Page 11: Because life goes on … helping children and youth live with separation and divorce

Section 9 - New Relationships, Dating and Blended Families

After the pain of separation or divorce, a new relationship can be a welcome relief and source of excitement for a parent. But for a child, it means facing even more changes and the loss of the dream that the parents might get back together. Every situation is different. But even when a child appears positive about the new partner, one thing remains true – a parent’s new partner is a big adjustment for children – another on top of all those that occurred before.

Think of it this way: Parents and children have very different needs. For parents, as adults they naturally get excited about the possibility of a new fulfilling relationship. For children, they want the security and love from their parents to remain the same. (See box Remember What All Children Need Regardless of Age.)

Remember What All Children Need Regardless of Age

All children need to feel:

  • Safe and secure. Children have already experienced pain and grief over the loss of living with both parents under one roof. They want to be able to count on their parents to take care of their needs for nurturing and security.
  • Seen and valued. All children have a developmental need to be loved and valued for who they are and to feel understood and appreciated. Children can feel unimportant or brushed aside in new blended families. It’s important to remind the children that they have a unique place in the blended family and to recognize each child when making family decisions.
  • Understood and emotionally connected. Particularly when the family structure changes, it is easy for children to feel misunderstood or on their own to deal with their problems or emotions. Encourage children to express their feelings and help them learn to manage them. Show them that you are able to see a situation from their perspective.
  • Appreciated for their effort and encouraged. Especially during this time of yet another transition, recognize children for their efforts to get along and make it work. Encourage them in their pursuits and continue to thank them for their contributions.
  • Consistencies in limits and boundaries. This will be tricky, but try not to avoid setting reasonable and fair limits with consequences. In blended families, it can be common to find inconsistencies among discipline. For example, one child may be restricted or disciplined more often while another is let off for poor behaviour. Not only will these inconsistencies create conflict between the children, but increase behaviour problems. Children need limits and consequences that are fair, consistent and appropriate. (See “Use Discipline to Teach” in Section 5.)

When Parents Start Dating

In some families, a new adult relationship may have started before the separation, or may begin in the early stages of separation. In others, a new person may not enter the picture for months, years or ever. Some parents don't want to start going out with someone new until they and their children have had plenty of time to adjust to the “new normal” of their lives after the separation. For others, dating helps them adjust to the separation. It reaffirms their self-worth, reduces feelings of loneliness, and helps them get on with their lives.

If the relationship ends after one parent leaves the relationship for another partner, children may feel particularly betrayed and angry. Children in these families will need plenty of opportunities to express their confusion and feelings – a difficult task for a parent who may be experiencing similar emotions.

Children have mixed emotions about their parents' new relationships. Depending on their age, they may feel betrayed, jealous, relieved or more secure. For example, they may:

  • believe that the parent who is first to begin a new relationship is betraying the other parent
  • feel happy when a parent is noticeably happier
  • feel they have been abandoned again and experience a renewed loss when parents spend time with another adult
  • continue to hope their parents may get back together again – no matter how often parents have told children that getting back together won't happen, many children continue to hope, even after a second marriage
  • feel embarrassed that parents have sexual feelings and a need for affection – this is especially true for children in their preteens and early teens
  • feel relieved when a parent found someone to help fulfill their adult needs
  • feel anger at being forced by adults to make another adjustment – how children act out this anger depends on their developmental stage
  • feel like life is back to normal because a parent is no longer single – without the tensions before the separation
  • resent that parents have their own rules for sexual behaviour and enforce what may seem like different rules for their children – teenagers are especially likely to feel that while they have curfews or have to date people their parents know and approve of, their parents seem to follow a different standard
  • be upset at the loss of privacy when a new adult enters their world at home.

