Helping Your Child Deal with Your New Marriage

There are many changes that occur between the time a marriage dissolves and the time a new home is established. Children go through it all, along with their parents. In some ways, the journey is even harder for the kids; they are often unwilling passengers on a train that’s going to a place they don’t want to go. This can be especially true when a parent introduces the idea of remarriage.

If you are about to let your children know about your plans to remarry, consider the following tips:

Talk Little, Listen Much
It’s not complicated: you want to get married to someone who isn’t the parent of your kids. One sentence can convey this idea. After you say that sentence, allow the kids to react. Listen to what they have to say and nod your head even before you open your mouth. Keep nodding! When you finally do say something, it should be nothing more than a summary of what your child has said – particularly if the child has expressed negative thoughts and feelings. Consider the following dialogue, for example:

Parent: I want to let you know that Dan and I want to get married in the spring.
Child: Well if you do that then I’m leaving home.
Parent: (nods)
Child: There’s no way I’m living with him in this house.
Parent: (nods)
Child: He’s such a phony. I hate him!”
Parent: (nods)
Child: So you better rethink this thing.
Parent: (nods and adds:) You don’t want Dan in this family – you don’t want to live with him, you hate him – as far as you’re concerned, he’s just a phony.
Child: Exactly.
Parent: I understand.

There is no need to go further in the conversation at this point. The child is too emotionally aroused to deal with the information or to have a reasonable conversation about it. He needs time to process what has been said so far. Enormous changes are about to occur in his life. He’s in a state of shock, denial and rage about it all. This is not the time to tell him to “get used to it because this is what’s happening!” In fact, this first conversation isn’t the time to provide any sort of education, cheerful promises, corrective messages or anything else. It is particularly NOT the time to explain your motives, justify your decision or otherwise defend your position. Keep in mind that you are the adult and you are the one who is in charge and will make all the decisions. The child is powerless and he knows it. That is part of the reason for his extremely negative reaction.

Move Forward with Your Plans
Although you are welcoming and accepting your child’s feelings, you are not changing your plans. Carry on as usual with your new partner and go ahead and make marriage arrangements in front of your child (that is, don’t sneak around, hiding evidence of this activity). When your child protests, listen without judgment. Avoid making any remarks meant to change the child’s feelings to happier ones. For instance, DO NOT SAY anything similar to the following statements:

  • don’t worry – you’ll soon love Dan as much as I do
  • you’ll see – we’re going to be so happy together
  • Dan is a great man – you just have to get to know him better
  • you’ll love his kids and we’ll all be one big happy family

There is no need to stop the child from expressing his displeasure unless he is being rude to you or disrespectful to your partner. For instance, if your youngster says things like “I hate Dan. The guy’s a jerk!” you might say something like, “I understand you don’t feel positively toward Dan and that’s fine – no one can make you like someone you don’t like. However, I do not accept disrespectful speech, name-calling or insulting language. I don’t mind if you want to tell me your feelings about Dan, but you need to do so in a respectful way. It’s totally cool to say ‘Mom, I just don’t like Dan.’ If you have to say, say it that way. Remember, in this house we don’t GIVE and we don’t ACCEPT disrespectful speech.”

Respond to Questions
If you are careful not to shut your child down with your own anger, lectures, criticisms, excess information and cheerful pep-talks, your child is more likely to continue talking to you about his feelings about your plans to remarry. This is a good thing – you want your child to get everything off his chest. Be prepared for a barrage of questions:

  • where is everyone going to sleep?
  • what will happen to the way the house looks and runs?
  • what if he tries to tell me what to do?
  • where will he put his things?
  • where will his children stay when they visit?
  • what if we don’t like the way he cooks or cleans?
  • what if we don’t want him using our stuff?

And so on and so forth. Again, don’t answer in a sing-song voice, dismissing the questions with a bright “it will all work out – you just wait and see!” Instead, say things like,

  • Good question.
  • We’ll have to experiment at first and find the best solution.
  • It will probably take some time before we develop a routine that works.
  • It may be awkward at first.
  • Sometimes there are differences that we can’t make disappear.
  • Probably it won’t be perfect.
  • It may not be easy – especially at first.

Your child may also fish for reassurance that you will still be available as a parent. Again, don’t sweep the worry away by saying, “There’s plenty of time for everyone and everything! It will all work out!” Instead, acknowledge the valid concerns. Your acknowledgment actually helps the child to trust you more and helps reduce some of the emotional distress he is feeling. Say things like,

  • You’re right – there will be a new person in the house and my attention will be divided in a way that it isn’t right now. Right now you have me all to yourself. That will definitely change. It may not be easy at first.
  • There will be an adjustment period. After some time, we’ll figure out the best way to be together and apart, to have private time, me & you time, family time and other times. We’ll work it out by experimenting and learning.

Remarriage is a serious undertaking – and a difficult one. Your child deserves serious attention to his concerns. Even if you yourself are feeling totally in love, happy and optimistic about the undertaking, your child may be in a very different space – feeling uncertain, frightened, angry, hurt, lost and confused. Acknowledging and welcoming all these feelings helps them to leave more quickly. Ignoring them or wishing them away can cause them to stay buried inside where they can eventually lead to many kinds of distressing symptoms such as behavior problems, emotional problems, addictions, mental health disorders and more.

