When a Parent Remarries

Family dynamics are complex in situations of divorce and remarriage. Combining households, kids and possibly different parenting styles can leave everyone involved feeling stressed and overwhelmed. Although you and your new spouse feel connected and comfortable with each other, it can take some time before all of your children feel the same way. What can you do to help your families gel together? We spoke with Sarah Greenwell, a psychologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, for her suggestions on helping kids through this complicated period.

Laying the groundwork

“Introducing your child to someone you’re getting remarried to is actually a process,” says Greenwell. “Introduce the significant other way before discussions about remarriage. That introduction process should take months. The child should know the person fairly well.” Hiding the fact that you are dating or would like to eventually remarry will only damage the trust you have between you.

Address their fears

Having a new step parent and possibly step siblings is a major upheaval in your family’s dynamic – a change that can cause considerable anxiety. “Kids want to know that they’re safe,” says Greenwell. “They want to know that they’re going to be supported. And they want to know that their life isn’t going to change a whole lot. So when you’re talking about remarriage, what you’re really saying to a child is that your world is going to change. So what kids want to know is how much of an impact that’s going to be.” Really listening to your children’s concerns and reassuring them that they won’t be “losing” you to your new spouse will help relieve their fears.

Take their maturity level into account 

Adjust how you support your child depending on their developmental stage. “Young children, like infants and toddlers don’t have a lot of language, so talking extensively with them is not going to be very beneficial,” says Greenwell. Instead focus on keeping their daily life and routine consistent as much as possible. “It’s more about your actions as a parent than your conversations” she says. Also, be on the lookout for any regressive behavior that might indicate signs of stress.

Regarding school-agers, Greenwell says this age group will have more questions. “They are still grappling with relationships and trying to understand relationships. So you need to be ready to answer their questions about love, marriage and loyalty.” In terms of adolescents, she says, “They’re more about their own lives and autonomy. So what they really want to know is – how is this going to affect my current schedule?”  Teens may wonder if they will have to switch schools, make new friends, etc., so addressing these concerns will be important for them.

Defining your partner’s role

“I think the assumption is that the step-parent becomes a parent, and that’s not necessarily the case,” says Greenwell. “Everyone wants to know how much discipline can the step-parent [enforce]. And the reality is children comply when they are emotionally, strongly attached to their parent, and a step-parent hasn’t had the years of emotional investment in this child that the biological parent has had.” Developing a bond among stepfamilies takes time, so be patient. Research suggests that it may take blended families anywhere from five to ten years to hit their stride as one unit.

See the big picture

Let your child’s relationship with your spouse develop naturally and don’t force kids to try and feel connected before they are ready. In time, a closer bond may develop between everyone. Greenwell says it’s important to reassure your child that the relationship you have with them will always be there, no matter what.

Combining kids and remarriage successfully is not an overnight process. Taking it one step at a time, and getting professional help if you feel in over your head, can make each day together as a blended family better than the last.

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