Let’s consider the following hypothetical. A step-parenting family comes to you trying to blend smoothly the joining of the family as mother, father and five children, two his and three hers). His children are Henry, 5, and Nadia, 12. Her children are Lilly, 10, John, 13, and Debra, 15. Both the man and woman have been divorced for four years. What are the likely reactions of the children, based on their ages and position in their divorced family, to this new family? What developmental issues should they be aware of? What coping strategies should they try to develop?
Statistics show 60% of marriages end in divorce. Among other factors this has the potential to create severe emotional and behavioral difficulties for children. There are a variety of reasons why marriages fail. These run from practical issues such as loss of employment, inability to devise strategies for conflict resolution and different child rearing practices; to more complex ones such as a sense of distance, a feeling one’s spouse has changed in unrecognizable ways, changing priorities, loss of caring and lack of communication. In Erikson terms, often spouses have failed to resolve issues of personal identity, which they should have accomplished at a prior developmental stage. A sense of narcissism or entitlement, for example, prevents problem-solving interaction with one’s partner. Spouses tend to grow apart incrementally. Infractions accumulate and then tend to overwhelm the “norm of reciprocity” – the principle that one gets out of a relationship what one puts into it.
Despite these aversives marriage remains the traditional structure within which most family relationships exist. For this reason blended families continue to proliferate. Because they are freighted with the cargo from previous relationships – children, possessions, expectations – integrating regroupings into a cohesive whole presents a significant challenge. Step families are an evolving family system. Each member both influences and is influenced by the others. It can take several years for these relationships to evolve and settle down. This is longer than most people anticipate and in and of itself can cause frustration because most people expect there will be “instant love.” Life however is not like a TV sitcom. While of course children are the most important element of the equation time spent with children who require time, attention, effort and energy also detracts from the marital needs and romantic situation of the new step-parent dyad, which is another cause for concern. Their marital bond must be especially solid in order to endure.
Several factors affect childrens’ reactions to divorce and the ease with which they assimilate into a new family group. These include their developmental stage; the security of their parental attachment relationships; the stability of their own personal identity; and their flexibility and adaptability.
Here is how these principles will affect the family introduced in the hypothetical. The first thing I would do as a family therapist would be to reorder the children by age as opposed to parent of origin. Their birth order is as follows: Debra, John, Nadia, Lilly and Henry. The second thing I would do would be to reorder the children by sibling position within each family of origin. This would be: Debra and Nadia are the oldest; John and Henry are in the middle; and Lilly is the youngest. [Note: this may not have as much usefulness as it might in other contexts given the age discrepancy between John and Henry. It might be more helpful to recognize John as the middle child, Lilly as the youngest child, and then Henry as a kind of later add-on.].
Likely reactions of the children. While it is unlikely they will comprehend their parents no longer will be married, the younger cohort (Henry, possibly Lilly) quickly will discern one parent no longer lives at home. From this they may (accurately) conclude their parents no longer comprise a family unit. It is a short step from this to the (correct) belief they no longer care about each other the way they once did; that they no longer love each other. This ideation can lead to self-blame, i.e. the childrens’ belief they are the ones responsible for the divorce. Another common emotion might be anger or resentment at the parent who left (or, conversely, the one who stayed). They may fantasize their parents will reunite. They may become concerned or uncertain about changes to their daily routine, e.g. who will pick them up at school. This leads to a loss of trust with potential adverse implications later in life.
The adolescent cohort (Debra, John, Nadia) most likely will have more extreme emotions, which they in turn will enact in their behavior. These emotions will fluctuate between anger and sadness. They may feel their lives have been ruined or that their situation is “unfair.” For example they may harbor resentment towards the younger group of children (even if of the same parentage) because their agendas so completely diverge. They may actively assign blame and guilt to either or both parents, believing them to be “selfish” or “inconsiderate.” There may be lengthy periods of dissociation or play-acting. For example they may try to hide their feelings and translate their emotions into an attitude of indifference or apathy (“so what,” “whatever”). This seemingly-benign phase frequently is just a precursor to more overt behavioral problems including juvenile delinquency, sexual promiscuity, declining grades at school, apathy and listlessness. These reactions significantly resemble PTSD. On the other hand because they are older adolescents may have better coping skills, if they can be properly activated and deployed. Adolescents may have more peer and outside sources of support. They actually may feel freer with the redefinition of the family unit.
Developmental issues. The blended family in the hypothetical has both older and younger children. Their respective attitudes, orientations and outlooks most likely will be completely different. The disparity in age groups likely will place considerable stress on the new family relationship. The adolescents are in a different stage of identity than the school-age children. The adolescents are moving towards separating from the family just as the school-age children need it the most. This could lead to negative family processes and will make it difficult to create a cohesive family unit. The relationship between mother and daughter(s) may deteriorate. The relationship between father and son(s) may become pathological.
Step-parents may attempt to duplicate the closeness at one time felt in the original family groupings. Since this creates a level of expectation that would be impossible to meet it most likely will result in unsatisfactory outcomes. The new family unit must be evaluated on its own terms, not by comparing it to something else. Sullen, apathetic or indifferent responses from children may inhibit step-parent response. As a result the step-parents will come to feel disengaged and disinterested in forming a relationship with or influencing their children. They will not pay attention to the child unless/until the child inconveniences them, makes demands on them or engages in self-destructive behavior.
Coping strategies. The most successful coping strategy divorcing parents can adopt is to communicate with their children about their status. The children must be assured their basic personal and emotional needs will be met. The parents must do all they can do create a stable environment to reduce tension and stress. The children must be encouraged to express their feelings, even if they are not immediately evident.
Within this framework three important points require special attention.
1. Parents must avoid blaming the ex-spouse. Many child custody arrangements now involve “co-custody,” which has the potential to result in an ambiguous and confusing situation. The child can feel whip-sawed between each parent, that parent’s new living situation and the introduction of a new romantic interest into the family relationship. As a result the child may come to feel confused and neglected. To the fullest extent possible the former spouses must remain collaborative in all child-rearing decisions and activities. They should not be defensive; they should remain honest and approachable. They should not speak ill of their counterpart, or blame her/him for the divorce. Similarly they should divide parenting roles so each is responsible for discipline as well as reward (to avoid one parent becoming the “bad parent” and the other one becoming the “good parent”).
2. Favoritism. Parents must avoid showing favoritism to their own biological children or to the child that occupies the same sibling position as the parent (e.g. older child-older child). They must be consistent and non-discriminatory over the entire blended family group. To do so they must articulate their expectations clearly; establish appropriate boundaries; and devise equitable standards of discipline. This communicates to the children that the adults are capable, still in charge and concernful for their welfare. One way of demonstrating this is to show enhanced interest in the childrens’ academic performance and their after-school activities. Parenting style should be authoritative (warm relationships, appropriate parental control, monitoring of children’s activities, age-appropriate expectations, use of rational discipline). Authoritarian style (high in parental control, monitoring, conflict and punitiveness, emotionally detached, low in parental warmth) and permissive style (low parental control) both will lead to behavioral problems.
3. Bonding. The family must take collaborative steps to integrate themselves into a single cohesive unit. They should plan group activities (such as a group vacation and eating family meals together). Step-siblings should be encouraged to bond with each other to avoid communication problems, negative family processes and distance between family members. At the same time the parents must pay attention to their individual differences.