Stepfamily Beginnings – Helping Kids Cope

Post separation and divorce many single parents look forward to the opportunity to establish a satisfying, healthy romantic relationship. However, the emergence of a significant relationship and the formation of a stepfamily, creates change which can challenge children and adults.

It can be a difficult act, balancing the competing demands of your own needs and desire for adult companionship and romance with your parental responsibilities and the emotional needs of your children.

Rachel Brace – Psychologist

If children are spending regular time in a different household with their other parent, it’s naturally much easier to negotiate the process of dating away from prying eyes and ears. You have a level of privacy to go on dates, to bring people home or perhaps not even come home.

However, when a relationship becomes serious, living together and forming a stepfamily can not be done without the children knowing. In response to such news children can experience a wide variety of emotions. This can include sadness, jealousy, anger, pity (for the other parent), confusion, happiness or perhaps even relief. Seeing a parent set up house with a ‘new’ person can also really hammer home that their parents’ divorce is final and there is no chance of their family reuniting. This can be emotionally difficult for some children. It can also affect how a child accepts (or doesn’t accept) the new person in their lives and the idea of being a part of a stepfamily.

There really is no way around it, changes and challenges are completely unavoidable when you and your ‘new’ partner decide to merge households and/or to marry. So, what can do to support your child’s emotional health and wellbeing and help them adjust and accept their stepfamily reality?

Cover page of Harriet's Expanding Heart
Harriet’s Expanding Heart by Rachel Brace

Actively ‘decide not slide’ into living together or marriage.

Stepfamilies are complex. There are issues to do with loss and grief that surface when a stepfamily is formed that can create havoc and confusion for both adults and children. All this complexity means that the decision to cohabitate and/or re-marry need to be conscious, planned and negotiated by the adults. Living together shouldn’t just happen in an ad hoc or in an accidental manner because a tenancy agreement runs out or the financial situation changes for one of you. Nor should it be rushed because you and your partner can’t stand being apart for even one moment.

Parents also need to remain mindful that even with the best intentions, statistics seem to show that second or later marriages are much more likely to end in divorce than first marriages – this potentially has powerful, emotional consequences for children who have already experienced significant loss. As a parent you therefore owe it to your child to take the time to look before you leap and ask yourself if you are certain enough about this person and this relationship to ask your children to form potentially important emotional bonds that could be broken, exposing them to even more loss.

Avoid asking your children’s permission to date, cohabitate or to marry.

Whilst you might seek to explore how your children feel about it, it’s best not to ask their permission to date, to cohabitate or to marry – this is too much worry and responsibility for them, especially if things don’t work out as hoped or as planned. It also leaves you in a difficult situation if they say “no, I don’t want things to change”, “I want you and mummy/daddy to get back together” or if they tell you that “you have to stay single forever”. Also keep in mind that if you decide to wait for your kids to feel completely comfortable before moving forward with your life and adult relationships, then you may never move at all.

We shouldn’t put the heavy weight of the adult world with its worries and responsibilities on our young children shoulders.”

So, because of all the potential rewards, challenges and risks, the decision about who to date, who to live with or to marry is an adult decision and needs to be made (and owned) by you.

Inform children about changes in a timely manner.

If you and your partner are having serious conversations about living together or marrying then your kids need to know. Children of all ages find it easier to cope with change if they know about changes in advance (even if they don’t want those changes to occur). Make time to sit down with your children and let them know when and where changes are happening to their living arrangements and routine.

If you find the idea of this conversation awkward or scary then think how it might feel for your kids to find out from someone else (or to figure it out themselves) that big changes are about to happen. If you don’t take the lead and raise the topic with them, they may well feel that it’s something they can’t come and talk to you about. They may also feel left out or, worse yet, left behind.

Listen to your children.

Whether your kids live with you full time or they are fortnightly visitors, the fact is that your home is their home too, and someone move in can feel like an invasion. Taking time to talk to your kids and really listen to them will help you to address their concerns, offer reassurances and answer their questions. It is also important to find out how your kids feel about becoming a part of a stepfamily before you and your partner move in together. Stepfamily transitions tend to be smoother for children who feel as if they have a voice and have been heard. Feeling understood can also help kids let go of powerful feelings.

Respect their feelings by taking time to pay attention to what they say and take their emotions seriously. Reassure them that its completely normal to feel mixed emotions. Try showing them that you can view the situation from their perspective, even if you don’t agree with them. For example you could say, “It’s hard to share me isn’t it when you’ve had me to yourself for so long.  I can see that you might be feeling worried and perhaps a little scared that Jason and his kids moving in with us and my loving him, might mean that there is not be enough room in my heart for you. Am I getting it right?”.

If they seem to be struggling, empathise with them by saying something like “boy this is hard, huh?”. Or if you’re really not getting it, it’ okay to say, “I’m trying to understand, do you think you could help me?”

If your children are struggling to talk, picture books, like Harriet’s Expanding Heart, are a great way to help your child express their emotions and discuss issues that they may not otherwise be comfortable talking about.

Make your children a part of the process.

Where appropriate, ensure you include your children in decisions that impact on them as much as possible. Ask for their opinions, their preferences, and about their concerns – but be clear with them about where they have choice and where they don’t. For example, they don’t get to decide if you and your partner are moving in together (see above). But if you are renting or buying a new home let them make decisions about decorating the room that will be theirs. This gives them a stake in both the place and the relationship.

What else?

In addition to the above, here are five other things that can help your children cope and move forward in a positive way:

  1. Regularly reassure your child of your feelings for them and tell them that you love them.
  2. Encourage, and plan for, regular parent-child time without stepparents or step-siblings being present.
  3. Reassure your child that a new spouse/partner is not a ‘replacement’ mum or dad, just an extra adult to care for them.
  4. Help your child to name and express their feelings by giving them a label. For example, “It looks like you’re really worried about all these big changes?”, “you sound angry about having to share my attention”, “it sounds like you are anxious about having to move homes, am I right?”.
  5. Learn about loyalty binds and how the entrance of a stepparent can create loyalty binds for a child i.e. ‘If I like or care about my stepmother/stepfather, I am disloyal to my mum/dad’. Know that loyalty binds are normal and that there are things you can do to loosen them.

Ultimately, when it comes to re-partnering and remarriage kids need time and space to adjust and accept their stepfamily reality. You can’t rush or force acceptance. The best path through entails a lot of time, a great deal of parental patience and realistic expectations about the time it takes to build stepparent–stepchild relationships and forge a sense of “family”. It also involves lots of listening, talking and unconditional love and support.

Good luck.