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What Your Child is Experiencing When You Remarry

"I'm getting remarried. I think my children are as excited about it as I am."

Maybe so. For a child, remarriage may have many positive aspects, although she may be looking forward to very different things from what her parent is. However, there are also some difficulties that can arise as members of two families begin living under the same roof. Here are some of the most common concerns for school-age youngsters:

Dealing with Loss

As their parents date, develop serious relationships, and eventually decide to remarry, children may be reminded of their original family and of the life they once had with their mother and father. Now, however, with the prospect of this new marriage, they must confront the reality that their parents really are never going to reconcile and that they will never again have their original family back. This can be a source of great sadness.

There are other losses to deal with as well. Children who have built a par­ticularly close relationship with their own mother or father during a period of single parenthood must now learn to share that parent not only with a new spouse but perhaps with stepsiblings whom the youngster barely knows.

As the middle-years child experiences this kind of loss and pain, she may show signs of increased attachment to the parent who is getting married. For instance, she might not want to leave the parent's side in certain social situa­tions; or she might express jealousy when her parent shows attention to the new spouse and his or her children. She might even verbalize some of her hurt and anger ("I don't think he's the right guy for you, Mom").

Some children wonder to themselves: "Where do I belong?" As they see their parent starting a new family, for example, they may feel more like an outsider than part of the new family structure.

With time, however, most children adjust to their new family circumstances. As they get to know their stepparent and stepsiblings better, their level of ac­ceptance will grow too.

Divided Loyalties

Many children feel that if they like and show affection toward their new step­parent, they will be demonstrating disloyalty or a lack of devotion to the nat­ural parent whom this new stepparent, to some extent, is replacing in their home. They may worry that if their mother or father remarries, thus bringing a new father/mother figure into the household, they will lose the love and at­tention of their other parent.

Your child may still feel awkward for a while, having to get used to two fa­thers or two mothers. Particularly in the beginning, allow her to view your new spouse in the most comfortable way for her—perhaps as a second father but sometimes just as Mommy's husband. You need to reassure her about these concerns, saying something like "Your stepfather is different from your daddy, and no one will ever replace your own daddy."

Along the way, you can expect your child to make some comparisons be­tween her real parent and stepparent, in both positive and negative ways. She might blurt out statements like "You're not as nice as my daddy." Comparisons are normal during this adjustment period. Eventually, your child will stop mak­ing them.

If possible, father and stepfather, or mother and stepmother, should make contact with each other to begin working toward talking comfortably about your youngster. This can begin with a phone call just to say hello and to share observations of the child. Both parties might decide to have lunch or some other informal meeting. Although these two adults may run into each other at special events, such as birthdays and graduations, these occasions may not be opportune times to do much talking.

The more comfortable these two individuals become with each other, the more reassured the youngster will feel that she does not have to choose be­tween the love of her parent and the developing relationship with her step­parent. It will show the child that the adults are pulling together on her behalf, and that they all care and have her interests at heart.

Do not expect your child to solve her loyalty conflicts if you have not re­solved your own differences with your ex-spouse. For example, when remar­riages occur, the issue of child custody often resurfaces; if a noncustodial father marries a woman with children, he may return to court, requesting that his own youngster now live with him ("I have a wife at home now and I can take care of my child"). In the midst of an ongoing custody battle, the child will find it much harder to deal with her own loyalty conflicts.

Difficulty with New Rules

As children move from a household with a single parent into one that is occu­pied by a stepparent and perhaps stepsiblings, they will probably be con­fronted with changes in the way their family operates. Routines will be altered and new chores may be imposed. With more people in the home, privacy is­sues may become more important. It may be harder for children to carve out a personal space they can call their own.

In a sense, the entire household is in transition, and everyone—including the children—needs to participate in the reorganization and adapt to the way it runs. The majority of family members adapt, but it may take some time.

Unreasonable Expectations

Virtually all couples want their new marriages to be as perfect as possible. Hopefully, having learned from past experiences, they can achieve their ex­pectations. However, within stepfamilies it is unrealistic to hope that the chil­dren will immediately respect and love their new stepparents. In the real world, relationships develop more slowly. Children need time to really get to know and feel comfortable with a stepmother or stepfather.

In general, good relationships develop most quickly with younger children. Older youngsters, who are more set in their ways, may rightly feel that their established lifestyles are being disrupted by this new man or woman entering their life.

Last Updated
Caring for Your School-Age Child: Ages 5 to 12 (Copyright © 2004 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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