Address Negativity toward a Stepparent
Children don’t want more parents – particularly stepparents. They normally make this clear by saying things like, “He’s not going to be the boss of me. I’m never listening to him.” Acknowledge the child’s feelings and accept them as usual: “ You’ve already got a mother and father and you don’t want any more parents!” Again, make realistic statements. Depending on the age of the child you may say things like,

  • We’ll figure out how to live together day by day. We’ll work out the problems as they arise.
  • Your feelings will always be respected and acknowledged. I’ll do my best to make sure you feel comfortable in your own home and that my new partner relates to you in a way that will be as comfortable for you as possible. We all know that he is not your father. You’ll have a different sort of relationship with him than you have with your Dad.

Patience and Time is Required
Your child is going to go through an adjustment period. You cannot rush him into a happy relationship with your new spouse. Although it may be counter-intuitive, acknowledging the difficulty and pain of the situation will speed things along, helping your child to be open to enjoying his new life with his new family much more quickly and fully. Don’t expect this to happen overnight; allow your youngster to go through whatever he has to go through in whatever time it takes. Your calm understanding, compassion and patience will help your child more than you can imagine.

Provide opportunities for interaction before re-marriage. Do not rush to marriage just yet – do allow possibilities for your new family to spend time together first. This is to make your children feel at ease, instead of them seeing the both of you planning and working on the marriage all of a sudden.

Tips for Step-Parents

Given today’s divorce rate of 50%, cheap a lot of new families are created out of remarriage. In addition, many children become step-children after one of their parent’s has died and the other has remarried. Sometimes step-children also inherit step-siblings, meaning that the parents in such reorganized households have a lot of new family dynamics to deal with. Even if blended families are now a social norm, creating and living in one always comes with certain challenges. For a new step-parent, the road is far easier when preparations are made; it is helpful to learn about common step-parenting issues and strategies for managing them.

Honoring the Previous Family
Being a step-parent is harder than being a regular parent. Not only must you  build a new family, but you also have to do so without nullifying the original family your step-children come from. On the contrary, the more recognition, validation and honor you can give to the children’s original family, the more comfortable your new children are likely to feel around you. In cases where the other parent of your step-children has died, you can certainly ask the children about their past experiences in the family, their special memories and even their relationship with that parent. You want to show the kids that you aren’t afraid of the topic and that you aren’t trying to pretend that they didn’t once have a whole different home. Your unspoken message is “that was a precious part of your life and this new life with me in it is a different chapter of your lives. Both parts are valid.”

Step-children who come to you through the process of divorce may or may not have pleasant memories of their previous home. There are many types of divorce and in any case, the children’s experience of the dissolution of a home is normally very different from the experience of the adults involved. Again, you don’t want to pretend that the children did not have a previous life. In fact, acknowledging that all this change is difficult and must feel awkward, uncomfortable and unsettling can only help. Remember that children can feel intensely angry that they now have to live with a parent who is not their natural parent and siblings who are not their natural siblings. Acknowledging their grief and their right to anger shows that you are an understanding and trustworthy adult. “I know it’s strange having a whole new family in this house. It might make you feel upset or uncomfortable at times. We just want you guys to know that we understand and we’re here to help in whatever way we can. It isn’t easy. We don’t expect everyone to just start loving each other. That may come with time but it may not. All we ask for from everyone in this household is mutual respect. We talk to each other nicely. That will help all of us get along. If we later learn to like each other too, that will be a huge bonus!”

You May be Dealing with Trauma
Step-children have usually experienced some sort of traumatic loss, whether that was caused by death or divorce. Because of this, they often carry layers of grief, anger and anxiety – feelings that they don’t necessarily talk about. Their behavior, however, may be affected. As a step-parent you might see something that looks like an attitude problem, whereas it is much more likely to be an emotional problem. Sometimes it can be helpful to arrange for psychological counseling for kids who are being thrust into a blended family; counseling can give them a venue to work through their painful emotions far more quickly and efficiently than just waiting for “time” to do its magic. It is important to note that “time” does not necessarily heal these kinds of wounds at all. Therapy is a far better option. If therapy is out of the question, step-parents can accomplish much by being knowledgeable and utilizing resources such as books (books that can offer education and an opportunity to explore the issues in the reorganized family), pastoral services, community services and family services.

Because of all these emotions, step-children are rarely ready to give their hearts over to some new adult. It’s best if you don’t expect them to do so. Over the years, your patient, kind and understanding character will leave a strong impact, helping these youngsters to eventually open up to you and form a positive relationship. This process cannot be rushed, so just sit back and read some good parenting books (such as Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice by Sarah Chana Radcliffe) and wait.

Establish Expectations
As a new step-parent, you will want to avoid engaging in disciplining your step-children. Let their natural parent do this – unless the children are pre-schoolers. However, you can establish some basic expectations and rules just by living them yourself and using plain language to ask the children to abide by them. Work with your new spouse to create a set of basic rules and expectations that you are both willing to endorse. Suppose your new spouse never asked his kids to take their plates of the table after eating. You feel that since they are already teenagers, they should certainly be doing this for their own good as well as for the good of the household. In your home, you raised your children to do this task routinely. You have no intention of taking the step-children’s plates off for them and it irks you to see their father do it. Discuss the issue with the children’s father. If he sees the value in changing his previous philosophy and strategy, then the two of you can ask the kids to remove their plates from now on. If he doesn’t, however, then you remove your plates, you continue to ask your children to remove theirs, you express once only how you think and feel about the issue and then you let their Dad take care of it. If the problem gets out of hand, you can enlist the services of a family counselor.

Keep in mind that when you are pleasant, rather than strident, step-children are more willing to learn from you. When you keep the tone of the relationship positive, when you are willing to lead the way by your warm, kind example, you can accomplish a great deal over time. Don’t rush. Trust the process. Step-children are willing to learn more from warm, gentle step-parents than from strict, rule-oriented, authority figures.

