Becoming part of a stepfamily involves change. For young children, the shift in the pattern of family life that inevitably happens when a parent re-partners can be both stressful and challenging – even more so for children whose parents have separated or divorced and who may already be dealing with shared care parenting arrangements, more transitions, parental conflict and/or tighter loyalty binds than perhaps other kids their age.
How children ultimately cope and adapt depends on many factors including age, gender, past experiences, temperament and personality. Another key factor is parental responsiveness and sensitivity. Parents who are appropriately sensitive and responsive to their kids needs and concerns make children feel safe. When kids feel emotionally safe and secure, they tend to be more open to the possibility of new relationships. They also tend to recover more quickly when they do experience stress.
With this in mind, here are ten things you can do to support and nurture your children’s emotional health, to help them adjust to their changed family circumstances and to move forward in a positive way.
Regularly tell them that you love them
A parent’s romantic interest in another adult can trigger feelings of insecurity and uncertainty in children who can worry that a parent’s love for a new partner/spouse will somehow mean less love for them – especially if they experience their parent as distracted by the new relationship and less available and attentive (towards them). Whilst we, the adults, know our hearts have an unlimited supply of love, it is important to reassure your children that your love for them doesn’t in anyway change or diminish because you have fallen in love.
Plan for regular parent-child time without stepparents or step siblings
Time spent with just your children where you can give them your full attention gives them confirmation that they’re still a priority to you and reassurance that they’re not losing you. This can help build resilience and assists to regulate their body’s stress response. It also provides space (and opportunity) for them to open up and talk about what is happening around them during their new stepfamily life.
Now, carving out time isn’t always easy in a parent’s busy life. However, when a stepfamily is coming together and there is lots of change happening it is more important than ever to plan time to engage with your child and not just assume that it will happen organically at some point across the week or month. Even just a small amount of time reliably set aside in the morning or the end of the day, where you can focus on your child, read a book together, sing songs or play without fear of being interrupted or rushed can help a child to feel more in touch with you, help them cope with the big feelings and help them manage stress at other points across their week.
Listen to your child’s feelings and accept their emotions, whatever they may be
Encourage your children to talk and share their feelings and really listen to them. Give them your full attention, stay present in the conversation, model eye contact and take their feelings seriously – even when it’s difficult for you to hear what they have to say, or their feelings seem out of proportion to what is actually happening. Take the time to reflect back to them what you have heard, without trying to change their mind. For example, depending on what your child says, you could say:
“It’s hard to share me isn’t it when you’ve had me to yourself for so long. I can see how worried and scared you are that my loving Jason and his kids might mean that there is not be enough room in my heart for you. Am I getting it right?”.
By listening to your child and validating their feelings we help them accept and understand their feelings, build their confidence and self-esteem, strengthen our bonds with them and develop trust. We also communicate to them that they are worthy of our attention and that their experiences and views of their family have merit. Generally speaking, when children feel as if they have been seen and heard by a parent, their adjustment to stepfamily living can be a little smoother.
Reassure children that a new partner will not be a “replacement” mum or dad, but just an extra adult to care for them
Whether the new relationship follows divorce or death in the family a stepparent can never take the place of the other biological parent and should never attempt to. The same goes for requiring that children call a stepparent “mum” or “dad”. Don’t ever demand it or even ask for it. Being clear with your child that your new spouse’s/partner’s role in the family is in “addition” to their biological parents, not “instead of”, can take pressure off of a child to feel or act a certain way.
Give your child peace of mind about their feelings by reassuring them that there is no right or wrong way to feel about their stepfamily
Your child needs to know that it’s completely common to feel a wide array of emotions in response to what is happening. Assure them that it is normal to feel mixed emotions, to feel happy, excited or relieved one moment, to feeling scared or angry or sad the next. It is also important to let them know that feelings (whatever they are) tend to come and go and the way they feel today about their changing family circumstances and new family member may be different to how they feel next week, or the week after that.
Remain mindful that children might be reluctant to share their true feelings for fear of hurting or upsetting you
Children can often feel responsible for a parent’s emotions, for no other reason than they love them. This might mean when a child is talking to a parent about mum or dad’s new partner they might minimise or dismiss their own feelings or censor what they are saying about how they are feeling in order to rescue the parent from discomfort, to cheer them up or spare them further pain. What a child is put in the position of having to look after the emotional needs of the person who is supposed to look after them, they’re having to take on a role that exceeds their maturity and responsibilities. This can be quite overwhelming and upsetting, particularly if the child is younger and unsure about their new stepfamily.
The best way to avoid this is to acknowledge your child’s good intentions but assure them that is not their job to make you happy and that it’s your job, as the grown up, to be in charge of how you feel. When your child is talking to you about the changes that are happening in their world remain outwardly calm and emotionally in control and mindful of your nonverbal cues. In this way it is also important that your child doesn’t end up deciding how they feel about a stepparent or about a parent’s decision to re-marry, based on your feelings left over from your relationship with your ex-partner and what they did or didn’t do.
Empathise with them
You may not agree that your child’s feeling reflects the facts or the nature of the situation but if they seem to be struggling, try empathising with them by saying something like:
“Boy this is hard, huh?”
You don’t need to try to make them feel happier or excited about their new stepfamily or defend your decisions. It is enough, if possible, to just simply let them know you know they’re experiencing something that they are finding difficult and then be with them in that uncomfortable emotional space until it passes (which it will!).
Help your child name and tame their feelings by giving them a label
Naming feelings is the first step in helping kids learn to recognise and understand their own emotions. It not only helps to reduce the intensity of the feeling but also allows your child to develop their emotional vocabulary so that they talk to you about their feelings more easily.
Noticing when your child is feeling an intense emotion and suggesting a label for that feeling is helpful to young children. Depending on what is happening for your child you might say “It sounds like you might be feeling really worried about all the changes that are happening at home the moment?” or “it looks to me that perhaps you’re feeling upset and angry about your stepbrother sitting in your seat this morning at breakfast?”. To help start conversations and build your child’s emotional vocabulary you can also use appropriate picture books such as Harriet’s Expanding Heart to point out the various feelings a child might feel when becoming a part of a stepfamily.
Resist the urge to tell your children how they should or shouldn’t feel
Your child cannot stop their emotions from coming. They will feel what they feel. Even with the best intentions, telling them how they should or shouldn’t feel about your new partner and their changed family circumstances can inadvertently make them feel as if they are doing something wrong by feeling the way they do. It also unintentionally communicates to your child that their emotional experience isn’t a valid one. It won’t make them feel better and could potentially leave them feeling confused, invisible or even full of self-doubt.
Learn about loyalty binds
Loyalty binds are very common for children whose parents have divorced and within stepfamilies. Even children whose separated parents are friendly towards one another, can feel guilty or disloyal about forming a relationship with a stepparent.
You can help loosen your child’s loyalty binds by making sure you never put them in a position where they have to choose among the adults in their lives; by taking care not to expose them to negative messages or comments about any member of their two homes; and by allowing and encouraging them to talk freely to you and in your presence about their other home and the people in it. You can also help loosen loyalty binds with what you say. For example, in Harriet’s Expanding Heart, Harriet’s dad helps to loosen Harriet’s loyalty binds by saying, ‘I hope that you may come to care about Emily but know that I don’t expect you to love her the way you love your mum. Emily doesn’t expect that either.’ Harriet’s mum does something similar when she tells Harriet that it is absolutely okay for her to like her stepmother and to enjoy her company. She reassures Harriet that she knows this doesn’t change how much they love each other.