“In the fairy tales, the little girl is taken out into the deep dangerous forest where she is saved by a compassionate woodsman. In modern America, all the people stay together in the two households and life is ripe for conflict. In its early stages, the strife is not related to how nice or evil the stepmother is or to how well behaved or naughty the child is. The conflict is in the nature of the drama itself. There is one exalted king (the man), one princess (the child), one long and dark shadow (the ex wife), and one usurper (the stepmother), who quite rightly wants the opportunity to enjoy her marriage. Such dramas play out differently in different families but they are never without travail.” – Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee (2000, p. 274)
There’s only one thing for certain about stepfamily dynamics: Every situation is unique. Yet in this sea of diversity, there are also some common threads that tend to get pulled whenever parents remarry after a divorce. Having some idea about what to expect can leave you better prepared to handle these issues as they come up.
- Remarriage often exposes festering wounds
Stepfamily situations can create another crisis for kids because they expose a child’s often hidden fantasies that his or her parents will somehow reunite. Such hopes, as unrealistic as they may be, serve to allay some of the mental anguish kids are feeling over the divorce. When mom or dad then takes on a new spouse, this dream is swiftly abolished, causing the sea of emotions it was keeping at bay to suddenly rush in. A child often acts up or exhibits behavioral problems as a result, and may exhibit aggression towards the stepparent who so rudely took away their delusions. And since such hopes and fantasies are seldom voiced by kids, you may need to broach these feelings yourself if you have a child who suddenly becomes more moody.
- Stepfamily dynamics often create loyalty issues in children
Bringing a stepparent into the household frequently creates loyalty issues for children. It’s not uncommon for kids to feel as though liking their stepparent is somehow a betrayal of the love or devotion they feel towards their biological one. This can be a natural response; similar to what’s exhibited by kids who lose a parent to death. Bereaved children often feel guilty for being happy, as if experiencing happiness without their beloved parent around is a betrayal of the love they felt for them, or somehow underplays the magnitude of their loss. Children of divorce can experience a similar phenomenon whenever a stepparent enters the equation: liking or having fun with this “replacement parent” can somehow feel wrong, as though it’s a disloyalty to their original parent to be happy with a substitute. Thus it’s not uncommon even for kids who got along well with your partner throughout the dating relationship to suddenly become standoffish or create a barrier against intimacy with this person once you actually tie the knot and they officially become a parental figure.
You can also have situations where the other parent either overtly or inadvertently encourages a child to reject a stepparent, or subconsciously plays into the notion that there are loyalty issues surrounding the relationship. Seemingly innocent statements such as “I’m your real mother, not her” or “she’ll never love you the way I do” are quite common, yet such messages subtly suggest that it’s an either/or proposition between the stepparent and the biological one.
- Drama can erupt around dynamics between children, too
It’s not just new adults that children must adjust to. In many situations, remarriage combines children from previous marriages, and these forced relationships can come with issues of their own. As Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee state, “endless triangles are formed as stepsiblings take up friendships or rivalries or, as sometimes happens with adolescents, become lovers themselves.” (2000, p. 275) Parents will have to keep on their toes, and may have to run around putting out fires in the beginning.
- You’ll be under a microscope
If the stepfamily includes kids from two different marriages, then you can expect they’ll be watching you like a hawk for any signs of favoritism. Parents will need to be careful about how their actions appear and ensure that they are treating the kids equally. If there are discrepancies, then you must amply explain the reason for these differences in your parenting.
- Children may compete with your new partner for your attention
Your husband or wife married you because they want to spend time with you. They seek your attention and affection. They want you focused on them. But in case you haven’t noticed, there are smaller, younger humans hanging around who also want you focused on them. You’ll have to do all you can to make sure there’s plenty of you to go around, so that jealousy issues don’t arise. Even if you handle the situation wonderfully, you should expect that some kids will dislike the very idea of having to share your affections at all, and may try to compete for your attention against your new mate. It’s like the toy that suddenly got more interesting the moment someone else wanted to play with it. Their mere presence in the household can make kids jealous.
- Different ages react in different ways
How smoothly things go will often depend on the age of your children. Younger kids typically adjust better to these challenges than older ones, and teens are particularly likely to give you trouble. Since adolescents are in the developmental stage of breaking away from their parents and challenging authority as it is, they are more apt to be particularly hostile towards the idea of having a new parental figure in the house. So parents of teenage children will have to be very skilled in the way they handle this transition, otherwise things can go downhill quickly.
Although little kids adjust better on the whole than older ones, it would be foolish to assume that younger ones will automatically fall in line. As Wallerstein & company write, “it’s a mistake to think that little children have little feelings. Little children have powerful feelings and, despite their limited skills, can disrupt a second marriage as effectively as any adolescent on the warpath. Children of all ages have strong mixed feelings about stepparents.” (2000, p. 275) The difference between little kids and teens is that younger children typically don’t have any prerogative to rebel or make life difficult merely for the sake of it. But if parents are insensitive to their needs or handle the transition in a way that makes them deeply unhappy, these small packages can deliver an equally fearsome punch.