by Mike Ferguson
(St. Charles, MO) – No matter what your marital status or age, divorce likely has already impacted your life.
For many, it’s through personal experience. For everyone else, that impact has been felt when a family member or friend has gone through the process.
In addition, for an increasing number of Missourians, family life means a home with a “blended family”, where the parents bring a non-biologically related child into the picture.
For the children involved, that process on both ends is painful and confusing most of the time. Some studies indicate that “blended families” are the fastest-growing type of households in America, which means you probably know a step-family personally.
There’s a Missouri-based group that specializes in helping children who are dealing with a divorce situation and also dealing with the new challenges of a step family. It’s called “Kids In The Middle” and two of their experts appear on the new “Missouri Viewpoints.”
Judy Berkowitz is the group’s executive director. She says the grownups need to be grown up once the decision to separate or divorce is made. When children are involved, she says, it’s crucial to make sure they don’t feel alone. That often means parents need to work together, even when the marriage is falling apart, and let someone else be there for the kids in addition to them.
“Even if they know there are problems with their parents, they may hear them fighting, they don’t have anyone usually to talk to about it. They have nobody to prepare them and that is a major problem for children.”
That’s because families ties typically do not end when the marriage does. Planning the post-divorce parenting during the pain of separating isn’t easy but, Berkowitz says, is a reality that should be included in the process.
“When you have children, the relationship between the parents usually never ends. Divorce doesn’t end with a decree, so the parents are connected for as long as they live as long as they have a relationship with those kids.”
She acknowledges that it gets complicated but that shouldn’t stop some degree of cooperation when it comes to getting them through the divorce itself and in making parenting decisions after that.
That’s easier said than done.
For the parents involved and for those who are close to the family going through it, Berkowitz suggest letting the kids involved express their feelings and questions. Because no two families and divorces are the same, the support the children need will be unique.
She says divorce impacts every child and will be part of how they are emotionally formed as an adult, so it’s vital that parents provide the healthiest transition possible. That often means including a counselor when an outside viewpoint – and maybe an objective, calming influence – is needed to balance out the confusion that comes with overheated emotions.
Once everyone involved gets through the divorce, many parents and children eventually find themselves in a second marriage situation.
Call it a step family or a blended family if you want, but you can also count on it being another major change for the kids and it could be just as scary and confusing to them.
“Initially, people think it’s going to be kind of easy. The parents are excited about having a second chance but, a lot times, the children are not so excited.
“So, having a lot of people in one place, new personalities, makes it very difficult. A lot of times, the children feel like they are getting less time with their parent – that they are losing something rather than gaining something.”
Love says parents and step parents need to keep in mind that the process isn’t just an explanation and being a part of the wedding. That adjustment can take years, it should start before the wedding day and should involve both biological parents and the incoming step parent.
Again, that’s easier said than done.
One of the trickiest situations to navigate is the role that new step parent will have when it comes to rearing the child or children. There’s no one correct answer for that because, just like no two divorce situations are alike, no two blended family situations are alike.
Love draws attention to one opportunity that step parents often have, though.
“If that relationship can be supportive, not as much of a disciplinarian but someone who that child can go to when they have problems, that can be a good building block and also a way for the other parent – the biological parent – to know what’s going on with the child.
“Our children don’t tell us things sometimes because they fear being judged and they can have that little bit less judgmental relationship with that step parent. So, try to build something really very different than the parents are used to.”
She suggests frequent and blunt communication between the step parent and the kids involved. That usually means setting rules for the home and a clear understanding of what the step parent’s role and authority is and is not in the home.
As an example, Love says discipline typically defaults to the biological parent and involves cooperation from the ex-spouse.
That’s because when children are involved, “the ex” will still likely be a factor in the new family whether the new spouse likes it or not.
To Love, that means an extra responsibility on the former spouse to put personal feelings aside and help his or her child adjust to a new parental structure when at the other parent’s home.
“Support that relationship. We all want our children to be happy wherever they are and, regardless of how you feel about that new step parent, you want your child to be happy there.
“So, support them in that relationship and let them know that you don’t see it as a betrayal.”
Those outside the home but close to the families involved can also be a help in tough times. For relatives, coworkers and friends of those in either the divorces or remarriages, Love suggests helping in practical ways as opposed to trying to take on an amateur therapist role.
“Help them in ways that need helped as opposed to offering advice they don’t need or maybe advice that you don’t have the experience to give.”
The emotional bottom line is that there’s a positive role for everyone to play in what starts as a negative situation. If you can’t you find it right away, don’t be afraid to bring in experts from outside the home.
That could be in the form of counselors like those from Kids In The Middle, counselors from your children’s school or religious advisers like your pastor. Berkowitz and Love point out the underlying fact that no family – separated, divorced or blended – has to work through these changes on their own.
On the web:
Kids In The Middle – http://www.KidsInTheMiddle.org