I am a divorced mother with a 15-year-old daughter. I am about to become married to a wonderful man, David. My daughter tolerates him – but says she doesn’t really like him and is even a bit defiant around him. How can I help her accept my fiancée as her soon-to-be stepfather?
Kids grow by facing and working through challenges. The challenges presented by divorce and remarriage present opportunities for growth. However, kids are only able to grow from challenges if they are in a manageable range (i.e., not so easy that kids don’t have to stretch to meet them, but not so hard that they can’t stretch enough). The younger the son or daughter, the more moms and dads must help to bring a conflict into this manageable range.
The challenges of a new family are multi-faceted and different for each youngster. Your daughter is at a particular developmental point with specific needs, resulting in very particular meanings that a stepdad might have for her at this point. For example:
- David will occupy much of your attention, and this my present a special issue if there are times that your daughter is at her father's home longing for you.
- If her father is alive, she may maintain hope that you and he will remarry. In her mind, the stepdad may interfere with that scenario.
- Your daughter may feel like she is abandoning her biological father if she is too affectionate with David. David may parent differently than her father, perhaps in ways that she prefers, thus adding to these feelings of disloyalty.
- Add to the mix that David has his own adjustments to make and the fact that your relationship with your ex will have its difficulties as well.
For any youngster, this situation is not only complex, but highly individualized. This is the reason a generic, one-size-fits-all approach does not exist. But there are various general approaches and attitudes that you can use that can help your daughter:
1. Your daughter will grow emotionally and will develop the strongest relationship with David if you help her accept and understand her situation in all its complexity. Some challenges she faces may remain unresolved. For example, biological dads sometimes are jealous of their kid's (and ex-wife’s) relationship with the new dad. If that is the case in your situation, your daughter’s growing love for David will affect her dad. Ignoring this reality in the hopes that she doesn't notice or think about it could negatively affect her relationship with her father, her stepdad – and even you. Do not burden her with a heavy discussion about matters that she has not really taken in or is not ready to discuss, however.
2. You can find your way by remaining available and nonjudgmental. Imagine your child telling you that her father says that he doesn't like David. You could ask how she felt hearing that. Imagine your daughter saying that she worries about father. You might ask the very logical question, "Do you worry that he would be upset if you and David had fun together?" If she agreed, you could simply let her know that you understand how hard this would be. You might add that her father also wants her to have fun.
3. It is your ex-husband’s job to work out his mixed-up feelings, and it is your daughter’s job to feel good with the important people in her life. In this way, you provide understanding and encouragement while not trying to cover the situation or artificially resolve it. Your daughter will have many years ahead during which she will face changes in her environment and in her feelings. If you maintain the distinction between behavior and her inner world, and continually offer an open, affirming and guiding approach to her struggles, in all likelihood, her relationship with David will evolve into a meaningful and sustaining one.
4. Lastly, require your daughter to behave well and respectfully toward David. However, restrict your approval or disapproval to her actions rather than her thoughts and feelings. For example, deal with her defiance with the same disapproval and consequences you would use for her actions in any situation. But don't try to talk her out of her feelings. You could say, “You may not like it when David tells you to pick up your clothes from the bedroom floor, and it is OK to feel that way, but you still must obey him.” It is not recommend that you say something like, "You should love David."
Having said this, here are a few general guidelines for enjoying a successful blended family. Some of these will apply to your specific situations, others won’t:
1. All family members argue, so don’t assume all family arguments are the result of living in a blended family.
2. All relationships are respectful. This is not just referring to the children' behavior toward the adults. Respect should be given not just based on age, but based on the fact that you are all family members now.
3. Being civil. If family members can be civil with one another on a regular basis rather than ignoring, purposely trying to hurt or completely withdrawing from each other, you're on track.
4. Beware of favoritism. Be fair. Don’t overcompensate by favoring your stepkids. This is a common mistake, made with best intentions, in an attempt to avoid indulging your biological kids.
5. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Be sure to discuss everything. Never keep emotions bottled up or hold grudges.
6. Compassion for everyone’s development. Members of your blended family may be at various life stages and have different needs (teens versus toddlers, for example). They may also be at different stages in accepting this new family. Family members need to understand and honor those differences.
7. Don’t allow ultimatums. Your children or new partner may put you in a situation where you feel you have to choose between them. Remind them that you want both sets of people in your life.
8. Don't expect to fall in love with your partner’s kids overnight. Get to know them. Love and affection take time to develop.
9. Find support. Locate a step-parenting support organization in your community. You can learn how other blended families address some of the challenges of blended families.
10. Find ways to experience “real life” together. Taking both sets of children to a theme park every time you get together is a lot of fun, but it isn’t reflective of everyday life. Try to get the children used to your partner and his or her kids in daily life situations.
11. Insist on respect. You can’t insist people like each other but you can insist that they treat one another with respect.
12. Limit your expectations. You may give a lot of time, energy, love, and affection to your new partner’s children that will not be returned immediately. Think of it as making small investments that may one day yield a lot of interest.
13. Make parenting changes before you marry. Agree with your new partner how you intend to parent together, and then make any necessary adjustments to your parenting styles before you remarry. It’ll make for a smoother transition and your children won’t become angry at your new spouse for initiating changes.
14. Make special arrangements. If some of the children just visit, make sure they have a locked cupboard for their personal things. Bringing toothbrushes and other “standard fare” each time they come to your home makes them feel like a visitor, not a member of the blended family.
15. Room for growth. After a few years of being blended, hopefully the family will grow and members will choose to spend more time together and feel closer to one another.
16. Solid marriage. Without the marriage, there is no family. It's harder to take care of the marriage in a blended family because you don't have couple time like most first marriages do. You'll have to grow and mature into the marriage while parenting.
17. Spend time every day with your youngster. Try to spend at least one “quiet time” period with your youngster (or kids) daily. Even in the best of blended families, kids still need to enjoy some “alone time” with each parent.
18. Too many changes at once can unsettle kids. Blended families have the highest success rate if the couple waits two years or more after a divorce to remarry, instead of piling one drastic family change onto another.
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