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Posts tagged ‘Blended family challenges’

Where’s Mom?

SOURCE:  Ron Deal/Family Life

It hurts to watch a child suffer rejection from an uninvolved parent. Or from an inconsistent parent who promises time together and repeatedly breaks the promise.

One of the great tragedies of divorce is when one biological parent disengages from a child. For example, as is reported in my book The Smart Stepdad, 10-15 percent of nonresidential fathers drop out of their kids’ lives.

Watching your child suffer rejection from an uninvolved and uninterested parent is heartbreaking. Even worse, I’ve observed that an inconsistent parent who promises time together and then repeatedly breaks the promise can be even more heartbreaking to children. Their hopes are raised, only to be dashed on the rocks of disappointment again and again. Of course, this leaves the other parent to explain their absence.

Broken promises

Jennifer’s mother, Pamela, lived across the state. Pamela had remarried and had a new son. Jennifer lived with her father, Roger, and stepmom, Amy. Pamela’s new marriage and blended family, together with a growing career, took a lot of her time. However, her guilt for not making time to be with her daughter led her to (with good intentions) promise Jennifer special weekend visits that never happened.

As Jennifer entered adolescence she constantly wondered if her mom would finally keep her promises. She became increasingly oppositional toward her stepmother and father and unmotivated in school. Though previously a good student, her grades were failing fast and so was her father’s tolerance of her behavior.

A complicating issue was Pamela’s constant invitation to Jennifer to come live with her. She conveniently blamed her ex-husband for Jennifer’s trouble in school and implied everything would be better when they could finally be together. This kept Pamela and Jennifer pseudo-connected, sharing an empty fantasy.

Eventually, Jennifer began to ask why her mother didn’t care to be with her. Her increasing age and cognitive abilities gave her a new ability to see through the empty promises her mother repeated numerous times. When she finally admitted her mother’s deception, she sank into depression and self-blame. Her father, Roger, asked me what he should say to help Jennifer.

Coping with reality

I first reminded Roger that no explanation would take away Jennifer’s pain and nothing he or his wife could do would stop the longing in Jennifer’s heart. Parents cannot take away a child’s grief; they can only help them cope with reality. I also suggested that it was okay for Roger to share his anger toward his ex-wife as it related to Jennifer’s pain, but that he should then redirect conversations back toward Jennifer and her feelings.

In response to Jennifer’s statement, “Does Mom think paying child support is enough?” Roger might say, “This is extremely hard for you. It feels like your mother just doesn’t care. My heart is so sad for you; I wish your mother would keep her promises. Tell me more about how you’re feeling.” Such a response communicates an understanding of her pain and validates her experience.

Jennifer’s father should not openly criticize Pamela (“she is selfish”) or make excuses for her (“she’s just so busy at work”). Focusing on Jennifer’s feelings and helping her to develop a plan for how she will relate to her mother is the best approach. In addition, finding a therapist for Jennifer might offer her a safe outlet to talk about her loss, anger, and sadness.

A stepmom who wanted to fill the gap

Jennifer’s stepmom, Amy, wanted desperately to fill the gap in Jennifer’s life. In some ways, she could, but in other ways could not. I encouraged Amy to pray for her diligently and to keep a respectful tone when talking about her mother. (The trap in this situation for stepparents is joining the child in their frustration only to have the child turn on you.)

I encouraged Amy to look for opportunities to discuss what Jennifer says and does, but not to become overly emotionally invested in her decisions or conclusions. For example, when Jennifer is crediting her mother with being responsible even though she isn’t, Amy should engage the conversation gently. “I can tell you are certain your mom will show up as promised this weekend. (Now shift the focus to the child, away from your critical opinions of the parent.) You really are hoping to see her, aren’t you? I hope you get to. You are a great kid and deserve to spend some time with her.”

The trick is not getting caught in the trap of trying to change Jennifer’s fantasy about her mother. That is, unfortunately, something she has to teach herself (and it will be a sad day when she does).

Finally, I promised Roger and Amy that these suggestions would feel grossly inadequate to help Jennifer. And they are. In such circumstances, we cannot get rid of a child’s pain, but we can hug the hurt. “Reinforce your love for her over and over,” I suggested. “And hold her when she cries.”

Should you make the children go see a disengaged parent?

Frequently a parent and stepparent will ask if they should make a child go see their disengaged mother or father if the child doesn’t want to. Some children grow calloused toward an undependable parent and prefer not to be around them (and you can’t blame them). What should parents do?

  • Young and pre-teen children should be encouraged to keep the visitation schedule, even if the withdrawn parent pawns them off on grandma.
  • Teens can consider the decision more thoroughly and should have a stronger say in whether they visit and how often.
  • Consider the custody agreement. You don’t want to be accused of not honoring court orders. Consult an attorney to discuss the implications of letting the child stay home.
  • Never stand in the way of reconciliation of a disengaged parent and child, but do become an advocate for the child. For example, you might say, “I’ll tell Johnnie you are taking him on Saturday when you arrive, but not until then so he’s not disappointed again.”

Blended Families: 10 Things to Know Before You Remarry

SOURCE:  Ron Deal/Family Life

Challenges every single parent should consider before deciding to remarry.

Specializing in stepfamily therapy and education has taught me one thing: Couples should be highly educated about remarriage and the process of becoming a stepfamily before they ever walk down the aisle.  Remarriage—particularly when children are involved—is much more challenging than dating seems to imply. Be sure to open your eyes well before a decision to marry has been made.

