Common Sinkholes in a Blended Family Dynamic
When we married, my husband had two children from a previous marriage, and I had two children from a previous marriage. That’s a conflict by a factor of 4, and believe me, we felt it nearly every day. However, we also had the joy of watching all them grow and become a loving family together. We had good times and bad. All the laughing and all crying happened there.
Here in California, there have been a number of droughts. Each time that happens, especially here in the Central Valley, we rely on groundwater. As the groundwater is depleted and never really replenished, there have been many places where whole towns are sinking. Sinkholes open up totally unexpectedly and swallow cars or even whole houses. That’s what can happen in blended families without warning.
Because my husband and I fell into the sinkholes along the way, we know where some of them are located and have dedicated our lives to helping other blended families avoid as many as possible. Here are a few of the common sinkholes you may want to avoid.
Quarrels happen in and around parenting issues and styles, and when the kids hear their names mentioned in a loud exchange, they can’t help but think they caused it. This is only one of the many reasons that you should keep conflict concerning the parenting issues to a minimum if at all possible. At least you should keep it out of the children’s earshot.
Also, voices raise and sound carries much better than you would think, so having an exchange, heated or not, should happen as far from the children as you can make humanly possible. My husband and I would often take walks to discuss an issue like how to deal with one or more of the children’s behavior problems, whenever the weather permitted.
But more often than not, we would have an exchange right there in front of the kids without knowing it was going to blow up into a full-fledged argument. We failed so often I don’t want to think about it. What it did to the kids was to put them on edge. They were confused and angry. They would usually take sides and have fights with the stepsiblings, and it became a “your dad, my mom” kind of thing.
Family means putting your arms around each other and being there.— Barbara Bush
The Angry Child Sabotage
In the meantime, I have seen an angry child do things that will wreck a second marriage. They can make up stories about the new stepparent and set up situations that sabotage the whole relationship if you aren’t aware of what’s happening. And the children aren’t evil or really overly mean. They just haven’t subconsciously accepted this new relationship and don’t want to see that it can be for the best.
Often I remember my oldest daughter would have a really great day with us all at some outing (herself, her sister, me and my new husband, and two step-siblings) and the next day she was an absolute terror. Moody, bitter, vindictive, spouting hateful words to everyone. Later we realized that she had had such a wonderful time that she forgot her biological father wasn’t even there, and later that night punished herself for having a good time without him. The next day she punished us as well. This is more typical than I care to say.
Find your child’s love language.
I did find Gary Chapman’s 5 Love Languages to be of great help when finding why some things made my kids (and my spouse) excited while others didn’t. Those love languages came in real handy when leaving little chocolates on pillows and sharing chores. It is well worth the time to read, believe me.
Now I feel like a roadside flagman, waving my red flag at newly remarried couples to say, “the bridge is out ahead. Go carefully.” Or more likely, “Storm’s a’coming. Take shelter.” I don’t think I would have changed my course or not married if I had known the problems ahead. If only I had had a flagman to let me know the potholes were so deep I would at least have been less surprised or at least braced when I fell into it. So for those of you, like me, who are going to make this jump or who already have, careful . . . deep potholes ahead!
Families are the compass that guide us. They are the inspiration to reach great heights, and our comfort when we occasionally falter.— Brad Henry
Birth Order Dynamic
The studies show, and I can testify, that typically it will be the oldest who has the biggest problem with the new blended family situation. Perhaps it is because he or she feels a loyalty to the absent parent; perhaps it is because they are old enough to remember the family before it broke up. Either way, the oldest will not want to accept this new family dynamic.
If they do feel good or accepting about it, they typically will feel guilty or even disloyal for feeling that way. This causes the oldest to want to act out, set up family disturbances or fights amongst the others, sometimes without even know that they are doing it. It is incredibly hard to keep things fair and balanced in the blended family situation but this dynamic will add extra stress.
How to Handle the Oldest Child
The best thing to do is to take him or her away from the rest occasionally, talk intelligently with them and assure them you understand that they miss the absent parent. Ask how they are doing with the others and with school or other stressors. Remember, a child has a hard time articulating feelings. They know they feel deeply but don’t always know why or know how to tell you about it.
I remember one summer when my oldest was told in a letter that her father was coming to see them during the summer. As I look back now, I realize she placed herself near the window in the living room all summer so that she would be the first to see him driving up the driveway. When school began in September she completely melted down, throwing things, yelling and refusing to go to school. When I got her alone she finally was able to say that school starting meant that the summer was officially over and her father had not come.
This is so difficult for children. She wasn’t mad at me or the other members of the family, but we were there and her father was not. Don’t be too surprised if you are on the receiving end of blow-ups that are not really about you.
There are so many more sinkholes I could mention but it would take volumes to list them all. The truth is that each family is different and each child will react to the blended family dynamic differently. Also, there are seasons where everything seems sunny, followed by a season of storms. Whatever your season, I wish you calm in the storm and a reminder that this too will pass. If you have any problems you’d like to discuss with me I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.