Having said this, there is no reason for  you to accept any sort of abuse from a step-child. Read “The Relationship Rule” in Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice to learn how to establish respectful communication between you and the step-children. This is one area that you should really work hard to bring the children’s parent on board since establishing and maintaining basic standards of respect will help your new family remain healthy and caring rather than dysfunctional and destructive to its members.

Take the Lead
Don’t wait for your step-children to warm up to you. YOU warm up to them first, even if they don’t “deserve” it. Children need adults to take the lead. Pay attention to their preferences and their feelings and aim to respect both. Go ahead and “buy their affection” by getting them little treats, making favorite foods or doing special acts of kindness. By tuning into their preferences this way, you help the step-children feel safe and seen – prerequisites for a healthy relationship. You can get to know the kids better by opening up discussions stemming from issues in the news or articles you’ve read. Listen to their thoughts and opinions on all topics and accept what they have to say without judgment. Keep criticism very low – both about what they say and what they do.

Your Spouse’s Children
Your relationship with your spouse is the glue that holds your new home together. Try your best NOT to argue about your kids. Allow your new spouse to love his or her kids more than he or she loves you. Doing so helps your spouse come to love you more LATER ON. Parents have an intense, instinctive, protective love for their kids – a different kind of love than the one they have for their partners. You are NOT in competition with your spouse’s children, but if you feel you are, then accept the fact that the KIDS win and you lose. Then move on from there. Once you stop struggling, your partner will ironically love you more.

How to Make the Blended Family Work

Blended families occur when divorced or widowed adults with children form new relationships with other adults with children. Today’s high divorce rate has vastly increased the number of blended families. While parenting is always challenging, blended-family parenting presents additional issues that require extra skill and sensitivity.

Typical Challenges of Blending Families
The challenges of the blended family often have their roots in children’s relationship with their own parents. A parent’s re-marriage can take its toll on children, especially if the separation blindsided them. While parents may know for months or even years that their marriage will be ending, kids are often left out of the loop. They are more likely to be shocked by the time the information is presented to them. Sometimes conversations sound like “Your mom and I haven’t been getting along so I’m moving out and we’re getting divorced.” While this plan may have taken the adults a very long time to formulate, the kids may experience the dissolution of the marriage as an overnight affair. This could be true even if the parents were constantly fighting and threatening divorce within earshot of the kids. Children have no idea of what is happening behind the scenes – the marriage counseling, the lawyers, the long talks. In most cases, they just hear the final sentence. This shock aspect of the family breakdown can make the adjustment period harder. Even if the children long suspected that their home would dissolve, they are more likely to have suffered wishful thinking and serious denial. It can take them quite awhile just to come to terms with the fact that their home, as they once knew it, will exist no more.

Kids have to adjust to not only to the loss of their family, but sometimes to many other losses as well. Sometimes one parent becomes very scarce. Sometimes new caregivers enter the scene. Sometimes, they have to move to another home, school and community. Sometimes, they have to incorporate new people into their lives right away – such as the parents’ new partners and others. All of this change leaves its mark on children – many become emotionally overwhelmed, angry and/or sad. Many develop academic or behavioral problems. Moreover, while their parents want to move on quickly and establish new relationships, children can be resentful or fearful. It is common for them to be totally opposed to the idea of living with a new parental figure, as well as stepbrothers and stepsisters. It doesn’t matter how lovely these new family members might be; children are thrown together with people they don’t choose. They just want their old home and life back. If they actually have reason not to like the new parent-figure or new siblings, their pain is intensified.

But even if all is well, combining two different families in one household can be stressful. Conflicts between step-siblings are bound to arise, just because they were brought up differently. They may have different values and ways of doing things. Furthermore, there is the pressure of having to create a “new” family structure. New customs, new routines, new responsibilities, new roles and new relationships all have to be navigated within the blended family unit. In addition, the new husband and wife have to begin their relationship with a house full of children! And while people have high tolerance for their own kids, it is much harder to tolerate other people’s children. Marital conflict over parenting issues is common even when husband and wife are raising their own children; parenting conflicts in re-organized families can be even more intense.

Strategies for Your Blended Family
Although these challenges are real and unavoidable, caring parents can adopt “success strategies” that will enable them to move through the initial adjustment period to create stable, loving blended families.

Below are some techniques that may help:

Accept Your Children’s Feelings
Don’t insist that your children like or love your new partner or their new siblings. In fact, if they tell you they hate these people, just accept their feelings. Say things such as, “I hear you” or “I see.” Don’t argue with them or try to talk them out of their feelings. If you just accept the feelings, the feelings will become a little lighter, and move on a little quicker.  Accepting a feeling is like opening a door – the feeling can exit through the opening. On the other hand, if you shut the door on the feeling by saying things like, “You have no right to feel that way; these are lovely people who are here for you, etc.” then the feeling STAYS stuck inside. To help feelings leave, remember to open the door to them by letting your child express them.

Don’t Accept Poor Behavior
On the other hand, you must make it perfectly clear that everyone has to behave respectfully toward each other. While there is no need to like the new parent or siblings, rudeness will not be tolerated. If your child cannot control his hostility, consider accessing the help of a mental health professional. It is possible that the child’s pain is too much for him to handle and he needs therapeutic intervention.

