Huffpost Divorce
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Linda Lipshutz, MS, ACSW Headshot

What Divorced Parents Can Learn From Their Children

Posted: Updated:
STEPFAMILY
Thinkstock

"Greg" knew he was in for it when he saw Susan standing at the front door, glaring at him. It was wishful thinking to believe he would come home to peace and quiet. The disagreements between Susan and his daughter, Lindsey had become quite ugly. The two hadn't liked each other from the start. However, he and Susan had thought that once they were officially married, things would settle down. Sadly, the situation had deteriorated. Lindsey had made it clear she wasn't interested in meeting her stepmother, even halfway. Susan was hurt and frustrated that her efforts to reach out to Lindsey had not been successful.

Ironically, our children are often more realistic about the challenges facing the remarriage than we are.

Young people may have no qualms about letting us know their objections. In many cases, they're not happy about all the life changes they've endured and have no interest in making things work.

From the young people's point of view, they didn't have any say when their parents ended the marriage, and they certainly don't feel any obligation to happily endorse a parent's new romance and eventual nuptials. They may believe their feelings have not been sufficiently considered, and are understandably resentful.

Remarrying couples are often so eager for their children to embrace their new lives they become impatient and annoyed when their families don't jump onboard with enthusiasm. They may push way too hard, further compounding the conflicts. There are many steps, however, that can be taken to ease the adjustment and head off irreparable damage.

The stepfamily is a new entity, which must incorporate the memories and experiences of the prior family constellations. Children, still reeling from the loss of comfort, familiarity and sense of security they may have felt in the original family, will often magnify the upheaval when they enter the new blended family unit.

After a divorce, grieving single parents often reach out to their children in a unique and powerful way. A child might bask in getting his parent's undivided attention and may develop an elevated sense of importance and control. He may not want to relinquish this exalted position or give the new stepparent any clout.

The children often struggle to sort out a host of conflicting emotions -- jealousy that their parent has feelings for this stranger, worry that the original family closeness might be compromised, and concern that accepting the stepparent would be disloyal. And, of course, accepting the new stepparent would require them to relinquish any remaining fantasies of reconciliation.

Now, more than ever, is the time for the adults to remind themselves that they are the adults, and that it will be important for them to take the high road, approaching the situation with empathy and a sense of humor. It is critically important to send a clear, but sensitive message to the young people that they are not being forced to like the new family members. They still remain in control of their feelings but, hopefully, will come to enjoy these relationships in time.

It should be clearly emphasized that the new family must be treated with respect and consideration. If the children sense their parents' insecurities, they might be tempted to use this discomfort to their advantage. Consciously, or unconsciously, they may try to put a wedge in the new couple's relationship. It must be crystal clear that they don't have the power to sabotage the adult relationship.

Although challenging, it's possible for parents to take the upper hand in rocky situations. First, they must pay attention to their moods and attitudes. Defensiveness and resentment could exacerbate an already tense environment. It takes maturity and inner strength to not take sarcasm and slights personally. Avoiding an edge at stressful times, and steering clear of power struggles can head off misunderstandings. That's not to say that any form of abuse should be tolerated. Excessive, ugly behavior must be addressed immediately and firmly.

The smart parent will look for opportunities for the children to have relaxed, one-on-one time with the new family members, so they can form relationships, on their own, at their own pace.

It's not uncommon for a parent to feel guilty that openly relating to the new spouse in a close, loving way will be construed as a betrayal. The self-esteem of the parents and their sense of security with each other will markedly affect their ability to face the challenges. If the new stepparents trust they truly have their partner's unwavering love and support, it may provide the strength to withstand the hurts, and the motivation to persevere.

Most of us have room in our hearts to simultaneously love different people, in different ways. It is important to remember, though, that the scars are often deep. It can take months and years for the hurts to soften. When adults respond with sensitivity and emotional support, they have taken critical steps to help young people process their losses and become receptive to the changes around them.