No matter the age of your children, if they are from a broken home or if they experienced the death of a parent, loss, and grief are to be expected. If or when their parent enters a new relationship those same children may feel an exuberant relief or frustration. Will this new person in the family (the stepparent) be welcomed or treated as an intruder?
Confusion and misunderstandings are the most common themes each child will need to square off with regardless of their age. A question they may ask themselves is, “Where do I fit in my bio-parents life, now that they have a new love?” “Will I be accepted by this new stepparent or ignored?” “Can I trust this new person who is taking the role of becoming my step-parent?”
When it comes to the age of the child their ability to express themselves can vary greatly. For instance, a young child may have no social filter. They may say how they feel out of total innocence or complete anger. They may feel scared or rejected. (You are not my mom/dad). A teenager will blurt out approval or disapproval just because teenagers say what they feel; their feelings are always at the front of their minds. Adult children can show acceptance on the outside but be cold and indifferent, feeling that nobody can replace the former parent.
All these examples are kind of on the “downer” side. Until grief and loss are allowed to have their proper place and time, bringing in a new “replacement” may not have allowed hearts and minds to heal. This matter of adjusting is no respecter of age. Keep in mind, just because you are an adult doesn’t mean you can process faster than someone younger. Honestly, it could take adult children longer to process this new family, due to the history they had with their family of origin memories. No matter how mixed up a person’s family, there are fond memories and ideals that most people need time to let go of, both good and bad.
So, if you have not had a conversation with your children about grief and grieving, it’s never too late. How do you start this kind of conversation? It will really help set the tone if you share how you may feel, and model some vulnerability. Here are a couple of suggestions, but obviously, you need to be able to speak from your story and how you are feeling.
“What memories do you have of our first family? In what ways, do you miss that family? I agree I feel sad sometimes that, that family is not together anymore. We had a lot of special times. It’s ok to feel that way and it’s good to be able to talk about it.
“How are you doing with this whole stepfamily thing? As happy as I am I sometimes remember the good times and miss our first family. How do you feel about that?”
These may be ongoing conversations or just a one-time interaction. The goal is for our kids to realize that we are slowing down enough to hear their hearts. When the process of restorative adjustment is complete, a new family system can emerge. Hope, acceptance and deep levels of forgiveness will make room for love and peace.
If your new family was born out of death or divorce and it’s not going so well, don’t be afraid to double back and allow room for addressing the grieving process. Unfortunately, grieving is not just a one-time thing. For us, with every grandbaby that is born, every wedding of our kids we attend (we’ve had 6 so far,) and other family events, it’s a reminder of the past. Yes, there is joy in these celebrations, but it’s ok to have a moment of reflection of the past. Acknowledge it, but don’t let it ruin your present. As we say, “always forward!”
If that heartache is ignored I can tell you with a pretty high level of certainty the problems you can’t seem to master or your children struggle with, could be found in unresolved grief.
Gil is almost finished with his Masters in Counseling. He currently meets with his clients in person, via the phone or SKYPE. Contact him today if reading this blog has brought up any questions. www.restoredandremarried.com.