The following list represents key challenges every single parent (or those dating a single parent) should know before deciding to remarry. Open your eyes wide now and you—and your children—will be grateful later.

1. Wait two to three years following a divorce or the death of your spouse before seriously dating. No, I’m not kidding. Most people need a few years to fully heal from the ending of a previous relationship. Moving into a new relationship short-circuits the healing process, so do yourself a favor and grieve the pain, don’t run from it. In addition, your children will need at least this much time to heal and find stability in their visitation schedule. Slow down.

2. Date two years before deciding to marry; then date your future spouse’s children before the wedding. Dating two years gives you time to really get to know one another. Too many relationships are formed on the rebound when both people lack godly discernment about their fit with a new person. Give yourself plenty of time to get to know each other thoroughly. Keep in mind—and this is very important—that dating is inconsistent with remarried life.

Even if everything feels right, dramatic psychological and emotional shifts often take place for children, parents, and stepparents right after the wedding. What seems like smooth sailing can become a rocky storm in a hurry. Don’t be fooled into thinking you won’t experience difficulties. As one parent said, “Falling in love is not enough when it comes to remarriage; there’s just more required than that.”

When you do become serious about marriage, date with the intention of deepening the stepparent/stepchild relationships. Young children can attach themselves to a future stepparent rather quickly, so make sure you’re serious before spending lots of time together. Older children will need more time (research suggests that the best time to remarry is before a child’s tenth birthday or after his/her sixteenth; couples who marry between those years collide with the teen’s developmental needs).

3. Know how to “cook” a stepfamily. Most people think the way to cook a stepfamily is with a blender, microwave, pressure cooker, or food processor. Nothing could be further from the truth. All of these “cooking styles” attempt to combine the family ingredients in a rapid fashion. Unfortunately, resentment and frustration are the only results.

The way to cook a stepfamily is with a crockpot. Once thrown into the pot, it will take time and low heat to bring ingredients together, requiring that adults step into a new marriage with determination and patience. The average stepfamily takes five to seven years to combine; some take longer. There are no quick recipes.  (Read more about how to cook a stepfamily here.)

4. Realize that the “honeymoon” comes at the end of the journey for remarried couples, not the beginning. Ingredients thrown into a crockpot that have not had sufficient time to cook don’t taste good—and might make you sick. Couples need to understand that the rewards of stepfamily life (security, family identity, and gratitude for one another) come at the end of the journey. Just as the Israelites traveled a long time before entering the Promise Land, so will it be for your stepfamily.

5. Think about the kids. Children experience numerous losses before entering a stepfamily. In fact, your remarriage is another. It sabotages their fantasy that Mom and Dad can reconcile, or that a deceased parent will always hold his or her place in the home. Seriously consider your children’s losses before deciding to remarry. If waiting till your children leave home before you remarry is not an option, work to be sensitive to your children’s loss issues. Don’t rush them and don’t take their grief away.

6. Manage and be sensitive to loyalties. Even in the best of circumstances, children feel torn between their biological parents and likely feel that enjoying your dating partner will please you but betray the other parent. Don’t force children to make choices, and examine the binds they feel. Give them your permission to love and respect new people in the other home and let them warm up to your new spouse in their own time.

7. Don’t expect your new spouse to feel the same about your children as you do. It’s a good fantasy, but stepparents won’t care for your children to the same degree that you do. This is not to say that stepparents and stepchildren can’t have close bonds; they can. But it won’t be the same. When looking at your daughter, you will see a 16-year-old who brought you mud pies when she was 4 and showered you with hugs each night after work. Your spouse will see a self-centered brat who won’t abide by the house rules. Expect to have different opinions and to disagree on parenting decisions.

8. Realize that remarriage has unique barriers. Are you more committed to your children or your marriage? If you aren’t willing to risk losing your child to the other home, for example, don’t make the commitment of marriage. Making a covenant does not mean neglecting your kids, but it does mean that they are taught which relationship is your ultimate priority. A marriage that is not the priority will be mediocre at best.

Another unique barrier involves the “ghost of marriage past.” Individuals can be haunted by the negative experiences of previous relationships and not even recognize how it is impacting the new marriage. Work to not interpret the present in light of the past, or you might be destined to repeat it.

9. Parent as a team; get your plan ready. No single challenge is more predictive of stepfamily success than the ability of the couple to parent as a team. Stepparents must find their role, know their limits in authority, and borrow power from the biological parent in order to contribute to parental leadership. Biological parents must keep alive their role as primary disciplinarian and nurturer while supporting the stepparent’s developing role (read this series of articles for more on stepparenting). Managing these roles will not be easy; get a plan and stick together.

10. Know what to tell the kids. Tell them:

  • It’s okay to be confused about the new people in your life.
  • It’s okay to be sad about our divorce (or parent’s death).
  • You need to find someone safe to talk to about all this.
  • You don’t have to love my new spouse, but you do need to treat him or her with the same respect you would give a coach or teacher at school.
  • You don’t have to take sides. When you feel caught in the middle between our home and your other home, please tell me and we’ll stop.
  • You belong to two homes with different rules, routines, and relationships. Find your place and contribute good things in each.
  • The stress of our new home will reduce—eventually.
  • I love you and will always have enough room in my heart for you. I know it’s hard sharing me with someone else. I love you.

Work smarter, not harder

For stepfamilies, accidentally finding their way through the wilderness to the promised land is a rarity. Successful navigation requires a map. You’ve got to work smarter, not harder. Before you remarry, be sure to educate yourself on the options and challenges that lie ahead.

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