Communicate with Your Spouse
The parenting partnership is important in all families, but especially so among blended families. It is vital that you come to an understanding regarding parenting style and discipline strategies. While some differences are expected to arise, what is important is that all children will be treated fairly and loved equally. Reaching a consensus with your partner on key parenting issues can help in anticipating the problems common in a blended family structure. This can be accomplished by reading a parenting book together, taking a parenting class together or going together to a mental health professional who deals with parenting issues and blended families.

Show the Children Love and Respect
You may have your own set of rules in your previous marriage, but you have to provide allowance for step-children to understand and adjust to your beliefs and values. Similarly, you also have to be open to their way of doing things, and allot time to adjust to their idiosyncrasies. And never speak ill of their biological parent! Doing so is the fastest way to harbor anger and hatred in the hearts of your stepchildren. Let your partner do the heavy discipline of his or her own children, while you do the same for yours. The first few years are relationship-building time; just be nice to your partner’s children. Of course, you’ll have to be pretty nice to your own as well, or they will quickly become jealous and resentful. However, everyone in the family knows whose children are whose. If a step-child misbehaves, you can let your child know that the child’s parent will be dealing with that behavior. The exception is when your step-children are very young (5 or under) in which case you can step in right away as a (benevolent) authority figure. Another exception occurs when your step child is rude to you directly. Since you must establish healthy boundaries in every relationship in your life, you can also do so with members of your new family. Do not give or accept any form of disrespect. Discuss with your partner what appropriate steps can be taken to effectively set boundaries against disrespect with his or her children (and the same for yours in relationship to your partner, of course).

Accept the Feelings of Your Step-Children
It’s not your fault that your new children don’t automatically love you (unless, of course, you mistreat them or treat them harshly). It can take years for your new children to open their hearts to you. Your patience and understanding will help speed up the process. Don’t take their rejection personally, but rather understand it as a form of their own pain that they cannot help. They have lost a home and they are hurting. Sometimes they have lost a parent. They cannot just open their heart to new love relationships – it is too dangerous. They have loved and lost. Therefore, don’t push them and don’t push yourself upon them. Instead, strive to make your stepchildren comfortable in your presence by being calm, gentle and caring. Unless the child is very young, refrain from disciplining (see above). Be positive. Offer acknowledgement and praise but skip the criticism and complaints. Let the other parent raise his or her children while you concentrate on making them feel safe and comfortable in your presence.

Be Fair!
Do not take sides, even if you want to stand up for your own children. Don’t make step-kids feel like they have to vie for your attention, or that they have to fight you too when they disagree with your own children. As the parent in the family, always stand on neutral ground when the siblings fight. If you can go out of your way to empathize with your stepchildren, even better (without being unfair towards your own kids, of course!). Even if you know that the step-children are being mean to your own kids, take it as an expression of their hurt rather than as an expression of their inherent “evilness” – try to guide them gently. Ask the child’s parent for help. Consider that your own children are also in pain and may not exactly be angels either!

Be Gentle and Patient
Expect a lot of bumps and challenges along the way; these are normal. If possible, get a mental health professional on-board to help provide support and guidance for you and your new partner. Why re-invent the wheel? Professionals can show you the quick road to successful life in a blended family. Short term support in the early months of your re-negotiated family may save you and your loved ones years and even decades of pain and suffering later.

Lastly, Embrace Your New Role
Show your stepchildren that you are striving to be a good parent, without the intention of taking their biological parent’s place. This may mean defining your new role in their life. It can mean establishing a partnership with your spouse’s ex. It can be striking a friendship with kids, and leaving all discipline issues to your spouse. Unless your “new” children are babies, toddlers or pre-schoolers, accept that you will never be a true parent to them. What you can hope to be is a wonderful step-parent, an excellent role model, an awesome source of support and love and eventually (when the kids are grown up), and a marvelous grandparent.

Feeling at Home in Blended Families

Blended families come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes there are two sets of children who are living in the new family home at the same time, but more often children will be entering the new family home and leaving again at various intervals. For instance, Mom may have her 2 boys living with her during the week and staying with their biological dad every weekend. Mom’s new husband may have his daughter and son coming to the new home every Wednesday evening and alternate weekends. With kids coming and going like this, the new home can have a chaotic flavor to it. However, firmly established family routines can counter this feeling, adding predictability and stability to the family.

To help increase feelings of stability and cohesiveness in your blended family, consider the following tips:

Try to Establish a Family Dinner Hour
If there is any day or days in which all the children from both previous marriages are in the house at the same time, try to establish a family dinner hour. For instance, let’s say that all the kids are together in your home every Monday night and Tuesday night. In that case, try to limit after-school activities for at least one of those nights (or both nights, if possible) and make a standard routine of having dinner together as a family. Mother and Father will arrange their schedules to be present and all the kids are available – it’s only a matter of committing to the importance of being all together that one (or two) night(s). In our culture where everyone is busy with so many work-related, school-related and personal development activities, it is not easy to arrange a weekly family dinner. However, if you can find a way to do it, your family will definitely feel more like a family. Moreover, family dinners have been found to be valuable to the development of kids (even from non-blended families!) for many reasons. Emotional stability, family cohesion, a chance to get to know each other and strengthen bonds – these are only some of the benefits of family dinners.

Arrange Routines Appropriate for Each Child’s Stage of Development
In some blended families, there are two different age-sets of kids. For instance, the children from one previous marriage might be 2 and 4, while from the other partner’s previous marriage, the kids are 10 and 13. This age-gap situation is more common in blended families than in non-blended families. It is important that each child is treated in a way that is appropriate for his or her age. The little kids may need to go to bed by 7p.m. while the big ones stay up till 9 or 10. Blending families does not mean ignoring real differences. The “family bedtime routine” becomes a matter of working through two different bedtimes in the household each night.