Dating Again: Cautions and Tips

  • Keep in mind that dating and remarriage can increase conflict between co-parents, particularly if only one parent has a new partner.
  • Realize that you are crushing the possible reunion fantasy dreams of your children. Don’t underestimate its power – some children cling to the belief that their parents will get back together even after one parent has remarried. The reason is simple – a child’s own identity is very much tied to that of the child’s family. When the family falls apart, a child’s sense of self is threatened even when the child maintains a strong relationship with each parent. (See “Attend to Your Children’s Sense of Identity and Belonging” in Section 5.)
  • Avoid a quick turnaround. Parents who begin dating quickly after the end of a relationship or who reach a quick decision to re-couple after a brief dating period often find their children more resistant to the relationship. The key is to take your time to get to know your partner. There are many benefits to going slow – for you and your children.
  • Healthy dating begins with self-examination. Try to examine your motivation for dating, your fears, loneliness and unresolved hurt.
  • As much as possible, come to an agreement with your ex-partner on how and when to introduce a new person in your life to the children.
  • Arrange the “meeting the kids” time with care. Early on your children may meet your date. As your interest in the person grows, gradually plan more time for your dating partner and your kids to get together. Tread lightly at first and continue to monitor everyone’s fears or concerns.
  • Listen to your inner wisdom – it may help you avoid certain problems or poor decisions.
  • Offer soft invitations to older children. Teens and adult children need to move toward your dating partner at their own pace. Trying to get them to accept your new partner and relationship could easily backfire.
  • Acknowledge and label children’s fears. Children of all ages benefit when a parent says something like “I can see that the idea of my dating scares you and I appreciate your honesty.” This kind of acceptance and support keeps the communication door open, and helps children put labels on their own emotions.
  • Expect hot/cold reactions. Liking a parent’s dating partner sometime creates a loyalty problem for children. Because they may be caught in a loyalty conflict, children sometimes warm up nicely to the person you are dating and then turn cold. Confusion comes with the territory.
  • Learn all you can about stepfamily living. If your relationship is getting serious, take the time to find out what you need to know beforehand that can make the transition smoother for everyone involved.

New and Blended Families

Stepfamilies and blended families differ from original family relationships in many ways. The stepparent enters a new family group that already has a shared history, strong bonds and an established way of operating. And the adjustment is much more significant for the children. For example, children who have not adjusted to parental dating will have even more intense problems as they try to adjust to their newly blended family. (See box Stepfamily vs. Blended Family.)

Stepfamily vs. Blended Family

“Stepfamily” and “blended family,” although they appear to be interchangeable, are terms that refer to slightly different family arrangements:

  • Stepfamily refers to a family where at least one of the parents has a child from a previous relationship.
  • Blended family refers to a family with two parents who have children from different relationships, and may include a child of the current relationship.

When families blend, children may have to deal with new stepbrothers and stepsisters, new grandparents, aunts and uncles. They may find it hard to accept changes in discipline and the authority of the stepparent. They may be jealous of the time and attention given to the new partner, stepbrothers and sisters. They may feel that they are treated unfairly compared with their new siblings. A new baby may also spark feelings of anger and insecurity. Children may also find it difficult to adjust when their rank in the family has changed, especially if they were previously an only child.

In some cases, stepparent and stepchildren are suddenly thrown together, without the chance to develop a relationship gradually. The clashing of different rules, goals, definitions of behaviour and methods of child-rearing can cause many problems, and a satisfying relationship between stepparents and children usually develops slowly. This is not surprising, since closeness, affection, friendship and trust usually need time to develop.

Parents may find that being aware of these issues can help them better prepare their children for the new circumstances. Parents should make a special effort to spend time alone with their children to help reinforce that they are part of the new life you are building.

Parents can help stepchildren deal with changing roles and circumstances by being patient and kind, and giving them lots of time to adapt to their personality and lifestyle. Acknowledge that you will never replace their mother or father, and work on developing a unique relationship with the children. A stepparent can become a trusted adult for the children. Try not to compete with, replace or be critical of the other parent.

Blending Families: Skills and Strategies for Success

The wealth of experience of parents who have gone before you, coupled with research studies on the impact of blended families on children’s development, suggest ways that you can improve the chances for a successful relationship and well-adjusted children. It’s important to be patient when creating a new family. In fact, it can take years before relationships and life together take root.

