When you and your new partner are ready for a more committed relationship, discuss these plans as early as possible with your children to prepare them for the changes that are about to take place. It is also important to consider discussing these plans with a biological parent if possible and it would help with the process.
If you are planning to get married, your children often will want to be part of any celebration. The wedding ceremony itself is generally a positive event for children, one in which they should be asked if they want a special role. It helps—for most children—if they feel a part of the process of becoming a stepfamily.
Next, a new household will be established, and the blended family will learn to live together. This is a period of establishing who you are, what you are willing to share, and what each individual's role in the new household will be. This process takes some time—and a conscious effort from all family members, especially the parents. Occasionally, some outside help from a counselor or therapist can ease the transition for you, your partner, the biological parent, and/or the child(ren). From the child's perspective, the new stepparent is a "guest in the house." The stepparent needs to develop his or her relationship with the child slowly—independently from his or her relationship with the biological parent.
Settling into New Family Routines or Plans
Once the initial transition period is over, everyone usually settles into routines. Later, there may be events and transitions that can force changes in family life (e.g., if the remarried couple has a new baby of their own, an older child leaves for college, etc.).
As the children adapt to their new family life, some will do better than others. Sometimes, the fit between stepchild and stepparent is a good one. However, there are chances for problems to arise. Perhaps the child is jealous of the new person in his or her parent's life. Or he or she resents the presence of stepsiblings in the home. Sometimes members of the blended family have minimal tolerance for their differences—creating tension that can upset the family's balance.
In many blended families, children can challenge their stepparents from time to time. Some children become openly aggressive, while others may keep an emotional distance from their stepmother or stepfather. If this happens in your family, don't take it personally. It is the child's way of testing you and perhaps dealing with his or her own feelings over having a new adult in his or her life. This varies with the age and developmental stage of the child over time.
Stepparents, Your Responses Matter
If your stepchild criticizes you, don't overreact. This becomes less common as the months pass. In general, the older the child, the more critical and judgmental he or she is likely to be of you as a stepparent.
If you are fair and make a sincere effort to get along, over time the child's negative feelings will be replaced more positive ones. It's a sign of progress when your stepchild begins to feel comfortable enough with you to voice his or her feelings.
What stepparents can do:
Listen and acknowledge the feelings that your stepchildren shares with you and try not to dismiss them.
Find some interests that you and your stepchildren share, and invite them to join you in these activities.
Hold regular family meetings to pull together on some issues and to iron out differences.
Treat your stepchildren with respect. You will ultimately earn their trust.
If there continue to be negative feelings and problems with bonding for you or your stepchild, it is important to get help from a counselor for you, ideally the other parent, and your stepchild.
Sometimes the problems children have within stepfamilies is really a carryover of their sorrow over their parents' divorce. Children's responses their parent's divorce can take many forms—and those feelings are often not easily or quickly resolved. They may linger and then disappear, only to come back in times of stress—like a remarriage. See What Your Child is Experiencing When You Remarry.
There may also be situations where there has been no other partner involved in the life of the child for a very long time. The child may perceive this to be the first time that the biological parent has a partner. This presents unique challenges for the child who may need to learn to share their parent with another adult and even other children.
The Success of Stepfamilies
The success of stepfamilies depends on a number of factors, but especially the quality of the new marriage. If the new spouses begin having problems with their own relationship, it will affect nearly every aspect of family life, including how the children cope and progress.
If you are starting to have difficulties with your spouse, it's important to seek counseling and try to work out problems before they become serious ones. In most communities, support groups are also available to help remarried couples and their children deal with the various issues that can arise in stepfamilies.
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