After divorce, people frequently re-couple and create blended families. There are many issues that arise in these new family constellations, some of which can be difficult to navigate. One of the most difficult issues in blended families is how to integrate a new step parent so it works for the chldren as well as the ex.
After couples divorce, inevitably one or both of the parents re-couple. This is a good thing. But sometimes can be difficult. If only one of the original couple becomes a new couple, jealousy often enters the picture. As one woman told me, “it’s just not fair. He has a girlfriend who helps him with cooking, cleaning and laundry and I have to do it all by myself while taking care of two kids”. That’s sometimes true. Life is not fair, but we have to deal with what comes our way, fair or not.
This woman also has to deal with her children connecting to a new person. In some cases this is easy. In others, it’s a major issue. There are some guidelines that can make this a better experience. To begin with, the new significant other should be introduced slowly and not until the parent has been with him/her for at least 6-8 months and feels it will be a solid long term relationship. Then the first meeting should be brief and at a public place, rather than home. If it goes well, then maybe a week or two later there is another meeting for a meal or outing. This process should go on until the parent feels the kids are comfortable with the new person. The ex should be informed that this is happening so s/he will be able to acknowledge the situation with the kids. After several weeks the new person can begin to spend time at home as the kids will, ideally, become comfortable with this new person.
Then the ex needs to be comfortable. What is most helpful here is for the new person not to impose him/herself on the kids and stay somewhat in the background. One woman, who began dating a dad with three kids said “I just told the kids I wanted to hang out and spend some time with them. I was clear that I was not their mother and definitely not replacing their mother”. This attitude makes kids comfortable and they do not need to feel a divided loyalty. They have one mom and that is clear. This attitude also reassures mom that her position will not be usurped. She can relax and know that she is the only mom. If she feels that dad’s new girlfriend is in competition with her, she will not be trusting or easy and the relationship will be difficult. The new person needs to respect boundaries and know that he/she can spend time and do fun things with the kids but is not a decision maker. In one terrible case, a new stepmom took her step daughter for a haircut and had her long hair cut short. The mom was furious.It took a very long time to repair that relationship. It is important to avoid making decisions about a child and instead, be supportive to the parent’s decisions.This will enhance the chances of a positive relationship developing. Being supportive to the child is another helpful way to develope a good relationship. A good motto is “connection before corretion”. In other words, leave the discipliing for the parent who has the strong relationship.
The other suggestion that can be very helpful, is for the new person to be careful not to make negative comments about the ex. For example, in one case I worked with, a new girlfriend said, “I’m going to make you really healthy meals and not feed you the junk your mother does.” While this is great that she will produce healthy meals, when she badmouths the mom, the kids feel upset. They feel a loyalty to their mother and are uncomfortable hearing negative things about her. If on the other hand, she could just make healthy meals for the kids to enjoy and not comment about what their mom does, it would go a long way and everyone would be happier.
The new step parent, or new significant other, especially in the beginning fo the relationship, needs to be careul about what he/she says. It is most important not to put the kids in the middle and to take a back seat to the parent until they have forged a positive relationship with the children.