Divorced with Children: Dating and Blending Families

Five children of varying ages in autumn clothes pose for photo by holding leaves over their eyesI have a memory of walking down the street with my mother, around the age of five, thinking about a conversation I’d had with some other children in the schoolyard a few days earlier. One of them had asked, “Who do you like more, your mom or your dad?” I had found the question strange at the time, and now, several days later, I still could not figure out an answer.

To me, you see, my parents seemed like one person. Logically, I knew they were two different people, but in some sort of child-minded way, I saw them as a monolith, a united being. On that outing with my mother, it finally hit me: it simply was not possible for me to separate these two people well enough in my mind to choose. So I dropped the question for good.

That was in the ’50s, and I was lucky in that I was able to drop the question and never had to make that choice—or have someone make it for me.

Today, we live in a new era of divorce and remarriage, and many children don’t get to choose which parent to live with. Even when they do choose, they may find their parents’ attention to be divided and not necessarily focused on them. Parents may still smart from the sting of rejection divorce inevitably is; they may keep rehashing difficult moments and wondering if they could still rewrite the script; their minds may be preoccupied with making ends meet or other concerns.

Many parents are focused so intently on court cases for custody that, ironically, they spend more time and thought on the case than on the child. Even when they are not facing a court battle, if parents are hostile to each other when attempting to co-parent, children may perceive that as some fault of theirs. But at some point, the dust settles and the child finally begins to become accustomed to a different life with Mom or Dad or some combination. A new state of normal prevails.

For many parents, however, the single life is not their ideal. They begin dating again, and a child may be left wondering, “Am I not enough?”

It can be difficult for parents to navigate dating, much less a new marriage, while still trying to ease the aftereffects of divorce on their children. Here are some tips to help you create the best set of circumstances for your children when you begin dating after a divorce or breakup.

1. Let children know, frequently, how important they are and how much you love them. 

I remember meeting with a teenager who was not part of a blended family. The parents worked hard, were highly organized, and dispatched instructions and discipline to her as a matter of course. She told me in private therapy that she was convinced her mother didn’t like her. With her permission, I shared this with her mother, who, of course, was shocked.

Research shows when a parent takes the time to listen to a child’s difficulties (in general, but especially after divorce), the child feels supported and is more able to view the divorce as something that was necessary rather than as a huge obstacle in life.

We tend to assume our children “know” we love them, but, really, how are they supposed to know that if we don’t tell them? My children are adults, married with children, and I still tell them. Not only will telling your child how much you love them help reassure the child through difficult times, it will direct your attention to your warm feelings towards your child—another great benefit of making this a common practice. Too often, we think of our softer emotions as a distraction from the business we need to take care of. In fact, being more mindful of feelings of warmth and love may provide stress relief and serve as a welcome break from crossing off items on a long to-do list. Connecting with our loved ones is one of the joys of life, after all.

2. Don’t “compensate” for this rough time by spoiling your child.

Parents might attempt to make up for difficult life changes by offering their child fancy toys, taking them on expensive outings, letting them skip school or stay up late, and overlooking rudeness or sibling aggression. This is the wrong approach, though, as it is still likely to send the message that the parent does not care.

Children know, in a way that is beyond words, that they are cherished when a parent sticks to the rules and dispenses discipline along with love. Though many children might find it fun for a while when schedules and routines blow away with the wind, ultimately this leads to feelings of neglect. The best way to create stability, show love, and help your child de-stress is to keep up routines, to the best of your ability.

3. Become a “kindly neighbor” to your stepchildren.

A blended family is often the inevitable result of a dating relationship after divorce. If your partner has children from a previous relationship, you may find that they resent you at first. This is normal and natural: You have taken some of their parent’s attention away from them. Even teenagers may be not be mature enough to understand you can potentially become their advocate and mentor.

Children may show you how angry they are by not greeting you, ignoring your requests, or even not talking to you for a while. It’s best not to take this behavior personally, because it most likely will improve with time. You might feel the urge to sit down with them and discuss your concerns, but in many cases, this may not be all that helpful. Children are often not aware of all the reasons behind their behavior, and it can be difficult for them to articulate even those reasons they are aware of.

I find the best way to handle the situation is to take a position of friendliness. Remain pleasant, kind, and above all, show them you care about their plight. If, after a month or so, the mood in the house does not improve, speak to your partner about your stepchild’s behavior. The next step may be family therapy.

4. Discipline does not mean anger.

As a parent, your job is to provide your child with love, stable routines, and discipline. You do not need to show them anger. Just as spoiling your child may send a message that you do not care, the other extreme is equally nonconstructive.

If your child never used to be rude and now is, then the change in behavior likely signifies difficulties with the new changes being faced. Anger and disapproval are unlikely to resolve the issue. What is more likely to lead to improvement is a listening ear and the setting of gentle, understandable limits.

When a new family structure is introduced, all involved are likely to feel the impact. But when this change is handled well, there are many positive opportunities for love, friendship, connection, and more.

Rules can be stated and invoked in a gentle tone of voice and discussed in a conversational manner. Conversations that begin with parents displaying a willingness to listen are typically the most effective. Possible ways to begin a conversation might be: “What about our new situation are you having trouble with?” or “How can we work together to make this situation better for all of us?”

