Blended and Step Families- here we come!

Your first marriage ended, leaving you with enough sadness, anger, guilt, and recriminations to last you for a lifetime. Over time, you have come to recognize and take responsibility for your own part in your divorce, and have grieved your losses. Good for you for moving on and for taking steps toward a better future for you and for your kids. Question. You are ready to move forward, but are your kids ready?

Remarriage: gain or loss?

Falling in love again, feeling hopeful about the future, and planning a life with a new partner in remarriage is a wonderful gain for adults.  A second chance at happiness for you and a new blended family for your children is a reason for celebration. Generally speaking, though, remarriage is just one more opportunity for grief, especially if your kids have not adequately grieved the family losses already experienced. While  parents are falling in love again and looking forward to a new and happier life, many kids are still processing and still suffering. It does not help if Mom or Dad brushes off their sad feelings and expects them to be excited about a new relationship and a new blended family.

It’s not your fault

While your children were grieving, you were likely grieving right alongside them. Your own suffering made helping your children cope with their feelings of loss, fear and grief even more complicated. Bereavement counselors divide grief into four distinct stages of grief, which all individuals can expect to experience. Knowing the process your children take through their grief can help you to help them.

The four stages of grief in children include:

  1. Shock and numbness
  2. Yearning and searching
  3. Disorientation and disorganization
  4. Reorganization and Resolution

Shock and numbness in your blended family

Whether coping with loss due to death, or news of an impending divorce or separation, children are likely to be stunned at first. On the surface, he or she may appear to be functioning pretty well, but in reality, your child is just beginning to cope. During this stage of the grieving process, your child may have difficulty thinking clearly or concentrating. You can help by being patient, by allowing your child to think through his or her feelings, and by being available to listen when they are ready to talk.

Yearning and searching

During this volatile stage, children often appear restless, angry, or bewildered, and sometimes express feelings of guilt over the loss. In blended family life, these unresolved feelings often result in acting out toward a step parent or step siblings or in a complete withdrawal from family connections. The best thing you can do is to stay calm. Never allow feelings to escalate into violence. Allow your child to express his or her feelings, but encourage him or her to express them with words. Anger is a feeling, not an action!  Restate angry outbursts by describing their feelings: It sounds like you are really mad. What can I do to help?

Disorientation and disorganization in the step family

Children often experience extreme sadness and even depression during this difficult stage of feeling lost. Intensified feelings of guilt or anger resurface as the reality and permanency of their loss hits hard. Feelings of hopelessness can result in loss of appetite, sleeplessness, and lack of enthusiasm for things that used to bring pleasure. Continue to be available to talk, and make sure your child is getting enough sleep and nutrition. Encourage outside interests and activities you can do together.

Reorganization and resolution

Finally, your child begins to accept the loss, integrate it into his or her life, and be ready to move on. You will notice that your child seems less sad, and may also notice that he or she has more energy and is thinking clearly again. Remember, though, that feelings of grief can recur from time to time, and remain alert to changes in your child’s mental state or behavior. As always, encourage him or her to share feelings with you, and practice the art of active listening.

If your blended family kids are still grieving their losses, it is not too late to help them cope. With time, space, love, and understanding, your blended family can heal together, and thereby learn to trust and enjoy family life once more. For more help, consult the many resources of The Blended and Step Family Resource Center.