When you make a cake and blend the ingredients, the mixture is typically smooth and without lumps. Unfortunately, the same is not always true when blending families. So, once you’ve made the decision to live with another partner and his or her children – either full or part time – expect that there will be bumps in the road and that your lives will not always be smooth sailing.
Most parents are understandably worried about the transition from single parent and kids to two parental figures and possibly more kids.
The first concern is how well your child or children will get along with your partner of choice. The children will likely have been introduced to and spent time with your new partner prior to the decision to merge families. This gives your children time to get to know the new adult living with them. Some children, depending on their age, relationship to both biological parents and individual temperament, will accept your new partner, for better or worse. Some won’t.
You can help your children transition by being sensitive to the possibility that they will experience some jealousy and resentment, especially at first, related to the extra time you are spending with your new partner (and his or her children). Show your concern by continuing to spend some alone time with each child, without your partner present.
It is very common for older children to resent their parent’s partner trying to “parent” them, too. Many partners, in the process of blending their families, run into difficulty with one another when it comes to disciplining each other’s children. Most parents feel that it is not their partner’s role to set rules for their stepchildren and may jump in to protect, therefore creating conflict with the new partner. Establish clear guidelines with your partner as to the role that each of you will play in each other’s children’s lives.
Another issue that many couples encounter is when the new partner, as an observer, stands in judgment of the other parent’s style of parenting. One’s perception of a parent/ child relationship can be quite different from an observer position, but if the new couple is intent on making this blend work, it’s important that they neither interfere nor offer advice unless it is asked for.
Besides introducing and fostering a healthy relationship between your children and your new partner, you may be doing the same between each other’s children. Depending on several factors, including their ages, relationship with their parent, gender, amount of time that the children are all living under one roof, this transition may be challenging.
For example, if the children are of similar ages or the same gender, they may look forward to spending time together. On the other hand, the children may resent sharing their space with other children, especially if the chemistry is not good, if their parent is spending more time with their new partner’s children or if a “new” child’s behavioural or emotional difficulties are adversely affecting the dynamics within the family.
Be aware of all these factors and monitor the situation closely. Acknowledge how your children may be feeling and don’t force any relationship. Slow and steady usually wins the race when blending so that the mixture is as smooth as possible.
Very young children are most likely to accept new partners. They will thrive, so long as they are surrounded by love and attention. They are also least likely to feel as much jealousy or resentment toward their parent’s new partner since they have not spent a significant number of years alone with that parent. In years to come they will also likely not even remember life before that new partner was a part of their life.
School-aged children are more likely to need more time transitioning towards acceptance of a parent’s new partner and his or her children. They are more able to reflect on what the changes will mean to them and are more likely to take exception towards being told how to behave by a non biological parent.
Teens are most likely to judge their parent’s new partner. They may or may not express their feelings out loud and may need a bit of coaxing to share where they are at if you notice changes in their mood or behaviour. They will likely not accept being told what to do by their parent’s new partner and may even act negatively towards him or her – especially at first. Try to read between the lines and reflect back to your teen what he or she may be feeling as a way of encouraging him or her to open up.
Sara Dimerman is a psychologist, author and parenting expert in the Greater Toronto Area. Read more at helpmesara.com.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, August/September 2016.