The Stepchild’s Point of View
My son became a stepchild at nine, after being the only child of a single mom since he could remember. When he grew up, he shared this with me: “The odd thing for a child who becomes part of a stepfamily is that their sense of the safe and familiar becomes totally disrupted almost overnight. Especially when young, the introduction of a new parental figure whois effectively an outsider (and therefore suspect) cannot be interpreted any other way than as a threat. The way of being the child once knew to be acceptable and comfortable under their previous circumstances becomes confused. It is unclear what’s allowed and what’s not, because what this new person expects is unknown. Especially when they discipline you or act in some way parental, there is great potential to feel as though you’re being judged or seized upon by a tyrant. The reason for this is that what is actually going on is unclear, so fear becomes dominant, and slowly, repression and hiding become necessary ways of coping at home. Complicating matters further, while all of this is happening your blood parent appears to be growing more distant. All that you and they shared independently of the step parent now becomes filtered and subordinated through this new confusing presence.” I was shocked by this account, because he had shown no signs of ill adjustment to the stepfamily; in fact; I thought that he became more secure and happy after my remarriage.
Recently I attended a class given by an expert in kids and divorce; she had 14 parents in the class, and asked them to bring their children on a particular night. Polling the parents, she discovered all of them felt their children were doing well or were only mildly affected by the divorce. In the other room, she asked the children to draw what they felt about divorce. At the end of the class, she shared the drawings with the parents. Again, the reaction was shock! The children showed signs of severe trauma and stress about the divorce in their drawings, and it was clear that the art therapy they had just participated in was really needed. On the outside, they seemed fine, but internally their worlds were falling apart. These drawings can be viewed on her web site, a valuable source of info about kids and divorce; go to www.divorceandkids.com and click on “kids’ drawings”.
What are the lessons to be learned from these accounts?
1. We have great powers of denial. We want to believe that things are under control; it often takes so much of our energy to deal with our lives in the new stepfamily, that it’s easier to believe things are fine than to pay enough attention to how our children are handling the changes. The changes of going from intact family to a single parent family to stepfamily are at least as huge for them as they are for us.
2. It’s important to provide a safe space where you can be with your child purely to listen (not to give advice, lectures or opinions) and let her vent her feelings. There might be a tendency to be defensive (after all, we are the one who put them into this new and unfamiliar setting, most likely with the hope that it would be better for them as well as for us). When given acceptance of their feelings, and the chance for feelings to be expressed and then naturally subside, children can make it successfully through the adjustment period.
3. Lastly, it shows the extreme need for communication within the stepfamily system. Expectations need to be expressed. Rules need to be communicated and consistently upheld. This will relieve a significant amount of stress for everyone. Getting help is important; specialists in helping families through this communication process, which can avoid untold problems and in many cases, prevent a stepfamily from breakup, can be found at www.stepfamilysolutions.com (Stepfamily Solutions is an affiliate of the Stepfamily Foundation).
Joan Sarin, MS is a Master Coach trained by the Stepfamily Foundation, who has personally done the hard work of developing a successful… (Bio)