Not Blending Well
Sometimes kids from divorced homes end up “falling between the cracks.” For instance, 14-year old Jake stays with his Dad’s new family every other weekend. Dad has two children from his new marriage, aged 3 and 5. Jake’s step-mom Carol is very busy with the kids and she doesn’t seem to know much about teenagers. She’s always on Jake’s case to clean up his room when he comes or to be quiet so the little ones can sleep and so on. Jake feels like an intruder in what should really be his home. He reacts by being sullen with Carol, and he doesn’t care much to please her. He resents his Dad for breaking up his family. All-in-all, Jake’s sense of stability and security have been deeply challenged. If Dad added a couple of simple routines during Jake’s visits, Jake might have a much better adjustment. For instance, it would be great if there was always at least one family dinner during Jake’s stay (see above). Perhaps, Jake could choose a task that he would like to do with the younger kids during his visit – give them a bath, or read them a story, or play ball, or cards or something. If there was one activity that Jake did with those kids every time he came, this routine could help make him an important part of Dad’s new family instead of just an outsider who enters the house. Step-Mom could make a routine of sitting down for 5 minutes with Jake each visit just for a one-on-one chat – catch up, chat, bond. Perhaps that routine would center around a favorite treat that she has ready for him at each visit, whether that is a can of soda or a home-made brownie or whatever he likes. Doing the same thing over and over again is what turns an activity into a routine. In order for Jake to feel that he is in a home – his home – and he is not just a visitor to a hotel, he needs to have some regular responsibilities and accountability. A curfew, a task (take out garbage, clean the yard or whatever) and other normal family routines will help him feel that he is actually IN a family when he is staying with his Dad.

Reducing Chaos
Routines are important to every child. However, they are even more important in helping to stabilize blended families. Parents need to be organized, responsible and consistent. Children get picked up and dropped off at regular times. They go to bed at the same time during the week and the pre-arranged time on weekends. In other words, there is no “free for all” just because a child is not always home. If the child has homework to be done, he is assigned a time in which he needs to do it. Dinner time should be regular – not 4 p.m. one night, 8p.m. the next night and 6p.m. the night after that. Eating at home is important and home-cooked food should be a big part of the menu. In other words, parents are doing everything to maintain the flavor of a stable, normal home environment as opposed to a vacation spot where everything goes. If you are finding it hard to establish consistent routines within your blended family, meet once or twice with a mental health professional or family counsellor who can help you put things in place. The enduring benefits of establishing healthy routines will be worth whatever investment you make.

Rules and Rituals in Blended Families

Living in a blended family can be tricky. After all, stepparents are not just juggling their own children’s affairs (which in itself is challenging), they’re also juggling their spouse’s children’s affairs, and those of the family unit as a whole. Throw in the ex’s and you’ve got a mountain of complex responsibilities and issues to be dealt  with. Without clear order and structure in the new household, a blended family can feel chaotic.

Fortunately  there are two things that can help: rules and rituals.

Rules refer to standards of behavior – guidelines that outline that which is  allowed and that which is prohibited in a household. A family with rules is a more stable family, because there are clear boundaries and expectations. A curfew is an example of a rule. “No sweets before dinner,” is another example. The trick with rules is to limit them so that the household can maintain appropriate levels of flexibility and comfort. However, a few good rules can reduce conflict and enhance the harmonious functioning of a home.

Rituals are repetitive routines or ceremonies. Rituals need not be grand; eating together as a family every Sunday evening is an example of a ritual, as is having a small birthday party for each family member’s birthday. Rituals can provide stability to a blended family because they usually communicate a deeper value, such as togetherness, respect and acceptance. Rituals have been shown to have a positive effect on a person’s life, whether that person is a child or an adult. The soothing, uplifting and stabilizing effects of rituals are especially important in blended families. The new rituals of the family can actually help make the family a reality.

The following are some rules and rituals that are helpful when raising a blended family:

Do A “Welcome Everyone” Ritual
This may seem like common sense, but you’d be surprised how many parents neglect to have some form of welcoming ceremony when kids from different households first come together as one family. If you’re a part of a couple about to begin a blended family, you can make up a “Welcome All” ritual for your family. This can be something as simple as going out to lunch and dinner together before you transfer to a new home. A round of formal introductions — even if you all know each other by then — can be helpful, especially when each person is encouraged to tell the group something about themselves. For instance, “I’m Daryl. My favorite hobby is building train sets. I have a huge collection in my basement – and no one better ever touch it!” “Hi, I’m Carol. I was married to Doug for 12 years before he died last year. I love homemade cookies and you can often find me up late at night baking up a batch. Don’t worry – I share!” Perhaps each set of children can create a welcome gift or present for their new siblings and step-parents.

Create An “Express Differences Respectfully” Rule
Sooner or later, one of the children is going to notice something different in his or her step family and will say “hey, that’s not how we do things in our home.” This situation can’t be helped; after all, a blended family is the merging of two different families with their own history, way of doing things, values and traditions. What parents can do is to encourage discussion of these differences, instead of pushing them aside. One rule that can help is the agreement that all feedback must be stated respectfully, with no attempt to belittle the other family’s opinions, or force them to comply with what you believe is correct.

New parents can create a structure where kids can air the differences that concern them. A weekly meeting can be a venue to raise issues and address them. Sometimes, the result will be “let’s agree to differ”, sometimes one family will agree to adopt the other family’s way, and sometimes the the two families can create a new way of doing things.

