Parenting: Advice to Consider When Your Kids Don’t Like the New Love in Your Life
The biggest test when remarrying is how your fiancee will fit into your family. What happens when your children are unwilling to accept your new love?
“It is not always a matter of if the child likes or dislikes the new partner. Often it is the feelings that come along with this change that the children respond to,” said Emily Ryan Smith, a social worker in Mobile, Alabama.
“Children will have different emotional responses to family change based on the child’s age, developmental stage and the presence of other life changes,” she says. “Children often feel anxiety due to the uncertainty of the future. They may ask themselves, ‘Where will we live? Will I have to share my room? Will I have to call him Dad? Where do I fit into this family?'”
According to the Center for Law and Social Policy, 61 percent of divorced couples have children. That means almost one-third of divorcees who remarry face the possible conflict. “The main problem that happens with teenagers is that divorce is good for the parents, but actually, children — even if the parents aren’t getting along, even if they’re quite unhappy together — like having both parents in the house,” says Dr. Marcia Polansky, a psychotherapist and professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
She recommends that parents who remarry help maintain the bond between their children and ex-spouse. “Although it improves the quality of the parents’ life, children need access to both parents, especially if you’re a teenager, where the best place to run into your parents is in your house,” Polansky says.
Smith also says parents need to remember that it is more difficult for children to adjust to a new partner than they might expect.”The adjustment period will be more trying if there is unresolved grief due to the parent’s divorce. The feelings discussed previously, may be expressed in different ways,” she said.
“Young children may regress to a period in their life when they felt safe; for example, use of baby talk, sucking their thumb or becoming very clingy to the parent. Others may act out aggressively as a way of expressing feelings of anger or fear,” she says. “Some children internalize their feelings and withdraw or exhibit depressive symptoms. Teenagers may become more cynical toward the parent and step-parent.”
When this happens, Smith says children may be less willing to talk about it than before. “Anxiety regarding the invasion of private space is common,” she explains.
Polansky says divorce comes at the worst time when children are in their teens, because those are the years when they start developing relationships.
“They’re very distressed because they’re at the point in their lives when they’re starting to form their romantic views, having boyfriends and girlfriends, starting dating. They’re wondering if their relationships are going to work out because they see that their parents’ didn’t, and they may feel that they don’t have a home,” she said. “Teens are really trying to prove themselves. The question is, are they going to be like their parents or can they create a satisfying relationship?”
Polansky adds that, although divorce is more frequent in society, “I think teenagers are still embarrassed.” And a new love relationship for one parent can cause other feelings as well.
“Children may experience sadness as they lose hope that their parents will reunite. Jealousy of time and attention given to the new partner or step-sibling is not uncommon. Children will typically experience loyalty conflicts. Anger may be experienced as a result of the change as well. Some children, if the parent’s previous marriage involved much conflict or abuse, may have a smoother adjustment period,” says Smith.
“No matter the age, all children need structure. Try to maintain the existing routine as much as possible. A healthy co-parenting relationship with your previous spouse can ease the transition for the children. Providing a safe and loving environment is crucial to adjustment,” Smith said.
If the children aren’t adapting over time, there are a few ways you can tell. First, keep an eye on how they’re performing at school. Are their grades slipping, or, during parent-teacher conferences, are their instructors reporting negative behavior patterns? While it may be difficult to hear, know that such feedback will ultimately help you help your child. Also, don’t overlook signs of substance abuse. “A lot of teens, the effect of the divorce is, they’re having problems in school,” says Polansky. “They may turn more to friends and sometimes, there can be drugs or alcohol. There’s a lot of anger because they’re trying to focus on their own lives right now. They need a home base as a teenager, but instead, they’re entangled because they feel they have to take care of one or the other parent. They’re kind of in the middle with loyalty issues.”
“The reason for looking for these flags is [that] there is treatment for them,” Polansky says.
“Divorce doesn’t have to just interfere with a teenager growing and becoming independent, succeeding in life, doing well at life and school, and having friends. If you get the counseling to deal with these feelings, it frees you to really be a teenager. You don’t have to stay involved and get entangled in your parents,” she adds.
ADVICE FOR CHILDREN WHEN PARENTS DATE OR REMARRY
What do you do when you are having problems with one of your parents remarrying? Smith, quoted at the outset, recommends the following:
1. Don’t be afraid to talk about the issue. Set aside time with your mom or dad to discuss everything. “Ask your parent for a scheduled ‘talk time,’ or family meeting, in which they create a safe environment to talk and ask questions.”
2. Ask for similar rules at both of your parent’s homes. “It may be hard if you have two homes with different rules. Talk about this with your parent during talk time or a family meeting.”
3. Check around at school for help. “Ask your school social worker or a counselor if there are other kids in your class going through the same thing. Confidential small groups focusing on family change can be found in some schools.”
4. Read up on the subject. “Children need to feel the feelings of loss (of marriage) before they can welcome a new family. Read a book about the stages of grief.”
5. Don’t take out your frustrations through violence. “It is okay to feel angry, but it is not okay to hurt anyone or anything.”
6. When you feel frustrated, do a physical activity or something that will help you emotionally. “Learn to get your anger out in a healthy way. For example, play with clay, go for a run, write in a journal, talk to a friend.”
7. Try to avoid conflict with your parent and step-parent when possible. “Remember, you can not change people. You can only change how you respond to them.”
8. Accept your life as it is. “Change is a part of life. Focus on the positive changes that have or might come out of your parent getting remarried. Do you have more people in your life that care for you?”
Smith also offers this advice to adults for when your children don’t like your new significant other:
1. Discuss it with your ex-spouse. “If possible, co-parent with the biological parent in order to ease the transition. Set aside your emotions about your ex-spouse and focus on the child.”
2. Look to other family members for help. “Seek out added support for the children. Now is a good time for them to be in contact with supportive family members from both sides (paternal and maternal).”
3. Tell your children how special they are to you. “Reassure the children that they will continue to be loved and that they can not be replaced.”
4. Spend time asking your children about how they feel. “Set aside time to talk with your child.”
5. When you do talk to your children, don’t interrupt. Pay extra attention. “Practice active listening skills so that you really hear your child. You do not have to agree with the child, but this time is for listening and understanding his or her feelings.”
6. Spend time doing fun things with your children, without your new spouse. “Make time to spend alone with your child.”
7. Ask your kids to talk with friends at school whose parents are divorced. “Encourage your teenager to find a peer support group.”
8. Check at your children’s school for more information and support. “Talk with you child’s school social worker for group referrals.”
9. If remarrying, ask your children for opinions and let them in on the fun of planning your wedding. “Involve your child, if they are comfortable, in making wedding plans.”
10. Read books and brochures about the issue. “Seek out literature on blended families.”
11. Talk to others about it. “Seek out parent support or educational groups.”
12. If something is going wrong in your relationship, do something about it. Your children’s ideas about relationships and seeing yours now might affect their future relationships. “If you are being mistreated by your partner, seek help. Remember, you are serving as a role model for your child.”
13. Take your children to therapy. “If your child appears ‘stuck’ in the grieving cycle and continues to have difficulty adjusting, seek advice from a professional therapist.”