A parent asked me recently about what may be the best way to introduce a new partner to her children.
It’s a big topic with so many variables. Some of the difficulties I see in blended families are:
- dislike between stepparent and stepchildren, which leads to distrust, alienation, and manipulative behaviour;
- adults demonstrating childish behaviour;
- the stepparent treating the stepchildren poorly or unfairly;
- the stepparent competing with the children for the birth parent’s attention and requiring the birth parent to choose between them;
- the birth parent feeling like s/he has to support his/her partner or put the partner’s needs above the children’s needs, further alienating the children.
Yes, children can behave poorly too, but they are children. They are looking to us for care, support, nurture, attention, guidance, and education. They learn how to behave from us.
However, you can make it work, by applying lots of empathy, thinking things through before acting, and doing a lot of talking and listening. There is a blended family in the community I live in that has 11 children between them. I see all of the children and partners together at the soccer, adults talking, children playing. I’m sure they have their moments of frustration, and my head spins at the logistics of it all, but the kids are doing really well.
I compiled the following advice for the enquiring parent…
– Take it slow. Introduce the children to the new partner over time. Start with small amounts of time and build up slowly.
– Spend time with the children on your own. Make it quality time. Keep routines and traditions as much as possible. For example, if you and the kids make pizzas together every Thursday night, keep it that way. Develop additional routines and traditions with the new partner slowly over time.
– Spend time with each of your children on his/her own. Once per month is good, weekly is better. Make it special, and a time to enjoy each other’s company with no agendas (ie, don’t address behaviour during this time).
– Adults are often anxious to make a connection with children and try to push or coerce them into a relationship. Allow the children to regulate the level of connection and relationship with the new partner. If the children are on a long rope, reel it in very very slowly. They will resist anything that is false or a level of intimacy that does not feel comfortable for them, and that is healthy. Trust is built up over time and through being consistent and predictable.
Communication, communication, communication
– Talk with your partner about your parenting philosophy. Do a parenting group together.
– Ask your partner to observe how your kids and you interact, how you deal with issues and mistaken behaviour. And then talk about it later, when the kids aren’t around. The biggest issues between partners occur around managing child behaviour, it causes SO MUCH conflict. Ask the new partner to refrain from managing child behaviour until you are both comfortable with each other’s style and how well the children are relating to the new partner.
– Have a family meeting once per week, and make sure you have a fair and reasonable set of house rules that everyone (including parents) has to comply with.
– Let your ex-partner know about your new relationship before the children do. Tell the ex that if s/he has any concerns to address them with you rather than pressuring the children for information. This can cause resentment in the children and the feeling that they are stuck in the middle.
– You may need to communicate your expectations with your new partner. Do you want him/her to become as emotionally needy as the children and have tantrums about how you don’t take his/her side every time s/he’s had a disagreement with the kids? Or do you want him/her to behave like an adult should – emotionally bigger and stronger, wiser and kind? Identify some coping strategies for his/her anger or frustration. Use “I messages” to communicate feelings.
Resilience in your children
Younger adolescents (10 to 14) find the changes most difficult. It’s already a difficult time with many developmental challenges (puberty, transition to high school, separation and individuation, identity) so a new partner will add additional bumps in the road.
Assess how many resilience factors your children have (parents, school, community, peers, interests, extended family, goal orientation) and talk with them about ways they can become more connected in and out of the home.
Continue to use your positive parenting tools. There are only two base emotions – love and fear. Child mistaken behaviour arises from fear. All of the so-called ‘negative’ behaviours manifest from some kind of fear. Remind children that all feelings are acceptable but it matters what they do with their feelings. Use reflective listening and emotion coaching when your child has an emotional outburst or mistaken behaviour which you believe may be related to feelings about the new partner. What may look like jealousy may actually be concern on your child’s part – she may have seen you hurt before and may be worried about you.
Continue to look after yourself. Chances are you are working even harder now to accommodate everyone else’s needs and leaving yourself feeling a bit drained. Take some time for you.
Statistically, children in blended families are at greater risk of abuse and neglect due to conflict, behaviour mismanagement, and divided loyalties. Seek professional help for ongoing child behaviour, relationship difficulties, or family conflict.
And get advice from people who are making it work. After I compiled the above advice I found a series of articles by the Huffington Post on blended families who have overcome the challenges and in which the children and parents are thriving. They are joyful and uplifting to read. The link is …
Image source: http://www.pinterest.com/pin/200832464606854163/
Categories: Parenting Skills