As a Christian Counselor I have worked with hundreds of parents and children dealing with the stresses of step parenting and blended families. This topic could be a 3 credit graduate course, so I’m gonna pair it down and focus on how post divorce breakup baggage (from the previous marriage), the dating process, and remarriage itself can be an impediment to and interfere with step parenting and the blending of families. I’m a counselor so I’ll be speaking from a mental health perspective on best practices to successfully be a step parent in a blended family and how to emotionally take care of yourselves and your children.
I’m writing not only to practicing Christians but to all stepparents (or potential step parents) who love each other and love all the blended families children; his, her and theirs. But most importantly, to those who also value their children’s spiritual formation.
What about spiritual formation and church involvement? (This is the #1 best practice, because a counselor can provide education and teach skills but only Jesus heals). It’s possible to develop a healthy second marriage, good stepparent/step child relationships, in a wonderfully diverse and blended family, with great personal satisfaction. It is possible to have a God-honoring blended family. A good marriage within a Christian context role models exactly that which children need to witness for their own formation.
Also, in the New Testament is says, What doe’s it profit a man to gain the whole world and at the same time loose his soul. Likewise what does it prophet a step parent to have a well blended family when the children’s spiritual formation is neglected or misdirected.
How those who are contemplating remarriage, being a step parent, and blending families, navigate through the process makes an indelible mark on their children and it would be best if that indelible mark would be healthy psychological, social and spiritual formation. And there really are some bad ways, good ways and some better ways to navigate through this.
First marriages and child rearing are difficult enough as is evidenced by the high divorce rate. (Even within the Christian Community). The challenges of remarriage, step parenting, and blended families are even more complicated and difficult.
There can be a good life for you and your children in a blended family. It’s not about coping strategies, its about living in God’s strength. With courage, perseverance and God’s grace blended families can work.
It’s important to realize that step families aren’t nuclear families. Not everyone is related by blood and not everyone was around at the children’s birth, and they all were not there since childbirth. When there is no biological bond, problems increase. Combining two families, with all their backgrounds is much more difficult than managing a nuclear family.
We know that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So, it’s better to prevent problems than to do damage control after the fact.
But why are so many prospective stepparents naive about the extra complexities and challenges is a mystery. It’s so very important to fully understand the issues, with eyes wide open, to understand the steps to form a loving and respectful family. Therefore, if prospective stepparents can become fully informed about step parenting and blended families, they can avoid many of the common trouble issues. My people perish because of lack of knowledge (Old Testament). That’s taken out of context, but it seems somehow to apply.
Become fully informed and develop practical strategies. If you don’t do the prep work, you may not be able to handle the blessing God has in store for you. Practical information and strategy is important but so is emotional support.
Children usually need more time to adjust, even more than the adults. There are several reasons for this. Children have to adjust to a new residence, school, extra adults and authority figures, visitation, the loss of family traditions, two Christmases, standard of living changes. Even though the parent may have to get a job or two in order to make ends meet, the children don’t get this. They, being immature, only know they don’t have as much or can’t do as much.
There are many healthy things you can do to promote your children’s healthy adjustment to step parents and blending. Create as much structure as possible to counterbalance the divorce’s instability. Keep the children reasonably involved in extracurricular activities. Family time should not be replaced by sports or activities outside the home. Most importantly, don’t stop going to church, even though you are exhausted.
Speaking to the Step Parent - As a stepparent you may be more objective than the biological parent about the stepchild’s mental health issues. Respect the biological parent but advocate for the child. If you observe symptoms or if a teacher notices changes consult a mental health professional. When a child is seen by a counselor and if diagnosed with a serious disorder all parents and stepparents should be involved in supporting each other and the child. For the sake of the child put all differences aside. At least, keep each other informed about the child’s mood changes and abuse behaviors. You can either prevent or reduce the chances of the children suffering depression, anxiety, having an adjustment disorder, lowered school grades, becoming rebellious or defiant.
When do blended families need professional intervention? When depression or anxiety effects daily functioning it is already past time to get professional help. Don’t ignore your own or your children’s feelings. It’s very important to acknowledge them and to constructively deal with them. Regarding the children, trust your instincts, even if your EX doesn’t agree. If, for example, you see their sadness growing in either intensity or regularity, its probably prudent to have a consultation.
Remember, these are best practice guidelines. Just do your best. All one can do is their best in God’s strength, to manage their own stress and their children’s. This won’t make all problems go away but it can reduce their frequency and intensity.
God promises that he won’t give us more than we can handle, despite our subjective experience of the pressure being over the top, but He has given us resources to help. A blended family can be helped by God’s direct intervention, by self directed efforts (prayer and reading books), friends, family, a counselor, priest or faith community.
Remember - Parents can say all the rights things but they must practice what they preach as well as walk the talk. Children’s observations of parental interaction trumps any teaching.
Many stepparents try with their own strength but don’t turn it over to God’s leadership. God will provide direction and the strength to carry out the plan.
The successful step family isn’t based merely on information and skills. These are important, but union with God and how that translates into the concrete here and now can and often does make the difference.
There can be many blessings from remarriage and step family life but they aren’t usually automatically accomplished, spontaneous or quick. They require hard work, consistency, perseverance, flexibility, etc.
Although your hard work is necessary, working smarter is also necessary.
As a blended family you have a choice. Either be stressed and overwhelmed diminishing quality time with your children. Expend your limited resources of energy focusing on problems. Create additional problems due to burnout. Hang onto your anger. Allow your feelings to destroy you. Let your children see you fall apart. Or, successfully adjust and be healed, and role model, to your children, emotional stability.
The problems of remarriage and step families can help people to increase their dependence on God. Blending families can be an opportunity to be purified by the trial. (Offer it up) AMEN.