Divorce and Step-Families Issues

See the link at the bottom to hear Dr. Post discussing issues relating to Divorce and Step-Families

Q. How will therapy help families going through divorce?

A. Divorce is very challenging for any family. Parents are going through their own experiences of loss that can be quite different for the person who is leaving and the person who is being left. Children's sense of stability and feeling of safety in the world can feel threatened as the result of divorce. Children have to develop new relationships with both their parents on new terms. Children experience divorce as a big loss. They also may sense the fragility and distractedness in one or both of their parents, which is a second loss. They may feel quite alone in their process of coping with all the changes that ensue.

Parents may take on new roles, find themselves in different financial situations, or find themselves working outside the home when they have not in the past. These changes can be quite challenging and stressful for them and for their children. Participating in some combination of individual and family therapy can offer family members a place to understand their feelings and find ways to cope with all of the changes.

A 25-year study involving 131 children of divorce by Judith Wallerstein, Ph.D., author of “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce,” shows that a conflicted relationship after the divorce between parents can be detrimental to children. Therapy can help divorced couples co-parent and learn how to shield their children from discord. 

Q. What are common issues faced by both parents and children in blended families and step-families?

A. Combining families can be a confusing, difficult, stressful and awkward process. First, it’s important for the family to understand what makes combining families confusing and difficult. Most people can understand that natural alliances of children to their biological parents are inevitable as step-families initially come together as a larger unit. The same goes for the relationship between siblings. In addition to having to develop new rituals and adapt to the culture of the new step-family, respecting and understanding some of the mores and traditions of the original biological subgroup can create big challenges within the new family unit. Parents may have different parenting styles and expectations for their children. One parent may be permissive and the other parent may be firm. They may have different house rules. So, when children from two separate families come together in one household, this can create opportunities for conflict and confusion. The children in the new step-family did not choose this situation that they find themselves in and may not feel particularly motivated to make the new family relationships work.

Many of the problems that arise may be a surprise and not understood until everyone is actually living together in the new situation. Some people don’t feel comfortable expressing their feelings in words, so they express their discomfort in how they act. If you're not yet scared off from joining a step- or blended-family, consider this: There is still hope for step-families, and many people who have been married do remarry. It is an important challenge to be aware of at the front end, and it’s healthiest not wait until it becomes a problem. Step-families who start their new family relationship aware of the challenges and prepared to work with a therapist to prevent problems before they snowball, have a greater likelihood of a healthy step-family environment. Step-family therapy would begin with the parents meeting alone first to establish the rules and expectations within the family, followed by bringing the children in to join the parents in conversations about the wants and needs of each individual in the family unit. 

Creating a culture of openness and transparency is a critical feature of successful step- and blended-family units.

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