Remarriage: Tips to Talk to your Kids about Remarriage — No Matter What Age
After being the “Three Musketeers” for some time, Jennifer Burgoyne was excited to tell her children of her plans to marry her boyfriend, Allen. Not only was she the happiest she had been since her divorce five years earlier, but she was confident that her boys, too, would be happy, too. “…I knew they already loved him and he loved them…,” California-based Burgoyne, 42, said.
But, according to experts, Burgoyne’s experience is rare. Although you may be happy for your new marriage, your kids may not be said Dr. Sharon Fried, author of the new book “New Parents Are People Too.” It takes a very unselfish child to welcome this new person just because his or her parent is happy.
There are steps a parent can take to ease the transition. There are some specific areas of concern that must be taken into consideration for kids of certain ages, specifically, children under eight, adolescents and teenagers.
“You have to understand that children go through different developmental stages and they move at different rates,” said Marsha Temlock, author of “Your Child’s Divorce: What to Expect, What You Can Do.” So, while the categories are approximate, you can more or less expect there will be some pattern of behavior in each of these different stages.
In her book, “Mom, There’s A Man in the Kitchen and He’s Wearing Your Robe: The Single Mother’s Guide to Dating Well without Parenting Poorly,” author Ellie Slott Fisher talks about the different stages, beginning with how to prepare children for a serious relationship.
MAKING REMARRIAGE BLOSSOM
“Parents need to begin to plant the seed for remarriage way before it ever happens,” says Fisher, who is also the author of “Dating for Dads: The Single Father’s Guide to Dating Well Without Parenting Poorly.” “When a parent begins to see enough potential in a relationship,” she said, “you need to let your child know.”
“This doesn’t mean you are getting married,” Fisher said. “But your child needs to know that just for now this is the person that you want to get to know better.” To begin, make sure the new person is part of a daily routine. Fisher warns that this does not mean living with one another, but instead inviting the new significant other over for a Sunday morning breakfast or a casual dinner.
“With your child’s permission, you may begin to bring this person to athletic and school events,” Fisher said. You may also include the new person in more intimate family events, such as a family trip or Thanksgiving dinner. Fisher explained that these slow introductions allow a child to get to know the new person gradually, and understand that they are not going anywhere.
Like Fisher, Jennifer Coleman, a life transition coach at S.C.-based Rosen Law Firm, emphasizes the importance of a continual introduction between a parent’s child and new significant other. This process, which Coleman calls allowing your partner to date your children, will make not only the transition a lot easier, but it will also help when you talk about remarriage.
HOW A SCHEDULE CAN HELP
When introducing children under eight to the idea of remarriage, parents may notice increased crying, irritability and tantrums. Fried and Temlock maintain the best thing a parent can do is to keep a young child’s routine as normal as possible; this advice goes for the smallest of children, including infants.
“Children at a very young age are clingy to the nurturing parent, so in a sense, you have to introduce that other person so the child seems comfortable and doesn’t see that person as a stranger,” Temlock said. “And this is going to take some time.”
In addition, Fried said children who recognize pictures, such as a toddler, will feel more at ease if a picture of the parent he is not going to see as often is placed in his room. Temlock also suggests reading to children about divorce in order to help them verbalize their feelings.
Research shows one of the best tools a parent can use is allowing a child to experience the new person as a friend. “Engaging in activities that align interests between the child and a new stepparent,” Temlock said, will help to build a bond. Assure them that the new parent can be a good friend and be part of the family.”
THE WOES OF ADOLESCENCE
The teenage years are difficult for children. Add remarriage to the equation and the end result could be worse. “Kids at this age are worried about so many things that may seem silly to the parent,” she said. “But they really are not silly to the child.”
For example, Fisher said, “When a new parent moves in or vice versa, a child may become concerned with something as seemingly minor as where to put the television. They may say, ‘Well, we just got the new television, are we going to put that in the family room or do we have to use her television?”
Fisher stresses the number one thing a parent can do in these situations is to let the child voice his concerns, and answer honestly. “If you don’t know, then say, ‘I don’t know yet but I would love for you to be a part of that decision,'” Fisher said. Fried agrees and said that parents need to really not take things personally when they ask an adolescent for his or her opinion. “You need to talk to them about their feelings,” Fried said. “And be upfront with them.”
Temlock and Fried both agree that this is an age where children may feel a need to take sides. “In this situation, stepparents and parents need to reassure them that ‘I am not taking your mommy or daddy’s place, and I am just another part of the family,'” Fried said. “Just talk to the child. Because if they have a strong allegiance to the other parent, there will be some acting out.”
“Again,” Fisher said, “gradual introduction and the building of a friendship are key to helping an adolescent adjust to life with a stepparent.” “In addition to giving a child time, “trust is a huge element. To foster this trust early in a relationship, tell your adolescents something like, ‘I don’t know where this is headed but I like him very much, more than anyone else I have ever dated,'” Fisher says in “Mom, There’s a Man in the Kitchen.” “‘If it becomes so serious that it could lead to marriage, you’ll be the first to know.'”
REMARRIAGE AND TEENAGE ANGST
“One thing that parents need to keep in mind is that they are going to turn to their peer group for support, including family issues, arise. These children worry more about how their own life will be affected,” Temlock said. Fisher agreed with Temlock, adding that “Frankly, teenagers are not interested in the specifics about mom’s or dad’s social life…We sometimes burden them by confiding in them about our own dating issues.”
“The tendency for this age group to be more self-absorbed is the reason behind a teenager’s ability to be more critical of his parent’s marital choice. They will be much more aware of how their parents behave and they may be more negative about their parents,” Temlock said. “So, parents need to proceed very carefully in how they behave because they are going to be judged.”
During the time leading up to remarriage, parents also need to be aware that a revolving door — a situation where a parent dates one person after the other — can be very harmful to a teenager. “Specifically, if the teenager has formed some sort of relationship with that person,” Temlock said. “They are going to experience one loss after the other, and it’s very hard on them.”
Fried said that while remarriage may cause a teenager to act out, parents need to make sure that rules are implemented, for instance, “no name calling” or “clean up after one another.” And experts agree that the nurturing parent should spend alone time with the child to show the child he or she is a priority.
SOME THINGS EVERY KID NEEDS
“In remarriage,” Coleman said, “every child needs to understand that his parents’ love will never change.” “Tell your kids that while you’re committed to the new marriage relationship, it doesn’t change your commitment to them,” Coleman said.
And on the subject of commitment, Fisher said, “parents must be aware that up until that remarriage conversation, every child, at any age always hopes that their parents are going to reconcile.”
Clear communication, Burgoyne said, is the key to helping along her remarriage conversation. “The number one thing I did was make sure they would be comfortable with the choice I was making,” Burgoyne said.
FIVE BOOKS FOR KIDS AND THEIR PARENTS’ DIVORCE
You may be moving on to remarriage, but your child might not have yet made it through the divorce. Here are five books for kids that will help them — and you — to better understand this tricky time in both of your lives.
1. “Two Homes” by Claire Masurel, for children ages 2-5
2. “Was It the Chocolate Pudding?: A Story For Little Kids About Divorce” by Sandra Levins and Bryan Langdo, for children ages 4-8
3. “My Family’s Changing” by Pat Thomas, Kindergarten through Grade 4
4. “When My Parents Forgot How to Be Friends” by Jennifer Moore-Mallinos, for children ages 9-12
5. “The Bright Side: Surviving Your Parents Divorce” by Max Sindell, for children ages 9-12