Child Adjustment to New Family Arrangement

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Taken from Growing Concerns -- A childrearing question-and-answer column with Dr. Martha Erickson

Question: I've been divorced three years and plan to remarry this fall. My fiance and I each have two children, all between the ages of 7 and 10. We're concerned about how to help them adjust as smoothly as possible to the new family arrangement. What do you suggest?

Answer: You are on the right track already by understanding that this change will be challenging for all of you. It's important to remember that the children didn't choose this new arrangement and they didn't fall in love. Yet they are expected to share space, share parents and act like siblings with people they are only beginning to get to know and may not even like. While the children are grappling with this reality and need more support than ever, their newly in-love parents are often preoccupied with each other and have less time and energy to give them. This leads many children to go to great lengths to reclaim the attention of their parent and perhaps even to undermine the new relationship. Even when a stepparent is as nice as can be, children are often uneasy about showing that they like the person. They may feel disloyal to their own biological parent if they let themselves feel warm toward that parent's replacement. On top of all this, many children have harbored a fantasy that their biological parents will reunite, no matter how long they've been apart. A parent's remarriage shatters that dream and may reactivate the child's sense of loss about the divorce.

So, given that your children may be experiencing some or all of these common feelings about the remarriage, what can you do to increase the likelihood of building a successful new family? Studies of successful blended families suggest several important steps.

- Acknowledge the difficulty of this change for ALL family members. Tell your children that you understand that this is really hard. And know that this is not just a brief period of adjusting to something new and different; this is an ongoing journey, with new challenges as children go through new developmental stages and as the blended family goes through stages as well.

- With your new spouse, work out a careful agreement about house rules and your approach to child rearing and discipline. The most effective discipline involves clear, consistent and reasonable limits, explained in a way children can easily understand; warm guidance and acknowledgment of children's good behavior; and swift and reasonable consequences for misbehavior.

- As stepparents, you and your new spouse should each allow adequate time to build a close relationship with one another's children before acting like a primary parent. You will be most effective if you support--and agree with--the primary parent's child rearing and disciplinary approach, without assuming major disciplinary responsibility yourself.

- As you set up your new household, allow each child physical and psychological space, as well as a voice in decisions, to the extent possible. Children often feel powerless in these new family situations, but they will feel better if they have at least some control over the circumstances of their daily lives.

- Finally, support each child's connections with his or her nonresidential parent and extended family. It's especially important to avoid criticism of the other parents in front of the children. If you find that to be difficult, seek professional counseling so you can do your best to protect the children from animosity among the adults.

The Children, Youth and Family Consortium invites your questions on child rearing for possible inclusion in this column. E-mail to or write to Growing Concerns, University of Minnesota News Service, 3 Morrill Hall, 100 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455.
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