Adjusting to Change
With change comes disruption. For some families, the process of blending families is smoother than others. It may be unreasonable to expect that you will be able to create an instant family or that everyone will get along straight away when you repartner or remarry. Love and respect takes time to develop and in fact is a bonus rather than the norm so it's important not to force the issue. Start with something smaller like working on understanding, kindness and the big one - respect.
Children of different ages react differently to situations of change. Going through the break-up of their family and joining a new family is a major change in the life of any child. Children going through this tough situation may feel a range of emotions. Some children may resent the fact that one parent has found a new partner and that their world has turned upside-down. Others may feel guilty and disloyal for spending time with one parent over the other. It's important to understand how your children are feeling and to help them through it. All those who go through a family break up will grieve the loss of the familiar. All of us grieve in different ways, a lot of sensitivity is needed to all family members at this time.
Through relationship education you can learn some practical things to help yourself, your partner and your family through this time of change.
The various people involved in the new stepfamily may have very different ideas about what they want and how it will work.
For the children, a remarriage might be the event that finally makes them give up their hopes that their parents will get back together again. This can happen even if the parents have been separated for many years.
The biggest thing for parents (and often the hardest) can be letting go of the ties from a previous relationship.
Feelings that come with separation, divorce or death are very powerful and can affect any new relationship.
If you haven't dealt with these feelings, if you still feel angry, sad or upset with your ex-partner, you need to get some professional support before you start a new partnership. This gives more chance for the new family to work well.
What Parents Can Do
- Keep changes to a minimum. It can be a lot for children to manage when homes, schools and friends all have to change.
- Talk to the children and each other about your plans.
- Tell the children it will be strange at first, and will take time to get used to the new changes.
- Listen to children's feelings.
- Let the children know that their other parent who is not living with you is important and will always be their Mom and Dad.
- Never speak badly of any of the children's parents in front of the children, even though this may be hard.
- Understand the strong bond between your new partner and his or her children. Make time for them to be together.
- Make time for you to spend with your own children if you have them.
- Avoid taking all your partner's time so the children feel left out, but remember to keep time for your new partnership. There won't be a stepfamily for the children if the partnership does not work.
- Spend time building relationships with all of the children. Take it at their pace, which will be different for different children.
- Try to give children some control over things that will affect them.
- Work out what will be the new rules and traditions for your new family.
- Allow children time to sort out their feelings. There may be behavior problems, unfriendliness or disagreements while they sort it all out.
- Keep a diary of stepfamily events. It will help you to see the progress you have made and help build the history of the new family.
You cannot expect your stepchildren to love you, but you can expect them to respect you, as you respect them. Stepfamilies, especially the children from the previous relationship breakdown, have had losses, may have to move to a new home, may lose their own bedrooms, etc.
A new partner cannot suddenly become a new mother or father. Parenting will probably still need to be done by the children's natural parents if they are still involved with their children.
All of the old family rules and traditions will need to be re-examined, as each family will bring its own expectations to the new stepfamily.
There may be problems with loyalty. For example, children may feel it is disloyal to their other parent to become friends with the new stepparent, especially if they really like the new stepparent.
It is easy to underestimate how difficult it is to build a complicated new family. It takes years, not months, and lots of effort.
Things to Remember
- Live for one day at a time and plan for short periods. Don't expect to be "happy ever after" by next week!
- Stepfamilies are usually decided by two adults who want to be together. The children may not share the same feelings about it.
- Never fight in front of the children or step children.
- Remind yourself why you fell in love with your partner in the first place and make time and ways to take care of that love.
- Keep your own individual interests as adults and encourage the individual interests and activities of all the children.
- Every family and stepfamily is unique. What works for someone else may not be what works for you.
- Be honest about your feelings and sensitive about how you express them.
- Listen to the feelings of all the others in the family.
Coleman, WL, "Step Trouble: a survival guide for teenagers with stepparents", CompCare Publishers, Minneapolis, 1993.
Funder K, Kinsella S, and Courtney P, "Stepfathers in Children's Lives," Family Matters, No. 31, April, 1992, pp 14-17.
Funder K, and Kinsella S, "Divorce, change and children: effects of changing family structure and income on children," Family Matters, No. 30, December, 1991, pp 20-23.
McGeachie Tricia (ed) "When my parents split up" 2nd edition, Adelaide: Children's Interests Bureau, 1999.
Neuman M Gary, "Helping your kids cope with divorce" NY: Random House, 1998.