is true for us all, kids and adults alike). It’s extremely normal for kids of all ages to feel anger, sadness, loss, abandonment, a sense of betrayal, and rage when their parents split up. And more often than not, they don’t even quite know just what they’re feeling. Just the separation and divorce itself often results in such feelings.
Again, add to that the addition of a new partner for the mom and/or dad and many of those feelings are compounded with an additional layer of jealousy of the new partner, fear that the biological parent will abandon the child for their new love interest (which often does happen on an emotional level as when the biological parent really doesn’t pay as much attention to his/her child as before), and an overall feeling of a lack of safety and well-being.
“Daddy’s little princess” can endure tremendous feelings of rivalry with the new love in daddy’s life just as mom’s son can feel powerful feelings of anger and even hatred of mom’s new husband. Even before the step-parent introduces any level of discipline to the non-biological child, a host of feelings can and do arise.
Discipline by the step-parent can be like the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’, opening up a Pandora’s Box of resentment and acting-out behaviors. When daddy’s new wife or mom’s new husband has kids of his or her own in the mix, there’s even an entire additional layer of confusing and conflicting feelings. There may be jealousy that the “other” kids are being treated differently (and indeed they very well may be). The disciplinary rules and cultures of each family will invariably have their differences.
There may be a sense for the children that this is all one big charade, i.e. sitting down at the dinner table together (with thoughts of “Why are we all pretending to be one family when we’re not?” and “Who are these people?”, and “Why aren’t mom and dad together anymore?”). Not to mention the fact (which, of course I am) that for kids in puberty and adolescence or pre-adolescence, they have their own inherent developmentally normal challenges – biologically, psychosocially, and sexually.
What to do. Here are some Rules of Thumb:
- Allow your kids to vent their feelings about all the changes that have happened in their lives and don’t make them “wrong” for having such feelings. This may take the form of one-on-one talks just between each parent and his/her biological kids and/or it may take the form of “family meetings” where everyone gets to talk about their feelings (in a respectful way).
- Don’t pretend that nothing has changed. In your desire to have “one happy family” and possibly to deal with your own grief or disappointment regarding the dissolution of the prior marriage, you may yourself be in some level of denial that things have indeed changed. They have changed. Significantly so. And everyone has a right to his or her feelings as a result of the changes. If you carry on with the façade of ‘same old, same old’ make sure you have an extra place setting at your dinner table for the ‘pink elephant’.
- Be very mindful of being as loving and attentive to your biological and non-biological kids as possible.
- Try to be on the same page as your spouse, that is, be a unified team. This pertains to discipline, family rules, equal treatment of all the children, etc. This may very well require that each of you do some compromising to arrive at a middle ground; you may not be doing things exactly as you were previously. This is a new family. As a result, new rules and guidelines for behavior may be required.
- Acknowledge to yourself and to your spouse your feelings about the way that he or she treats his kids and yours, i.e. do you ever feel resentful about his attention to his kids being a little excessive? Do your best to connect with your feelings; encourage your spouse to do the same, and discuss such feelings with him or her in as loving and non-judgmental a manner as possible, which is often going to be a challenge. You don’t have to agree, but express your feelings and at least come to some level of compromise, if not acceptance.
- If things don’t get better, consider family coaching or counseling. All of the above may be just too much for all of you folks to handle without an objective third party mediating. If it is, don’t hesitate to get help. You may want to go with your spouse first to explain the history of the conflicts and possibly to root out any issues that may be lurking in your own relationship before you bring the kids in. However, talk to the coach first about the merits of coming in first without the kids who may feel alienated from the process if they’re not included in the counseling from the first session. Also, if any or all of the kids are reflecting new behavioral problems, offer them the opportunity to talk to a counselor alone if they wish; you may want to offer that you’ll join them for the first session and will be quick to step outside if and when they say they want a one-on-one session.
- Finally, know that all of this is normal. This may not help much, but it’s true. Try to stay in a place of acknowledging/validating everyone’s feelings and being as loving and supportive as you can be. If you follow these guidelines, you will be minimizing what is oftentimes is nothing less than an emotionally traumatic experience for some if not all of you, and re-orienting your new blended family in a healthy direction.