Yours… Mine… Ours. “Our” marriage, “our” kids, “our” exes, “our” baggage, “our”……..happily ever after? Here’s to hoping. Blending together two families who each have their own set of family dynamics, daytime dramas, “well-meaning” grandparents, sappy traditions, unbending belief systems, and set-in-stone parenting styles is most often good in theory…but may feel like captive torture when played out. Now throw in two exes, their new spouses, and more extended familial “strangers”…and what do you get? Kids who don’t know which way is up, who to direct their anger at, or if anyone even cares that they’re angry. To them, it may seem the adults are so busy being angry at each other…who’s listening anyway?
How do we, as parents, manage to successfully blend two families AND keep our children from feeling like the forgotten luggage we’ve tied to the bumper and drug along behind the moving vehicle that is our new life?
The modern blended family is quickly replacing its traditional competitor. Divorce, followed by remarriage, is the new normal…whether our kids are ready or not. And let’s face it…they’re not. Kids are creatures of habit, rejecting any semblance of a new life. After years of emotionally bonding with BOTH of their biological parents, they’re now thrust into the middle of a divorce…they have no idea how they got there, or why. What they do know is it wasn’t their choice. They then realize… their vote doesn’t count…it never did. And now that the divorce is inked and official, mom and dad want to remarry. Granted… blending a family is about as challenging as publicly disciplining our two-year-old, tantrum-throwing, eardrum-piercing, who-is-this-child? toddler without having “someone” accuse us of child abuse. Amateurs! But, Yes…it can be done…and Yes…it can be successful. 🙂
When thrown into a blended family, our kids typically act out and become rebellious, difficult, and withdrawn. Unfortunately, we get angry, seek punishment, and get our heels so deeply dug into the punishment muck…we can’t get out, step back, and gain perspective. We can’t examine what the thoughts, fears, and insecurities are that drive our kids to behave in such a way.
After having the cold ice bucket that is divorce dumped over his head, a child has already recoiled and felt the disappointment of parental letdown. His safe, protected cocoon has been split and he’s been peeled out, limb by limb- against his will – into the harsh “elements” that make up life. Reaction: self defense… a.k.a. withdrawal, lashing out, and self-imposed isolation. This rebellious, difficult, withdrawn hoodlum – who has hijacked our precious baby’s body and is now using it to wreak havoc in our new life- is simply hurt, frightened, and keeping his guard up. If his guard is up, he can’t be let down again. He feels powerless in the changes that are affecting his life…acting out is HIS choice… the only thing he CAN control…he will exercise it. His self esteem, confidence, and security have taken a hit, and our job as parents is to do whatever we can to restore that which he has lost. That means giving him space to express his disappointment, grief, and anger. That means encouraging his continued relationship with BOTH parents. With the steady love and presence of both biological parents, our child will adjust to his new blended family more quickly and have higher self esteem. He needs this like he needs air to breathe. Our kids need to know that though we couldn’t make it work, they are more important than the conflict that ended our marriage. Knowing this, for kids, makes all the difference. All too often, our emotions and resentments from the failed marriage dictate our behaviors, our attitudes, and our words when it comes to our kids and their relationship with the ex. Though we may think otherwise, our body language is sometimes louder than our words. So, even when we’re biting our tongue, we’re yelling criticisms from the rooftops. Whether we’re tackling discipline, parental swap, or trying to help our kids cope…here are a few things to consider:
—-Drop kids off…never pick them up: While it may seem harmless and more convenient to pick them up when doing the parental custody swap, try to avoid it. Picking them up conveys the subtle insinuation that we’re taking them from the other parent. Yes…sounds silly to an adult. But to a child, it feels like a threat from one parent to another. And once again, he feels caught in the middle. “Do I go with this one, or stay with that one?” A child’s mind in this situation is always one of self-blame. “If I go with him, will it hurt her? If I refuse to go to avoid hurting her, will I hurt him?” When we drop them off, we send the message that we’re giving them permission to go have fun. Kids are amazing little people who strive to please both parents ALL the time.
Routine: A great way to give kids the predictability they crave is to create a special routine just for them. For example, after every visit away, on the first night of their return to us, we might make their favorite dinner or dine at their favorite restaurant. Kids find comfort in routine. A traditional coming home meal, or any consistent routine we may choose, can provide them a small security in an otherwise scary world of unknowns.
Verbal praises: While kids prefer hugs and more physical contact from their biological parents, they prefer verbal praises from stepparents. They may, in time, become more comfortable with physical praise, but in the beginning, keep it verbal. It respects their personal space, allows them to slowly take us in – rather than our cramming ourselves down their throat – and lets them call the shots where our connection is concerned. Little choices like this give them a sense of independence and help them adjust.
Time alone: There’s a time for the whole family to be together…and there’s a time for us to treat our biological kids to some one on one time with just us…no stepparent…no stepbrothers or sisters. This strengthens the bond that has taken such a blow. When armed with an intact bond with his biological parent, he doesn’t feel he’s being replaced. He feels he is “sharing” his parent, rather than having HIS parent “stolen.”
Rules respected and followed: Rules, as well as consequences, should be as similar as possible between the homes. If our child doesn’t complete his homework and loses video game privileges while at our ex’s house, those consequences should be enforced at our house until punishment is complete. Consistency and respect between the homes will provide security, keep expectations clear, and rob him of a loop hole with which to play one parent against the other. Trust me…given access to a loop hole, he’ll jump right through.
Biological parent disciplinarian: The last thing a kid wants is another bossy know-it-all. When a blended family is in its beginning years, the biological parent should do most of the disciplining…allowing the stepparent to play the role of friend or counselor. If a new person comes barging in, takes his parent away, changes life as he knows it, AND has the nerve to discipline him, the only thing he’s creating is a brick wall with no means around it. That bond will never happen. A child needs time to get to know us, develop a relationship with us, and come to respect us before he will take kindly to discipline of any kind. If we stomp into his world beating our chest and barking orders, those orders will only bounce off that brick wall and smack us right in the face. None of us enjoy having our words thrown back at us…do we? 😉 Once a bond has been established, discipline will be accepted and respected.
Kids so often carry around the burden of a divorce between their parents, wondering what they did to cause it, or what they can do to fix it. Remarrying and introducing a blended family to them will be difficult – there’s not enough candy in the world to sugar coat that sour note. But, the good news is children are resilient…and given time and room to grieve, they’ll come around. Children who experience divorce and blended family life, children who are encouraged, and, above all, loved…these children learn adaptability and develop the compassion and empathy needed to embrace outsiders, making them more accepting, more flexible adults.
We’ve ordered this blended family. We’ve added many ingredients to our tall glass of new life. It WILL be stirred by the many variables butting heads in our glass. However, with love, patience, and understanding, our blended family will withstand the stirring and remain strong…and unshaken…in the face of adversity. Drink it in.
“My mom cries when I tell her about Dad’s girlfriend. I can’t help it if I like her just a little. She’s nice to me.”
Dad left so suddenly that if I don’t take care of Mom, she might leave me too.”
“Dad couldn’t really be as bad as Mom says he is.”
“My dad left because I wanted to ride my bike my way, and I told him to go away. He did and divorced my mom.”
“If I go live with grandma can you and dad stay married?”