When Your Blended Family Doesn’t Blend

I sat across the room from her in my office each week. She was fifteen. Her parents had divorced when she was 4. They had been fighting over her ever since. Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of court costs, counseling sessions, attorney fees, and custody evaluations. She had almost no memory of her parents living in harmony. She was numb, hated marriage, and hated divorce even more.

When Your Blended Family Doesn't Blend

The greatest tragedy of her circumstances was that she had two parents perfectly capable of caring for her. As it often is, their fight was about them—not her.

Ron Deal, therapist and founder of Smart Stepfamilies, estimates about “one third of all weddings in America today form stepfamilies.” That research was from 2005; more than 10 years later, that number is surely to have increased.

Also, with second and third marriages also having an even higher rate for divorce than the first, these newly blended families are often not prepared for the complexity of merging family members—particularly children—who aren’t “blood.”

I do realize that some blended families have not formed as a result of previous divorces. Some moms and dads get re-married after a spouse had died. These circumstances present their own set of challenges as well, but often have less hostility.

So, parents and step-parents, I’m speaking to you today on behalf of your children. I’ve seen too many children suffer through the process of divorce and family blending. They want to tell you how they feel—trust me. Ironically, though, talking to a total stranger can seem safer, so I’m passing the messages along that I hear very often. Some may cut deep, but I say them with love and genuine care.

“I didn’t ask for this.”

As a parent or step-parent, you have chosen to be married to someone with children from a previous relationship. This was your choice; your children did not choose this. In my experience, unless life at home was hell on earth, no kid wants their parents’ relationship to end. Ever. Be patient with them as they navigate the reality that their parents are never getting back together. When a step-parent walks in, out walks any hope they had of reconciliation.

“Please stop bad-mouthing my mom/dad.”

I know that your ex may be the scum of the earth. He or she may have done things that seem unforgiveable, but your child still loves that person; that parent is also a part of your child’s heart and soul. I firmly believe children are programmed to love their parents.

When you bad-mouth your ex, it cuts your child deeply because, in reality, that parent is part of him or her. Do you have to like everything they do? No. Agree with their decisions? No. But you do need to learn how to use phrases such as, “Sometimes mom and dad don’t agree on everything, but we both will always love you,” or “Your mom/dad is really struggling right now, but we need to pray that God clears his/her mind,” or “Sometimes I can get upset with your mom/dad, but you do not need to worry about us. We will work it out.”

A twist to watch out for: sometimes children will bad mouth their other parent to you as a way of bonding with you. They often think that speaking poorly of the other parent will somehow affirm and please you. You must teach your child these same principles and encourage him or her to respect and speak positively about the other parent, as well. This, of course, does not mean they cannot share when they are hurt, scared, uncomfortable, or upset, but personal digs should be off-limits.

“Please don’t make me the middle man.”

Plain and simple, your children should never been the middle man between you and your ex, as it puts them in an incredibly uncomfortable and inappropriate place. Sure, it’s okay to ask how their father is doing or what they did over at their mother’s house, but to pass on “adult” messages can emotionally tear a child a part.

Children are already trying to balance loyalties between two families. You must find a way to communicate regarding scheduling, finances, discipline, medical treatment, etc. If you cannot communicate peacefully, third parties can be brought in. There are even computer programs where co-parents can communicate while being monitored by someone such as an attorney or counselor. You may not need anything this extreme, but perhaps a family member or friend that both of you trust could help. My personal favorite solution is to create a group text with both parents and any step parents of the child and let all communication be done there, where all can see.

And a tough pill for step-parents: In most circumstances, your spouse will need to communicate with his or her child’s other parent—you must support them in this. Sure, it’s uncomfortable and may bring about feelings of jealousy, insecurity, and mistrust. Use this as an opportunity to get involved in a positive way—focus on the future of the relationships, not the past.

“Please listen to me.”

So many children who end up in my office have begun displaying behavioral issues, which is usually the initial reason for therapy. When I peel back the layers, I find that the child has tried on multiple occasions to voice anger, concern, hurt, bitterness, or fear, but these emotions were either ignored or overlooked. I usually tell parents that behaviors are a child’s way of talking when he or she doesn’t know what to say or how to say it.

Many parents say, “My child won’t talk to me. I try to talk to him all the time, with no luck.” This is okay, and normal. Children don’t always want to talk, but always need to know they can talk.

Problem behaviors begin to arise when much of what they need to talk about is off limits.

Learn how to ask questions like, “How are you feeling about…” or “Tell me your thoughts about…” or “What has been on your mind lately about…”

An Extra Word: Divorce brings out the worst in people. Words are spoken that you didn’t mean. Threats are made that you would never follow through with. You must remember you are a believer first. You are a believer before you are a parent, a wife, a husband, and a step-parent.

James 1:19-20 reads, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (NIV).

If you need to ask forgiveness from your former spouse or child for something you’ve done or said, please do so. If you need to extend forgiveness, do so as well. This is where the healing of a family can take place. Until forgiveness occurs, anger, resentment, and bitterness can continue to wreak havoc on your family.

To those of you who so strongly desire a peaceful blended family, counseling can be a great resource to find out ways to co-parent, even when the other parent isn’t as cooperative. I am always overjoyed when someone walks in my office and says, “You know what, not everyone is willing to help make things better, but I want to do what I can to make this work.” There are so many resources for you!

Finally, to blended families who do blend, I know you’re out there. It’s not easy, but you’re making it work. You often give a mother to the motherless and a father to the fatherless, and for that I say, “Well done.” Let these suggestions be gentle reminders and affirmations as you continue your journey.

Dr. Katie Nelson Garcia is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Licensed Professional Counselor, and online educator in Shreveport, Louisiana.

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