Terry slouched on my therapy couch and mumbled, “My mom has a new husband. She wants me to be nice to him but I don’t feel like being nice. I’m sick and tired of not seeing my dad. I don’t like this strange guy walking around my house and telling me he’s my friend. He’s not my friend. He’s a stranger. I want my dad back.”
The challenge of living with a stepparent requires time and patience from all family members. Suddenly there is a stranger sharing the bathroom, giving directions and checking your homework. Mom or dad is no longer exclusively yours. One parent’s daily presence is lost. Holidays become complicated. And what do you call this new person who shows up at the breakfast table with habits that annoy you?
From the child’s point of view, his/her family has been torn apart and replaced with another. This loss and new arrangement were not by choice. Feelings of anger linger long after the parents’ divorce is final. If the child hasn’t openly worked through anger and unforgiveness towards the original parents, these feelings carry over to the blended family as well.
In the best of situations, stepchildren struggle to find ways to honor stepparents without dishonoring biological parents. They experience a constant division of loyalties that evidences in even the smallest of issues. It is this division of loyalties that resurfaces throughout the new marriage and serves as an unpleasant reminder of the price children pay for divorce.
So what can parents do to help children adjust to newly formed families?
First, they must ask God for wisdom to discern the needs of their children. The remarried couple is delighted to put their former marriages behind them and is hopeful about the future. Children of divorce are not in the same place. Often their feelings of rejection intensify when strangers enter the family. Remarried adults must constantly ask, “What are the needs of the children?”
Second, blended families should not pretend to be a replacement family for children. The reality is that children lose a parent and parents gain a new partner. You must continually talk about this fact. Encourage emotional expression. Reassure the children that no matter what they feel, you can handle it and will deal with it.
Third, be patient. While stepchildren need to be helped through the transition of blending a family, don’t force closeness. It takes time for a child to get to know a new adult and feel comfortable having him or her in the house. It is normal for a child to want the original family back so he/she doesn’t have to divide loyalties, visitation and important dates.
Fourth, be careful to give children privacy when it comes to their physical bodies. As stepparents, you did not change their diapers, tuck them into bed every night and you are not biologically related. Therefore you must be extra sensitive to appropriate physical boundaries.
Finally, keep God the center of family life. He is your constant source of strength and healing. Be a family who prays and commits to working through even the toughest emotions and disappointments.