Surviving and Thriving As a Stepfamily
2. Challenge: Loss & Loyalty Binds
For kids, the new couple represents a loss, Papernow said. “Even under the best circumstances [of a divorce], there is still a lot of loss and grieving for all the people involved,” said Lisa Blum, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in private practice specializing in working with children, families and couples in Pasadena and West Hollywood. For some kids, this is very profound. They feel like they’ve lost a parent, their lifestyle, social position (“child of a divorced family”) or a sense of stability and security, she said. Papernow added that “research is establishing that the transition into a stepfamily is actually more challenging for children than divorce, partly because it compromises the parent-child relationship.”
“The entry of a stepparent creates both losses and a loyalty bind,” Papernow said. The new stepcouple pulls the parent’s attention away from their children. And, for many kids, connecting with their stepparents feels like betraying their other parent. This is especially common if a child has a particularly close relationship with the parent in the other household. If someone is badmouthing any of the adults in a child’s life, the bind intensifies.
Children enter a stepfamily more connected to their parents than to their stepparents. In addition, stepfamilies create losses and loyalty binds for children. This only increases the need for some children to distance their stepparent, adding yet another layer to the stepcouple’s outsider insider relationship, she said.
How to overcome it: “Parents and children need regular, reliable time alone together,” Papernow said, “not multitasking time!” This is a bond that stepparents can’t share, Roach added. Stepparent and child also need their own time to get to know each other, without the parent being present. As Papernow recalled, she and her stepdaughter would be connecting while playing cards, but as soon as her dad came home, the stepdaughter would whip away from her.
Roach suggested engaging in side-by-side activities, such as baking cookies or making lunch together, which are less intense than sitting face-to-face together. Stepparents can teach stepkids new skills. Papernow taught her stepdaughter how to sew.
She also emphasized the importance of having a “loyalty bind talk.” Let your child know that lots of kids feel confused when they have a parent and a stepparent. Be clear with your child that the stepparents don’t replace parents. For instance, if the child is younger, you can say something like this, Papernow recommended: “Your mom will always have a permanent place in your heart. All moms do; permanent like the sun and mountains, and nothing will ever change that. You have a permanent place in my heart, too. I like Susan [the stepparent], and I hope you’ll come to like her. Even if you do, she’ll have a different place in your heart.”
Stepparents also can have this talk by reiterating that they’re not trying to replace the parent. When trying to bond with stepkids, “create rituals that are new and different,” especially if the other parent passed away, Blum said.