Marriage and Family Therapist
Remarriage after the loss of a spouse requires special care when either or both of you have children. Forming a healthy stepfamily is even more challenging than raising your original family was. Stepchildren are not bonded to you from the beginning as your biological children were. Therefore, a new relationship needs to be formed between stepparent and stepchild. It is unrealistic to expect to just walk in the door and say that you are the children’s new mother or father. You are not. You are the person who married their parent. No matter the age of the child, they know the difference. Young children may adapt more quickly, but older ones may be skeptical about your role in the family, even hostile.
There are some strategies that can help to make this relationship very special for everyone concerned. Start by being an adult friend to your stepchild. Spend time with them, listen to them, get to know them. Over time, they may develop trust in and respect for you. Be careful not to attempt to discipline them in the beginning; leave that to the biological parent. Children of any age will not accept discipline or redirection from someone they don’t trust and respect. Just because you are another adult in the household doesn't mean that they must respect and trust you right away. Respect is earned, and trust takes time. Try to be patient with this process as it unfolds.
Another challenge may be a difference in parenting styles between you and your spouse. It is very important to discuss this together early in your relationship, maybe even before you are married. Try to understand the history of deceased parent’s style. If your beliefs about parenting are radically different from those of your spouse, it will probably make for a highly conflicted household. You must discuss your beliefs about raising children with your spouse, and if you disagree on some points, decide on a compromise. Never argue in front of the children, especially if the argument is about them.
The biological parent has primary responsibility for making decisions about their own child. Begin to delegate authority when the relationship between the stepparent and the children is strong enough to do so. When your children perceive harmony between the two of you, they are more likely to cooperate with the stepparent.
If the children are older, obviously they understand more about death They need to grieve in their own way. They have their own issues and feelings about the change in the family constellation. They may resent a stepparent’s presence, and think you are trying to replace the absent parent. The children may also feel guilty about liking or loving you, as they see it as disloyal to the absent parent. It is of the utmost importance that you respect their feelings, while demonstrating to them with your words and actions that you are not trying to hurt them, that you do recognize the importance of their absent parent, and that you are available to them if they need you. Show them with your actions that you are simply another adult to love and guide them.
If things don’t go smoothly right away, don’t get discouraged. Keep in mind that stepparenting is harder than parenting. Give your relationships with the children time to grow. But if things don’t progress in a positive direction, don’t hesitate to contact a qualified family therapist who can help guide your family through the transition.