Parenting In Blended Families

"Loss and unresolved grief is the underlying issue that parents encounter when raising children in blended families"

By: Michael G. Conner, Psy.D

Nationally, nearly three out of five families are raising children from another parent, different marriages and different families. Blended families include adopted children, divorced families raising children together and children from other marriages or relationships. An increasing number of grandparents are raising their grandchildren. And foster parents are raising their own children with the children of other parents. Parenting in a blended family is a challenge with unique problems.

Separation or Divorce. The first problem of raising children in a blended family is a direct result of parental separation or divorce. From the moment of birth children form emotional bonds with their parents. Children who have two parents in their life become confused and experience emotional turmoil when their parents separate. A young boy I worked with made the issue very clear to me when he said, "How do I know my parents wonít leave me? How can people stop loving each other?" Parent counseling or education can help you deal with this.

There are impacts on children even when a separation or divorce is entirely understandable, necessary and in the best interest of a child. For instance, if parents become hateful during a relationship or marriage, then children will struggle and experience emotional conflicts. Children end up learning that love and relationships are not something they can count on. But in all fairness to parents, there are circumstances where separation or divorce can help. Keeping a destructive or violent marriage together can be even more damaging than a separation or divorce.

Adoption, Abandonment or Death. The second problem happens when a child is adopted, a parent abandons their child or a parent dies. The loss of a parent or both parents creates a void in a childís life. Children naturally have questions, and the answers to these questions will take time for a child to understand and accept. Counseling and educating parents to handle this can help.

Children have feelings about missing parents or any void in their life. Typical feelings include loss, guilt, feeling empty inside and especially grief. But adoption and taking on the responsibility of a parent can be a very positive and rewarding act. Providing a stable and loving home for a child is tremendously important and can help heal a child. It can help prepare them to get on with their life.

Parenting under these circumstance is not necessarily more difficult than parenting in general, but it does present unique challenges. Loss and unresolved grief are the underlying emotional issues that parents encounter when raising children in a blended family. This can look like fear, anger, depression and other insecurities in a childís behavior. In many cases, children will seek out and discover ways to avoid or "cover-up" their feelings. Arguments, blaming, defiance and acting like a victim are the most common ways that children try to take control of their life or to avoid even the reminder that their life is not necessarily secure and predictable.

The psychological and emotional needs of children raised in blended families present unique challenges. Many parents do not feel equipped to raise children who are not theirs, nor parent children they did not raise since infancy. But there are some useful guidelines if you are "blending" a family or parenting children in a family that is already blended. The following are only guidelines because children cope with and adjust in ways that are very individual.

Dating and Co-habitation. Single parents should minimize dating, and couples should not live together for at least 6 months following a divorce, separation or the end of a parental relationship. Children are usually vulnerable and emotionally unstable for at least three months. In most cases children need a stable relationship with a primary parent and they donít respond well to competition with another adult who is an outsider. Many children are ready to move on with their life somewhere between three and six months. Six months is a good time for a parent to take small steps and begin raising the possibility to their child that life goes on.

Marriage and Committed Relationships. Parents should avoid getting engaged, living with a fiancťe or getting married for at least one year after a traumatic loss or breakup in a family. How long you wait really depends on the child, but one year is a good estimate.

Children grieve, let go and move on in different ways and over different time frames. Blending a family may be necessary for practical and financial reasons, but doing so can be stressful and will raise many uncertainties for children. Life goes on, but ignoring stress when blending a family can produce emotional and behavioral problems. Children tend to act out their feelings when they are under a lot of stress. Family counseling or advice may be helpful and even necessary if children are having difficulty with an early transition into a blended family.

Disagreements, conflicts and inconsistent discipline methods between separated or divorced parents can cause emotional and behavioral problems. Children should not be exposed to parental conflicts. Children begin to think they can do whatever they want when parents argue and disagree in front of their child. More than any other issue, the tension between divorced parents can be the surest way to create problems for kids. Children feel the tension between parents and they suffer when parents create problems, emotional distress and donít get along. Over time, children begin to resent feeling that way, get angry or they take their anger out on others. If not, they end up believing the problem is their fault and their life will always be this way.

Primary responsibility for parenting should be left to the biological or responsible parent. Children who have lost one parent donít want to lose another. Children will naturally seek the support and help of a responsible adult. But they donít want to share a parent with another adult. A couple should begin to co-parent equally when they formalize their relationship and make a commitment to each other and members of the family. This commitment, when accepted by a child and supported by other family members, will provide a helpful structure. Over time this will enhance a childís emotional and psychological well being.

Co-parenting requires cooperation between the responsible parents and it requires consistent discipline. Blending a family is not easy. Some children will test the relationship between a man and woman. They will break the rules, ask for exceptions and challenge parents to make a choice between them and the other parent. Children need guidance, instruction, training, choices, consequences and supervision. These are roles that any caring and responsible adult can provide. Regardless of the approach to parenting, couples should never threaten the bonds between a parent and their child.

copyright 2003 to 2005, Michael G. Conner