Divorce – it’s a word that makes me cringe every time I hear it. Mine was thirty-two years ago (not of my choosing) and was one of the most painful periods of my life. Two people brought together in love take a sacred vow to love, honor, and cherish one another for eternity. No one ever says, “Till I get tired of you” or “Until you become too much work” or “Unless I find someone better.” If that were the case, I dare to say few couples would choose to tie the knot.
Divorce impacts the entire family: parents, grandparents, siblings but most of all the children. They are the innocent victims of promises broken. Love is a commitment that takes time and effort and lots of forgiveness. Kids don’t ask to grow up in broken families where time with their parents is determined by strangers negotiating on their behalf telling them when and how often they can see each other. Children often experience a divided sense of loyalty towards their parents either due to their current living arrangements or because of spiteful, insecure, hateful parents who pit child against the one who jointly gave them life. Add to that mom’s new husband (or dad’s wife), a few uninvited step kids that they now share a room with, a new parent who they are told to love and who feels free to discipline them, and it’s no wonder kids of divorce are angry! Young lives spinning out of control can easily lead to anxiety, fear, uncertainty, and (you guessed it!) anger.
What can parents do to help their children navigate their new life circumstances?
1. Encourage open communication with your children, reminding all parties to be respectful at all times.
2. Help them identify the root cause of their anger (hurt, fear, or frustration) and assist them in healing those emotions.
3. Be solution-oriented. Ask them to think of ways to improve each situation, allowing them to contribute to making the changes.
4. Encourage all parties to be fair-minded, realistic, understanding, and patient in their expectations of one another.
5. Never force a relationship between the biological child and their new family. Do not expect them to love them or embrace them as you do. Expect respect – that’s enough for now.
6. Allow each child to maintain their own friends, personal space, interests, etc. outside of their new family.
7. Never compare new family members to original ones or vice versa.
8. Be certain to schedule enough alone time with your biological children while balancing time together as a blended family.
9. Never bad-mouth or speak unkindly about the natural parents. Support a healthy relationship with them.
10. Choose alternative and affectionate labels for your new family members. “Bonus”* children sounds so much warmer than “step” children.
Let your children know that should they choose to love their extended family, they are not being disloyal to their family of origin. The more people we have in our lives to love and who love us in return the better. Love is not measured in inches or ounces; there aren’t limited amounts to be rationed out. And there are no expiration dates.
Anger is always the result of unmet expectations. The more demands we place on our bonus families the greater the risk of disappointment. Expect less: allow the new relationships to unfold naturally. Accept more: be grateful for each small step and reward every one with recognition. Patience, respect, encouragement, and acceptance are the tools that build strong, healthy families. Be a skilled craftsman in constructing your new family unit. Build it to last a lifetime.
*Phrase coined by Tommy Maloney, author of “25 Tips for Divorced Dads”
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