If you find yourself losing your temper, take several slow, deep breaths. Doing so will help slow down your autonomic nervous system, reduce the stress hormone cortisol in your brain, and give you a moment to figure out the best course of action so you can avoid acting impulsively.

5. Don’t favor your child; don’t favor your stepchild.

Disagreements between stepsiblings are inevitable. When they occur, you may feel protective toward your own child, or you might feel like you want to “win over” your partner’s child. But either position is likely to lead to even more hostilities in the future.

Consider taking the first step in handling these before you move in together, marry, or otherwise make the relationship a more permanent one. Make time to sit down with your partner and discuss your own personal styles of discipline, your value system, and your expectations. It may seem as if these things are obvious, but you might be surprised at the discoveries you make. Parenting norms vary widely, and it’s best not to make assumptions before having this conversation with your partner.

There should also be agreement on what the household rules should be and an understanding that it may not be the best idea for stepparents to begin parenting stepchildren immediately.

If you find yourself refereeing a dispute between stepsiblings, the best course of action may to simply be a good listener. Ask all involved for their side, and listen carefully. Avoid showing favoritism and giving one-size-fits-all punishments.

6. The key is patience.

If you have ever broken a bone or experienced another type of serious physical injury, you may recall how long it took to heal from it. It certainly didn’t take place overnight. It may have even taken months. Emotional injuries—and the disruption of a family, no matter the circumstances, is still experienced as an injury—also take time to heal. In order to heal, your child will likely need to do a lot of thinking and sorting everything out, so be patient. It could be several months, a year, or even a few years before children are finally comfortable in their new surroundings.

7. Consider therapy for emotional difficulties.

When a child is excessively rude or hostile; refuses to go to school; or displays symptoms of depression, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive behavior, therapy may be indicated. Seeking therapy does not mean you have failed as a parent or partner. On the contrary, by finding support in a time of difficult and confusing changes, you are doing something right—for you, your child, and your entire family.

A primary benefit of bringing in a therapist is that a person who doesn’t know you and your blended family can look objectively at the entire situation—and is trained to do so. That person may have an observation to share with you that will be enormously helpful. Sometimes all family members need is to be reassured they are doing things right, that there is nothing “wrong” with them. Some symptoms may even lift when people get this professional reassurance.

Another benefit is expertise. Be sure to visit a family therapist, one who specializes in the dynamics of divorce and remarriage. Therapists with this training are generally in the best position to help blended families work through any and all complications they might face.

8. There is potential for strong friendships in blended families.

I have heard any number of stories about successful blended families, where the parents created for the children—sometimes for the first time—warm and stable homes filled with good, loving people. Frequently, the stepsiblings become good friends.

When a new family structure is introduced, all involved are likely to feel the impact. But when this change is handled well, there are many positive opportunities for love, friendship, connection, and more.

These tips are a beginning. If you have other concerns, I encourage you to seek support from a qualified marriage and family therapist.

References: 

  1. Eldar-Avidan, D., Haj-Yahia, M. M., Greenbaum, C. W. (2009). Divorce is a part of my life…Resilience, survival, and vulnerability: Young adults’ perception of the implications of parental divorce. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 35(1), 30-46. doi: 10.1111/j.1752-0606.2008.00094.x
  2. Visser, C. F. (2013). The origin of the solution-focused approach. International Journal of Solution-Focused Practices, 1(1), 10-17. doi: 10.14335/ijsfp.v1i1.10
  3. Whiteside, M. F. (1982). Remarriage: A family developmental process. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 8(2), 59-68. doi: 10.1111/j.1752-0606.1982.tb01442.x

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Deb Hirschhorn, PhD, therapist in Far Rockaway, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 4 comments
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  • Blakely W

    Blakely W

    March 3rd, 2017 at 7:32 AM

    I have had a lot of people that I know who put themselves ahead of the best interests of the children. How is that ever going to help the family, no matter of whom it is made up, how will that ever make it a success? The kids are going to feel like they have been shut out and left behind and for many of them it will never make them feel like they are worthy of love because they don’t receive quite enough of it as a child.

  • Mike

    Mike

    March 5th, 2017 at 7:38 AM

    After divorcing two years ago I received the advice that I shouldn’t even start to date anyone until my children are grown and out of the house. Have any of the readers out there ever received the same advice? I love the time that I have with my kids and I would never want to do anything that would hurt them. But I am lonely and want to go through life with someone and not feel like I am always on the outside of other lives looking in. Is it selfish for me to want to meet someone and enjoy some time with them?

  • Morgan

    Morgan

    March 6th, 2017 at 11:23 AM

    When my sister in law started dating this newest guy she has deserted her kids. She has nothing to do with them anymore and spends all of her time with him. She doesn’t seem to understand that her young children need her far more than this grown man does right now.

  • josie j

    josie j

    March 11th, 2017 at 7:03 AM

    I feel so bad for my kids. They are teenagers so I think that they can handle it most of the time, but now just to make ends even close to meeting, I have to work 2, sometimes 3 jobs at a time, and I know that I am missing out on a lot of what is going on with them.’

    Their dad gives me very little help, doesn’t even spend the time with them that the judge mandated so I have kind of given up on some hope of child support or any financial help.

    I am struggling but I worry far more about what all of this upheaval is doing to our kids. I am hoping that they are just resilient and can one day bounce back from it all.

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