Separation, Divorce, and Blended Families
There is as much conflicting evidence about the effects of separation and divorce on children as there are studies. There are books that say children of divorce or separated parents will suffer more from depression and anxiety, have lower self-esteem, and tend to tolerate or exhibit more abuse and neglect in their own relationships. There are also books that tell you if you stay together in a high-conflict marriage that will cause exactly the same issues. Some researchers have said that low-conflict marriages where the parents just do not love each other anymore, and divorce anyway, cause the most anxiety and depression for a child. Other studies show that five- and six-year-olds from low-conflict marriages perceive their parents' marriage as high-conflict anyway! Research on blended families has also come in with lots of conflicting evidence.
Some studies caution parents not to remarry until the children are gone from the house because it creates too much anxiety and stress on the children, and other researchers believe a family can be blended, but that it takes approximately three to five years to mold into a cohesive family unit, and not uncommonly up to seven years.
Researchers have found that adolescents find it the most difficult to adjust to the blended family arrangement. Although young children want to engage with a stepparent, if that parent is seen as warm, engaging, and available, they still have considerable anxiety over how to be loyal to their own parent. Adolescents, because of their age, developing sexuality, and establishing autonomy, can find the presence of a stranger in the house anxiety-provoking and disruptive.
These studies have suggested that because of this anxiety, about one-third of adolescent boys and one-fourth of adolescent girls choose to disengage from their stepfamilies and spend their time with friends, outside of the house, instead.
Your Child's Age Makes a Difference
If your child is in preschool, research confirms he will miss the parent who has moved out of the home and have a greater need for safety and security. He might, because of his anxiety and fears, regress in his most recent developmental accomplishment. He might have difficulty sleeping, be fearful, irritable, aggressive, demanding, or depressed and withdrawn. It is suggested that children ages five to eight can be more self-blaming and verbal about their sadness, be scared you will find another family to love, have difficulty understanding what “permanent” means, may be forgetful, and seem to lose time, or seem to be in a dream state. Children ages nine through adolescence tend to be more vocal, angry, resentful, blaming, and often act out in a more hostile way.
Over six million children are living in divorced families, with 50 percent of all first marriages ending in divorce, and 60 percent of all second marriages ending in divorce. Some studies have found the divorce rate for third marriages is 70 percent.
If your child has several of the following symptoms persistently over time, either because you have divorced, separated, or blended your family with another, it is important to look into therapy:
Does not want to go out and play or call friends
Has become negative, fearful, anxious, or clingy
Is unwilling to go to bed, has difficulty falling asleep, is waking up in the middle of the night, has nightmares, reoccurring bedwetting, refusal to wake up or go to school
Is angry, fighting with friends or siblings, or yelling at you with greater frequency
Experiments with tobacco, medications, household substances, drugs, or alcohol
Inflicts physical pain, or takes excessive physical risks that could or have resulted in injury to herself
Talks of suicide, or hating her life
Although children, tweens, and teens can be dramatic as a way to get you to hear them, if your child's behavior seems overly exaggerated following a change in the family dynamic, you should give it further consideration.
Parenting Tips While Divorced or Blending
To lessen the anxiety your child will feel during separation and divorce, here are some key points to remember: First, let your child be a child. The best you can do for him right now is to keep him out of your business, keep what happens between you and your partner private, and do not put him in a position of parenting, or emotionally caretaking you. Some kids may attempt to do this even when you try to prevent it. They are merely trying to have some sense of control over their situation. Give them some other way of having control, like choosing when they do their homework — either after school, or after dinner. Maybe you can let them choose how many books they want you to read them before bed, or allow them to decide which chores they feel they would be best at, instead of telling them which ones they will do.
To lessen a child's anxiety, no matter what their age, it is very important during a time of change to keep your promises, be consistent, and have a routine. While blending families together the most important piece revolves around communication. That means you communicate to your children and allow them to communicate to you. Having a family meeting once a week is an excellent start.
Keep in mind that the new stepparents, and possibly stepsiblings, are your choice, not necessarily your child's. It is important to have compassion for how this might feel for them and realize it can take years to work out. That does not mean your kids are being difficult, or that something is wrong with your family. Lastly, to reduce both anxiety and conflict, it is best to let the biological parent remain primarily responsible for control and discipline of their own children until the children feel they have developed a strong bond with the stepparent. This often means after a few years, not after weeks or months. This rule is especially important for adolescents, who may already be struggling with authority and independence issues.
Families come in all different shapes and sizes. According to the Census Bureau, over 1,300 stepfamilies are formed daily, and 6.4 million children live with one birth parent, and one stepparent.
So, the bottom line is this: As a parent, your child will look to you as a gauge for how he forms his perceptions about acting and being in his own life. If you are anxious, stressed, or depressed, your child will mostly likely be as well. When adjustments are going to occur for your child that are out of his control, help him feel he is being taken into account by communicating with compassion and by being your best self. This will allow him to feel safe as he is struggling to navigate through the change. Being your best self means taking an inventory of your ability to cope with stress, your emotional life, and your marriage. Looking for ways to find balance in these areas benefits both you and your child.