As Dr. Jeanette Lofas so eloquently uses as her tag line on her website, “Often stepfamilies don’t blend, they collide!” At times, the word “collide” can feel like an understatement to a blended family struggling with loyalty conflicts. Loyalty is often an emotional response to a particular situation that may be occurring with someone we love (i.e, our parents or children, etc.). It’s a natural response….we show up for those we love….right? Unfortunately, for children living in blended families, the issue of loyalty is a very difficult one. Even more unfortunate is when parents and even some stepparents try to shape their children’s loyalties toward the other parent. Divorce is one of the most traumatic experiences a child will face in their lives — often equated to a death. It often has the ability to shape how they view their future adult lives if they are not given the right tools to use in order to trudge through same. They have to learn to trust all over again. Yes, parents, when we divorce, our children lose trust in us. They feel betrayed by the two people they look to for their security and for their sense of self. It is painful to feel betrayed and to feel as if you are betraying your children.
When I meet with newly formed stepfamilies, one of the main issues I see is that step and bio parents tend to fall into the trap of trying to shape their children’s loyalties. Most of the time, this happens when one parent remarries and the bio parent begins to get insecure. Of course, becoming insecure about our relationships with our children are perfectly normal, we all have insecurities from time to time, but how we deal with these insecurities is what is crucial. It is also very common for these same insecurities to creep up in our children manifesting themselves against their stepparents or new significant other in their parents’ lives. Children often feel that if they are “perceived” as loving their stepparent, they are being disloyal to their biological parent. Unfortunately, too many times, I have personally seen bio parents that reinforce this idea instead of debunking it for the sake of their children’s emotional and mental health. They would rather, actually rather, see their children go through drama and chaos only to disrupt the lives of their exes. It’s a shame on so many different levels. Instead of being committed to having a healthy divorce for their children, they decide to create an “us” against “them” attitude and coerse their children to have hatred for their stepparent and sometimes even for their biological parent as well. Unfortunately, what these parents don’t realize during all of this is that they are actually sabotaging their own childrens’ trust in them. Children eventually mature and grow and they figure things out for themselves. They figure out our insecurities. They get it.
Thankfully, there are some steps that you can take in order to wade your way through these trying times:
- Your child needs clear rules, boundaries and structure. Remain committed to your household rules.
- Do not side with your children against a stepparent. Talk with your ex spouse about issues that arise and handle them from there.
- Do not put your children in the middle of your battles. This goes for with your ex spouse or with your new spouse. Children do not need to be privy to every issue you and your (ex)spouse are dealing with.
- Encourage the relationship your child has with his/her other parent.
- Do not use your child as a messenger between his/her parents.
- Don’t ask your children to “keep secrets” from the other parent.
- Don’t question your children about their visitation.
- If it is feasible, have the parents and stepparents sit down and discuss expectations surrounding rules and parenting roles, etc. Obviously, this is not going to work for every stepfamily, but if it is feasible, it can help children to know that they will be supported by all parents and will also stand together as a united front.
TMF Readers, I know I don’t have to tell you this, but this subject begs the reminder that your children are a part of both of you and your ex spouse. When children feel as if they are put in the middle and have to choose between their parents, they feel insecure, guilty, pressured and ultimately rejected. Those feelings manifest themselves in all kinds of ways which can cause not just drama in your home, but in their lives which leave scars that sometimes take years to heal. Managing these issues as effectively as you can will help you to alleviate stress and will also allow the stepparent to be another caring adult in your children’s lives to become more trusted, involved and connected. By leading the example, not only will your child gain more trust for you as his/her parent the lesson they learn thereby will enhance their life experience and allow them to flourish.
Peace & Blessings,