Dr. Patricia Papernow shares parenting tips for remarried dads
If you are a divorced dad, bringing your children into a new “blended family” may seem, initially, like “we’ve finally made it.” However, as you may already have discovered, becoming a stepfamily is considerably more challenging than you might have expected.
Having an accurate map of the territory and some up-to-date “driving directions” for what works can make an enormous difference. This article focuses on what you can do as a dad to help your kids thrive in your new stepfamily.
Understanding children in stepfamilies
For many kids, adjusting to a stepfamily is actually harder, and takes longer, than adjusting to divorce. If you are an older dad, this extends to young adult and adult children. Understanding this is the first step to helping stepchildren to thrive. You and your love are thrilled to have found each other. However, even the most caring parent turns away from his kids, towards a new sweetie when he falls in love. In study after study many stepchildren express a deep sense of loss when their parents re-couple. Your new love also brings changes to the rhythms, rituals, and patterns of daily living for your kids. While this can be exciting for the adults, it foists yet another set of adjustments on children.
A parent’s new partner can also create loyalty binds: “If I care about (or even like) my stepmother, I betray my mom.” These loyalty binds seem to be wired in to human children—they occur even in very friendly divorces. However, when adults badmouth each other or bicker, they tighten these binds unbearably for kids.
Age and gender make a difference. Children under eight and boys adjust more easily. Stepfamilies are hardest for young teen girls. Young adult women can also feel very threatened.
Some children are welcoming for a while, and then appear to “suddenly” turn. Losses and loyalty binds often kick in more fully when a stepparent moves in, the couple gets engaged or married, moves to a new house, or a new child is born. Even friendly ex-spouses can find these events threatening, and may begin to “leak” their unhappiness on children.
What to do about all this? A common piece of advice is to “put your couple relationship first.” However, this leaves stepchildren way too alone. Do carve out special one-to-one time with your sweetie. And, also, establish regular, reliable one-to-one time with your own children. Likewise, your partner and your kids need time alone together, without you, to get to know each other, separate from your powerful parent-child relationship. The outsider position can be exhausting for stepparents. Encourage your partner to take a break, both inside your home and in activities outside the house.
Parenting in a stepfamily is different
The research is clear: Children do best, hands down, with “authoritative” parenting combining warm, empathic connection with moderately firm limit setting. The research is also clear that parents, not stepparents, must retain the disciplinary role, until or unless stepparents have established a trusting, loving relationship. Meanwhile, the stepparent has input, the parent has final say.
Authoritarian (firm, harsh, not loving) parenting by a stepparent is almost always toxic.
Stepcouples often differ over parenting. Stepparents often want more limits and more control. Parents feel protective of their kids. In successful stepcouples, stepparents can help parents become a bit firmer. Parents can help stepparents understand their kids’ strengths and vulnerabilities. You will both need to approach these differences with care and tenderness: “I know my kids’ mess is driving you nuts. Let’s work together on this. But I need you to be kinder!”
Co-parenting with your ex
Family structure (divorce, single-parent, stepfamily) does not determine children’s wellbeing. The level of conflict does, combined with parenting practices. Even moderate tension between adults can compromise children’s attention, academics, and immune functioning.
Highly collaborative co-parenting creates the most positive outcomes for children. Much more common, low-conflict “parallel parenting” also works for kids.
Handle disagreements with your ex (and your new partner!) out of children’s earshot. Don’t ever pass messages through your children.
Respond to differences between your child’s households with calm neutrality. When a child complains, “But Mom lets me drink Coke with dinner,” you can say, “I know. Mom’s house and Dad’s house are different on this. You can drink Coke at your Mom’s. Here we drink milk with dinner. When you grow up, you can decide which you’d prefer.”
You and your new love may wish you could “circle the wagons” and form a new family that excludes your ex. That may seem easier for adults, but it asks children to choose between their parents. That is a little like asking kids to choose between their arms.
Kids can thrive in stepfamilies
Your stepfamily may not look like the “blended family” you and your partner had imagined. The earliest years are the hardest. However, with time and patience, you can create a nourishing, delightful family for all involved.
To read Dr. Papernow’s tips for how to balance the needs of your kids with the needs of your marriage, check out Balancing Partners & Kids: Tips for Recoupling Dads