Treat Everyone the Same — But Don’t Force People to Respond to You in the Way You Prefer
Jealousy and coalitions can easily thrive in a blended family. A dad who buys his biological kids an expensive toy, but fails to get his step-children the same, can lead kids to adapt an “us vs. them” mentality in the household. Similarly, hugging blood siblings, but not being affectionate with a step-brother or a step-sister can cause resentment to build up.

Keeping your eye on “equality” can help reduce the pain and jealousy of inequality. Parents are never exactly the same with each of their kids, so they’re certainly not going to be the same with each of their kids and each of their step-kids. Still, just be aware of how many treats, privileges, reprimands and punishments you are handing out to whom. It should not be obvious that a particular youngster or side of the family is favored or rejected.

Reducing Chaos
Routines are important to every child. However, they are even more important in helping to stabilize blended families. Parents need to be organized, responsible and consistent. Children get picked up and dropped off at regular times. They go to bed at the same time during the week and the pre-arranged time on weekends. In other words, there is no “free for all” just because a child is not always home. If the child has homework to be done, he is assigned a time in which he needs to do it. Dinnertime should be at a set time – not 4p.m. one night, 8p.m. the next night and 6p.m. the night after that. Eating at home is important and home-cooked food should be a big part of the menu. In other words, parents are doing everything to maintain the flavor of a stable, normal home environment as opposed to a vacation spot where everything goes. If you are finding it hard to establish consistent routines within your blended family, meet once or twice with a mental health professional or family counsellor who can help you put things in place. The enduring benefits of establishing healthy routines will be worth whatever investment you make.

In order for a child  to feel that he is in a home – his home – and he is not just a visitor to a hotel, he needs to have some regular responsibilities and accountability. A curfew, a task (take out garbage, clean the yard or whatever) and other normal family routines will help him feel that he is actually IN a family when he is staying with each parent.

Establish a Family Dinner Hour
If there is any day or days in which all the children from both previous marriages are in the house at the same time, try to establish a family dinner hour. For instance, let’s say that all the kids are together in your home every Monday night and Tuesday night. In that case, try to limit after-school activities for at least one of those nights (or both nights, if possible) and make a standard routine of having dinner together as a family. Mother and Father will try to arrange their schedules to be present and as many of the kids as possible should be present.  In our culture where everyone is busy with work-related, school-related and personal development activities, it is not easy to arrange a weekly family dinner. However, if you can find a way to do it, your family will definitely feel more like a family. Moreover, family dinners have been found to be valuable to the development of kids (even from non-blended families!) for many reasons. Emotional stability, family cohesion, a chance to get to know each other and strengthen bonds – these are only some of the benefits derived from the ritual of family dinners.

What to Call a Step-Parent

Children know that they have one mother and one father. Step-parents are parents who are “stepping in” as parents – people who are taking on a parental role in the child’s life. Nonetheless, they are not exactly the same as parents. Biological parents and children who have lost parents to death or divorce, can be quite sensitive about who is called what. For instance, the child’s biological mother can be upset if she hears her child call her ex-husband’s new wife “Mommy” when she is the one who is called “Mommy.” Similarly, children don’t necessarily want to call anyone else “Mommy” when they are calling or have called their own mother “Mommy.” Even if their mother is no longer alive, they may want to honor her memory by refusing to call anyone else by her name.

So how should a child address a step-parent?

Avoid Using First Names
First, let’s remember that a parent or any adult who is in the parental position – that is, an adult who is living in the house with a child – is an adult who needs to be respected. The adult is not a peer of a 5 year-old child or even a 15 year-old child. The adult and child are not “buddies.” Nor is the adult only the marital partner of the parent. In fact, the adult is taking care of the child, providing for the child’s needs, modelling healthy adulthood, and providing guidance. Calling a person in this position by his or her first name diminishes the role of the caregiver. It is healthier for a child to look up to an adult. Calling the adult by some appropriate title helps to remind the child of his or her position relative to the new caregiver: the adult is a teacher/protector/in charge person who is raising the child, whereas the child is a ‘student,’ a younger person being raised. The child can call the adult by a parent-like name. It doesn’t have to be “Mommy” or “Daddy.” It can be “Ma, ” “Momsy,” “Mom”  or “Pop,”  “Dad,” or “Pa.” It can even be a parental term from a different language or culture. Some people are most comfortable using a parental name as a title, such as “Mommy Carol,” or “Daddy Paul.” This strategy is often more palatable for kids who are not ready to fully acknowledge and accept a new parent figure.

Discuss Possibilities with Your Child
Parents should sit down with a child and explain that the new person is not replacing a biological parent. Rather, the new person is Mommy or Daddy’s new spouse and will be looking after the children in the house alongside Mommy or Daddy. Thus the new person is a sort of parent and as such, needs to be called by a parent-type name. The children can be invited to suggest names they would be comfortable using. The new parent can also make suggestions as to what he or she would like to be called. However, it is in the new parent’s best interest NOT to be lenient and invite the kids to call him or her by a first name. The new parent will soon discover that he or she needs the status and authority of a parent when living in the house with children.

Your Child’s Experience of Divorce

With the prevalence of divorce and separation, as well as re-marriage, it’s possible that a child will experience more than one set of parent figures. There’s their biological parents, their mom’s new spouse, their dad’s new spouse, and if their biological parents have re-married more than once, there’s also their parent’s ex-spouses. It is also possible that the child has been in the care of other parent-figures and care-givers as well (especially during times of marital instability and transition) such as grandparents, aunts and uncles and others. Sometimes the child is looked after by a variety of people all at once. What should be done to help minimize confusion for the child?