  • Proceed slowly and prepare yourself and your children well. Although the temptation with new love is to move quickly, everyone will benefit by taking the time to adjust to the new relationships. Be patient, go slow.
  • Work on your intimate relationship. Everything depends on the depth and strength of your intimate relationship. Talk together about what went wrong in your previous relationships and what you both have learned, particularly in the area of managing disagreements and parenting styles. The ideal time to discuss these issues is before making a commitment.
  • Make parenting decisions and changes before you move in together. Think about the needs of each child and how best to support them. Blended families that do better are those in which family members are civil to one another, relationships are respectful and there’s appreciation for the differences in age and maturity levels. If you are already blended together in one household, it’s never too late to develop healthy and consistent family rules and ways of relating to one another. Daily life provides the opportunity to practise, practise, practise.
  • Clearly define your parenting roles and responsibilities. Couples should discuss the role each stepparent will play in raising their respective children, as well as changes in household rules. A good rule of thumb – establish the stepparent as a trusted adult as opposed to a disciplinarian. The parent should remain primarily responsible for discipline if and until the stepparent has formed strong bonds with the children. In the meantime, try to keep the rules and consequences fair and consistent.
  • Maintain positive co-parenting relationships. New relationships do better when co-parenting relationships with former partners are respected. And, children will adjust better to the blended family if they maintain strong relationships with both of their parents. Everyone benefits when relationships between former partners are respectful and reasonably polite. Let the children know that you and your ex-spouse will continue to love them and be there for them throughout their lives. Tell your children that your new spouse will not be a replacement mom or dad, but another person who will strive to love and support them.
  • Maintain each child’s community of support. A child’s community of support provides a place of belonging. This community includes family, child care, school and friends. In particular, grandparents and other members of the extended family are very important for children, especially if they have already established a close relationship. Help your children stay connected and involved with the people and places that are important to them.
  • Keep channels of communication open. When communication is encouraged and frequent, there are fewer opportunities for misunderstandings and more possibilities for connection. Try to establish an open and non-judgmental atmosphere. Help the shy child to express thoughts and feelings. Use dinnertime as an opportunity for the children to share the events of their day and get to know each other better.
  • Manage conflict, anger and stress. It may be tempting to avoid conflict or hope that it will go away, but often the opposite happens. Conflict involving stepparents and stepchildren can quickly erode the quality of the intimate relationship, so it is best to manage disagreements, hurt feelings and other sources of conflict between them. In the process of dealing with conflict, children do need to learn to respect the new parent. (See box Children Adjust Differently – by Age and Gender.)
  • Limit your expectations. Expect some bumps along the way. No one who has gone before you would say that starting a new blended family is easy or uncomplicated. There are a lot of variables that you can’t control, such as how other family members are going to react to the combining of families. But keep in mind that the effort is well worth it. Your goal in uniting is to be happy and fulfilled as a family. Repeat the mantra: Proceed slowly and give things time to settle.

Children Adjust Differently – by Age and Gender

Children of different ages and genders will adjust differently to a blended family. Children of the same age will adjust differently as well, depending on their history and personalities. For example, some children may be more willing to open up and engage while others may require a lot of time to accept the changes. Although it’s wise to adjust your approach with children of differing ages, genders and temperaments, the overall goal remains the same – establishing a trusting relationship with each child.

Young children under 10

  • May adjust more easily because they want to belong to a family
  • Can be more accepting of a new adult
  • Are more dependent on parents for meeting their daily needs – therefore, may feel competitive for their parent’s attention

Children aged 10–14

  • May have the most difficulty adjusting to a stepfamily
  • Less able to accept a new person as a disciplinarian
  • Appearances may be deceiving – they may not appear sensitive or share their feelings, but they may be as sensitive or more sensitive than young children when it comes to needing love, attention and discipline

Teenagers 15 or older

  • May want less involvement in step or blended family life
  • Tend to separate from the family – whether intact or reconstituted – as they develop their own unique identities
  • May be less open in expressing their affection or insecurities, but they still want to feel loved, important and secure

Gender differences

  • Both girls and boys in blended or stepfamilies tend to prefer verbal affection, such as praises or compliments, rather than physical closeness like hugs and kisses
  • In general, girls tend to be uncomfortable with physical displays of affection from their stepfather
  • In general, boys seem to accept a stepfather more quickly than girls.
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