Navigating Stepparenting and Divorce

  • Because of custody dynamics, many stepparents accidentally find themselves more visible in a child's life than a biological parent.
  • Due to the specificity of a given situation and dynamic, stepparents' roles in a child's life are undefined.
  • In the cases of a divorce involving a stepparent and biological parent, children can feel abandoned and at fault for the absence of the stepparent.

Blended families are a fairly common result of the divorce experience. When two parents divorce and one or both get remarried to spouses who also have children, two blended families are created, as a result. These situations can be difficult to navigate and require a period of adjustment.

Children do not always have the best track record of being flexible to the changes happening around them. They may misbehave and act out, in defiance of the changes happening around them. As a new adult in their life who has been given some semblance of authority, it can seem intimidating trying to navigate the situation without stepping on the toes of the biological parents.

Visibility of a stepparent

With the way custody and home structure is defined, a stepparent may find themselves in a more visible role in a child’s life than a biological parent, and from a proximity standpoint, that may be accurate, according to University of Virginia psychology professor Dr. Robert E. Emery. In his book, “The Truth about Children and Divorce: Dealing with the Emotions So You and Your Children Can Thrive,” he explains that stepparents were once viewed as ‘replacing’ biological parents, thus recreating a two-parent family. For the child, however, that’s very much not the case.

Emery explains that while there may be some economic truth to it, in terms of how the child is provided for, the psychological aspect remains the same for the child. Their mom is their mom, and their dad is their dad.

Undefined role

The role of a stepparent is not clearly defined and can vary depending on the needs and personalities of the individuals involved. For the stepparent in question, they need to be aware that the way the child is treating you, as a person, is not personal. Unless the stepparent has overtly done something to attack the child or make them feel a specific way to negatively influence their outlook of them, any animosity that the child expresses toward the stepparent is not a reflection of who the stepparent is, as a person.

That being said, it still can be damaging to one’s self-esteem. According to The Huffington Post, no matter how nice a stepparent is to a child, they still can be ignored. Additionally, there are many in society who would still ascribe the role of a “homewrecker” to a stepparent, no matter how much time had passed after his or her separation from their previous spouse.

This ascribed role can cause a lot of self-doubt about one’s self and one’s place in their relationship. It’s important to maintain one’s sense of self and keep their head up. Confidence in your role within the family is key, especially with children who already experienced so much upheaval. Having confidence that they will eventually open up to you is worth sticking around.

Stepparents and divorce

However, there are times when relationships do not work, and divorce may happen again, leaving the children involved dealing with the fallout of a stepparent leaving their family dynamic. Many children can feel abandoned by this new and life-changing development.

Sadly, there is no playbook for how a child or a biological parent should handle the divorce, that eliminates the stepparent from the lives of the children involved. Child psychologist Fiona Martin said that if a stepparent has been around since they were very young, a child will exhibit the same feelings as if it were their own biological parents breaking up.

The blow to this family dynamic is especially jarring if a child was cognizant of their own biological parents’ divorce or break-up. The emotional weight from that experience can surface, forcing them to relive those same feelings of pain, guilt, and confusion, according to Kidspot, a parenting organization.

Much of the confusion stems from how stepparents divorcing the biological parent often cut off all contact with the children involved. The children can find themselves feeling like they did something wrong, when the reality of the situation is that the stepparent does not have any automatic legal right to see the child in question.

That being said, many biological parents see the closeness and overall benefit of the stepparents’ role in their child’s life, and even though they are no longer together, these parents do not deny the stepparents access to their children. Many of these parents feel guilt over the amount of turmoil and upheaval they have caused their children over the course of their short lives. Other parents simply ask the children what they want.

Impact of stepparenting

According to recent research, the stepchildren might be headed for a brighter future. A survey from the Pew Research Center revealed that 60 percent of the individuals surveyed who grew up in stepfamilies said their marriages are closer than those of their biological parents. Additionally, 70 percent of the respondents with step-relatives stated that they were very satisfied with their family life.

While divorce and remarriage may create new family dynamics that children are forced to adjust to, it isn’t a death sentence for them. There is hope in the future, and despite the difficulties of getting stepchildren to welcome you into their lives, stepparents should be encouraged by their new opportunities to make an impact in the lives of others.

Even if a stepparent is no longer with the biological parent, the child is aware of the impact that someone outside of their immediate family had on their growth and development as a person. They are encouraged to pay it forward and impact the lives of others in their own family, as a result of their stepparent’s compassion and grace.

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