Consider the following:

Decide Who is Going to Take the Primary Parenting Role
A parent or a couple must take a bigger parenting role compared to others. Think of a family as an organization: how do you think it will fare if it’s an absolute democracy? Who will coordinate everyone’s efforts? How will tasks get delegated? Similarly, in a family, there needs to be a “headquarters” where decisions are made. The decision-making process between divorced parents is a matter that is decided in court. Once the legalities are settled, the process for making major decisions regarding the children should be straightforward. However, when a child lives in two or more households, there are daily smaller decisions that will be made by individual caretakers. For instance, in one household bedtime might be anytime while in the other household bedtime might be 9 p.m. sharp. When the child stays at Grandma’s for the weekend, bedtime may be 10 p.m. give or take twenty minutes. How does a child negotiate all these various rules and routines?

Communicate that Different Households May have Different Rules
When dealing with many parents — and many households — it’s helpful if an attitude of “let’s agree to differ” is in place. What is most harmful for the child is conflict between caregivers – not different routines. Therefore, each household will live according to its own values and priorities without attempting to impose their standards in the other homes. Moreover, the child should be told that each parent has his and her way of doing things and the child needs to comply with the rules of each household, just as a child in high school must comply with the various rules of each of 10 teachers that he might have.

Encourage Time with Everyone
Having many caring parents can be a blessing to a child. Helping the child access support and love from each caregiver is a gift. Therefore, unless there is some strong reason for the child to NOT have generous access to all parents, the ideal is to foster freeflowing communication. For instance, a child at house A should ideally be allowed to phone a parent in house B if he or she wants to. The child should never be made to feel that there is something wrong with a caregiver. If the law has established that visitation and communication is safe with an individual parent, then such visitation and communication should be encouraged and supported. Making a child feel that a caregiver is dangerous can cause mental disturbance to the child who must be in that person’s care. Putting the child’s emotional needs above all other considerations can guide a parent’s behavior in the right direction.

Financial Matters
Children’s mental health is at greatest risk after divorce when their parents are in conflict. Hopefully legal processes establish reasonable and safe procedures for the financial support of a child. However, some people behave badly after divorce and do not fulfill their legal responsibilities. In such cases, parents may fight their battles in court. Parents may also have to make alternate arrangements for financial support. Whatever has to happen is, in all cases, an adult matter. Children cannot solve these difficulties and therefore they shouldn’t be dragged into them. The adults will have to work these things out between themselves. The more children can be sheltered from the bad behavior of their parents, the better. A child is a product of both his mother and father. When he learns that one parent is irresponsible or disgusting, his own self-concept is harmed, The general rule is, “the less said, the better.” Going on and on about how there isn’t any money because a parent is too selfish to give it has the potential to seriously harm the emotional well-being of a child. Even though everything is true, and even though a parent is being badly hurt, there can be no justification for hurting the child. Again, putting the child’s emotional needs above all other considerations can guide a parent’s behavior in the right direction.

Time for Children After Divorce

Visitation arrangements don’t always give kids the opportunity to see each parent 50% of the time. Practical considerations often make equal division of visitation impossible. For instance, in some cases, one parent works longer hours than the other. Or, one parent lives in a different state or country and the child must attend school for 10 months of the year in one location. Sometimes, there are different reasons for unequal visitation, such as financial considerations or a past history of abuse or the fact that a parent travels for work reasons. Whatever the cause of the discrepancy, children can feel the pain of loss. They usually love both parents and want to see each of them on a frequent, regular and consistent basis.

What is the best way for children to get enough time with each parent after a divorce or separation? Consider the following tips:

Consult a Parenting Coordinator
Even after the legalities have been settled, parents can sometimes modify arrangements in order to meet the changing needs of their growing children. If you don’t have a great working relationship with an ex-partner, then try to enlist the services of a professional parenting co-ordinator in order to find creative ways to add minutes or hours to visitations with kids. These may involve doing a carpool, taking a child to a swimming lesson, meeting the child at religious services or any number of other ways to see each other just a little more often. Of course, as the child gets older, more dramatic changes in visitation may become appropriate as well and can sometimes be negotiated legally.

Improve the Quality of Time Spent Together
The feeling of “not enough time” does not always relate to the actual amount of time a child gets to spend with a parent. Although it certainly helps to have more actual minutes and hours, it is even more important to have more quality time with a child, time in which there is meaningful interaction. While outings to amusement parks, movies and restaurants may be fun, direct interaction is more “filling.” Children need to see their parents in natural settings (at home doing the laundry, in the grocery store doing the weekly shopping, in the kitchen cooking). While “life is happening” they need to be able to share stories, ask questions, do their own version of “show and tell.” In fact, a child can get to know a parent better if they work on a household chore together rather than if they both sit passively watching a movie. So plan the interaction, not the destination!

Utilize Technology to Create More Involvement
If a child feels that he or she is not getting enough time with a parent, then consider tapping technology to encourage more parental involvement — even across the miles. For instance, a child can consult parents about homework through chats, or include them in a birthday celebration via web cam. Telephones can be used liberally for quick contacts. Old fashioned communication strategies like sending letters and pictures via regular mail, can be used to keep up the relationship. Depending on the age of the child, cell phones can be used in addition to computers to faciliate messenging and email correspondence. Children who know that they can reach their parents easily don’t suffer from intense “cravings” for contact. For instance, when a person knows he can have a sweet treat if he wants it, he doesn’t feel so deprived and he doesn’t need it so urgently. Similarly, a child who can easily reach either parent doesn’t feel deprived or “starving” for contact.

