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.
Child: There’s no way I’m living with him in this house.
Child: He’s such a phony. I hate him!”
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.
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.