When marriages that involve children end in divorce, the children often become unintended victims. They struggle emotionally, their routines are disrupted, and they potentially face inconsistencies in parenting styles.
When the mother or father remarries, the issues for children can become compounded. However, there are also benefits for children that have been through a divorce. After living with a single mother or father, children are given the opportunity to experience two parents again. If other children are brought into the blended family, they may have the opportunity of having a brother or sister for the first time. And, they will have the prospect of learning and growing with a greater diversity of people.
Parenting in a blended family is a tough job, but it can also provide opportunities for healing and maturity. Below are five tips to keep in mind.
1. Assure children of your stable relationship. Children that have been through a divorce often have not seen adults work through problems successfully and fear that divorce will happen again. Parents need to model what it means to be in a committed marriage. This begins with children seeing parents communicating effectively. One way parents can demonstrate this is by having “couch time.” Couch time is an intentional time of adult conversation that happens in full view of the children for 10-20 minutes. It happens when parents see each other for the first time at the end of the day and need to catch each other up on the day’s news. They choose a central location in the house such as a living room couch, and tell the children, “We’re going to have couch time. Imagine that there is an invisible bubble around the couch. You are not allowed to enter this bubble or talk to us for 10 minutes.” For little children, couch time can begin with five minutes. Research shows that children reared in a home where parents display good communication and problem-solving skills help children develop a sense belonging and self-worth.
2. Never let the children come between you. Psychologically, children may view the new parent figure as a threat or intruder. Can we blame them? No. Their lives are disrupted again and they are forced to accept the new adult into their family. As a result, children often try, perhaps subconsciously, to drive a wedge between their parents. It is not uncommon for children to think that the new parent is against them or does not have the children’s best interests at stake. Children also tend to pit one parent against another (This is even common in nuclear families). Parents need to work together to establish a spirit of cooperation. When a child gets into trouble and a consequence needs to be administered, it is good for the parents to communicate to the child that they will mutually decide the consequence. Then they should discuss the consequence—out of earshot and eyesight of the child. They can even say, “We’re going in our room to talk about you.” After a consequence is agreed upon, the parents then announce it to the child as a united front. That way, the child is less likely to think one parent is getting his or her own way and comes to appreciate the value of parental teamwork.
3. Take time to get to know the children. One job of the new step-parent is to take time to build relationships with their step-children. For me, it was the first time I was put in a position of parenting girls. I had only experienced boys. When our daughter Adrienne was 11, I took her to the doctor. They weighed her, and the nurse announced that she was 101 pounds. I was ecstatic. “Adrienne, you did it! You broke the 100 barrier!” I was so excited that it was the first thing I announced when we got home. After all, with boys, for every 10 pound weight gain we went out and celebrated with pizza and shakes. A few minutes later, my wife came downstairs and told me that Adrienne was crying. In my ignorance of girls I had no clue why. “She thinks that you think she’s fat.” I could not believe it. Immediately I went upstairs to her room and apologized profusely.
Another blessing was being put in a position to parent a child with special needs. My wife’s oldest daughter has cerebral palsy and I knew nothing about it. So, before we got married, I found some books on CP and educated myself. I have since learned a lot about parenting children with special needs.
4. Let the bio parent be the main disciplinarian. This is especially important in the beginning of the blended family relationship. Why is it important? As previously discussed, it is common for children to view the step-parent as the enemy. A simple request for a child to wash his or her hands before dinner may elicit a response of, “You’re not my dad (or mom).” It takes time for step-parents to earn the right to discipline. In fact, studies have indicated that it takes, on average, about seven years for a blended family to get past the mincing, chopping, and shredding phase to achieve the “smoothie” status of successful blending. One thing step-parents can do immediately is support the bio-parent in his or her discipline.
5. Develop Traditions. Traditions in families are a wonderful thing. They encourage bonding and help solidify relationships. Both old and new traditions are good. My wife had a tradition every year at Christmas time of taking her children to a street in Portland known for its Christmas displays. Before we got married I went with them. Now it is our shared tradition. Together, we have also established new traditions as a family. For example, we all enjoy going to the Oregon Coast. It doesn’t even cost a lot. Since we only live about an hour from the coast we can go for the day and browse the shops, play in the water, and fly kites. It is an enjoyable respite from our busy lives.
I present a lengthier version of blended families at our family workshops held throughout Northern Oregon and Southern Washington. For more information, please go to the Northwest Marriage Institute website.