How to Love Your Partner’s Children

If you want your re-marriage to work well, you will have to love your new spouse AND your new spouse’s kids. Many stepparents will testify that this is easier said than done. Loving someone’s else’s children can be hard. While one usually has an instinct to love one’s own children, this instinct does not apply to other people’s kids. When your own children misbehave, you may not like them but you still love them. However, when your spouse’s children misbehave, you just don’t like them.

Fortunately, it’s possible for a sincere and determined step-parent to learn how to love, or at least almost love, his or her spouse’s children. Here are some tips on how to do it:

Decide to Love
Start by making a conscious decision to love your stepchildren. After all, they are part of the man or woman you married; in a sense, they are an extension of your new spouse. Your spouse loves his or her children intensely; by caring deeply for your spouse’s children, you are able to convey deep caring for your spouse. Your new spouse will love you all the more for loving his or her kids.

Reaching out is YOUR job – not the children’s. It’s tempting to say that kids should be the ones to welcome a new parent into their home. But remember, that after going through a divorce and remarriage, children are very stressed. They’ve experienced many changes that they did not even choose. So be patient if they are awkward, aloof or even rebellious. As the mature adult, you should be the one to reach out to them to make them feel safe, comfortable and cared for.

Get to Know Them Better
If you want to learn to love a person, you should start by getting to know them better. Ask your spouse about their likes and dislikes, what makes them excited, scared or frustrated. Better yet, spend frequent quality time with them, so that you can come to know who they really are, and they can get to know you too.

Establish Rapport
It’s unrealistic to expect immediate closeness, so aim for the next best thing: rapport. Exert the effort to make your stepchildren comfortable around you. Talk about everyday stuff, things kids are interested in like music, school or TV shows. Find out what their favorite food is and prepare it. Joke around. Show interest in their latest projects and activities. Compliment them on their new toy or dress. If possible, get to know their friends and classmates or at least recognize the names of the important players in their lives. Love can spring from routine companionship and friendship, so don’t feel like you have to rush! Over time, feelings will grow.

Understand Your Role
Many step-parents make the mistake of expecting to be loved just like a biological parent. But it’s unreasonable to expect step kids to love you as they love their own mother or father — blood is thicker than water! Try not to feel resentful if there are particular boundaries your step child does not cross with you. Maybe you will never be in their complete confidence. Maybe they will never put beside their natural parent. But you can still be a trusted and reliable member of their inner circle. Love has many faces; if you don’t try to force love to look the way you expect it to or want it to, you may discover a new, delightful way to experience it with your spouse’s children.

Disciplining Step-Children

Step-parents walk on a tightrope. On one hand, they are second parents – and in cases when the real parent can’t play a major role in their child’s life, they function as primary guardians. On the other hand, step-parents can never assume full parental status. A step parent would never (and shouldn’t!) take the place of a child’s real mother or father. Yet, children misbehave around step-parents just like they do around biological parents. While the parent is free to discipline and is even obligated to do so as part of his and her parental responsibility to guide a child in the proper way, step-parents are not completely free to discipline. There are limits and restrictions for step-parents, depending on many different factors. The spouse’s personality and wishes, the presence and level of involvement of natural parents, and the ages of the children in question are some of the factors that will determine what forms (if any) of discipline can be used by the step-parent.

To avoid unnecessary conflict, upset and confusion in the matter of disciplining step-children, consider the following tips:

Get Support from Your Spouse
If you’re a step-parent, use your ally in the house — your spouse! Before enforcing any discipline strategy, sit down with your husband or wife. Get a consensus regarding rules in the household, as well as a list of justified consequences for breaking the rules. Make sure your spouse is the one who communicates these rules and consequences to his or her child. If your step child can see that the discipline strategy is not just your idea and in fact, you and his natural parent are on one team, he or she will more likely be less defiant and more cooperative.

Do Not Negate Nor Badmouth Your Spouse’s Ex
It’s hard to take a stepchild to task on something his or her own biological parent allows. To do so is to create competition between you and your spouse’s ex, a face-off that you will always lose. Rule of thumb: if the discipline issue is not a huge matter — that is, you can afford to let it go — then let it go. If you really must enforce a new rule, clarify that you only expect compliance from your stepchild while in your presence or your home. Give the child explicit permission to follow the rules in the other parent’s home, so that the child does not feel internal conflict.

Bond with Your Spouse’s Ex
If it’s possible, get to know and work with your spouse’s ex as part of the extended parenting team. You and your spouse’s ex both have the children’s best interests at heart; the more everyone is on the same page, the easier it is for both parents and kids. At best, you can level off on the parenting values that you both share, and may even learn a thing or two from each other. If you have a good rapport with your spouse’s ex, you may also simply refer discipline issues to them.

Employ Positive Parenting Strategies
Disciplining step-children using negative consequences is risky unless they are very young. In a way, it’s tantamount to punishing someone you didn’t earn the right to “punish.” If you must discipline a step child, employ positive parenting strategies, such as the CLeaR Method (see, Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice by Sarah Chana Radcliffe), rewards and  positive feedback. This way, a child is less likely to feel resentful of your intervention.

Befriend Your Step-Children
Discipline has one goal: behavior change. But remember that there is more than one way towards change. Being a confidant or advisor is a good, stress-free ways to influence stepchildren. By building your relationship with your step-kids, you automatically enhance your “parenting power” – that is, the power to influence the children. This is especially important when the step-kids are teens.