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Parents Are Forever
A separation or divorce does not end your responsibility as a parent. Parents are forever. Both parents must make every attempt to continue their vital role in their children’s lives. Children need the ongoing interest and concern of their parents. They must feel they have two parents who love them, even if those parents cannot continue their own relationship.
If you are like most people who are dealing with separation or divorce, you have feelings of isolation, despair, depression, loneliness, grief and guilt, and a decrease in self-confidence. You may worry about finances, a social life, employment, fulfillment of sexual needs and the welfare of your children. How you feel about yourself will affect how your children feel about themselves. How you cope with your separation or divorce will largely determine how your children cope.
Suggestions for Parents
Be honest and sensitive with your children when you tell them about the separation/divorce.
Unpleasant circumstances need explanations that are brief and honest. Be direct and simple when talking with your children. Present information so the children can understand it. This will vary with the circumstances, and each child’s age and comprehension. The worst course is hushing things up and making the children feel they must not talk or think about what is happening.
Assure your children they are not to blame for the separation or divorce.
Children, especially young ones, often feel they have done something wrong to cause problems in the family and between their parents. Let them know that this is not the case.
Make sure your children know they will be loved, cared for and supported by both parents.
Explain that your relationship as a couple is separate from your relationship as parents. Tell your children that your relationship as their parents can never be taken away.
Allow time for you and your children to adjust to family change.
Separation and divorce significantly affect relationships between parents and children. This can be very stressful for everyone. Each family member will cope with the changes differently, so give each person time to process and understand the situation.
Support your children’s relationship with the other parent regardless of your personal feelings; this is difficult but necessary for your children’s healthy development.
Your children need to respect and have ongoing contact with both of you. Do not force or encourage children to take sides, carry messages or report on the other parent’s personal life. Doing so encourages frustration, guilt and resentment. Your children need to feel comfortable loving both parents.
Cooperate and communicate with your former partner about the children.
Cooperative parenting reduces stress for everyone. Your children will be confident of their relationship with each of you if they see peaceful communication.
Keep a regular schedule that the children can count on.
Children need continuity. Coping with too many changes at once disturbs them. Try developing a schedule, or parenting plan, that addresses your children’s needs as soon as possible. This plan should be supported by both parents. Your children’s needs will differ depending on their ages, and their individual personalities and preferences. Your plan must allow for changes as the children mature.
Be consistent with discipline, even if you feel guilty about the separation or divorce.
Children need consistent, loving control and direction. Overly permissive or indecisive parents jeopardize their children’s development when they fail to set clear expectations for their children’s behavior, or to say “no” when necessary. Children feel more secure when limits are set and respected.
Help your children understand the financial changes that may occur.
Children should not be burdened by financial worries. Give your children a simple explanation of the financial situation and the changes to expect without blaming the other parent.
Share the best parts of your marriage with your children.
Tell them about the relationship you and your former spouse had during better times. This will help your children see what a satisfying relationship you once had.
Parenting time suggestions
Maintain contact between the children and both parents.
Regular contact decreases children’s feelings of rejection, beliefs that they caused the divorce, and fears of never seeing a parent again. This helps children deal with fantasies, which may be much better or worse than what is really happening.
Spend as much time with your children as is practical if you do not live with them.
Make your parenting plan dependable, but flexible. When plans change, as they sometimes must, inform the other parent as soon as possible and give the children a full and honest explanation.
If you are a non-custodial parent, make time for your children even if you feel hurt or like you are no longer needed.
Opportunities for personal contact with your children may be limited so make them high priorities. Ensure that visits are positive, meaningful experiences for both you and your children. Remember, your children need both parents.
Seek agreement with your former partner in matters related to your children.
This is particularly important with discipline because different rules and expectations confuse children. Every detail need not be the same, but rules and expectations should be compatible. Communicating about the children can help you maintain consistency and avoid undermining one another.
Have your children spend time in both parents’ homes.
This will ease transitions and help your children feel comfortable in each environment.
If the children live primarily with you, prepare them for their time with the other parent.
Have them ready on time, and have needed clothes or gear organized. Expect them to return at the mutually agreed time.
Make your time with your children pleasant for you, as well as for them.
Avoid attacking the other parent because your children may experience this as an attack on them. Do not question the children about the other parent’s life because this may make them feel like spies. Understand that your children love both of you and they may fear that pleasing one parent risks rejection by the other.
It is your involvement with your children, not activities or gifts, that is important.
Do not be so concerned about amusing your children that you miss out on enjoying their company or on opportunities to be a parent to them. The same is true about gifts. Children like presents, but your time and commitment will do more to convince them of your love.
Be careful about including new partners when with your children.
The time parents and children spend together should be enjoyable and positive. Having others present may dilute the parent-child experience, or even lead to friction, jealousy and conflict. This does not mean new partners can never be present, just that this should be done thoughtfully.
Give your children time to adjust at the beginnings and ends of visits.
It is normal for children to feel some distress at transitions, so allow them to adapt. Keep communication open with your children and with the other parent in order to discuss problems and agree on solutions.
You may need to adjust your parenting plan according to your children’s age, health and interests.
Children need to develop their own lives filled with school, friends and activities. Your parenting plan must be flexible enough to allow this to happen.
If you need help
Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. It takes courage to say, “I have a problem I need help with.” This does not mean people cannot solve their own problems because, clearly, people must always do this for themselves. Counselors merely guide people and give direction to the search for solutions. Everyone needs help at some point. Those who reach for professional help in times of crisis are more likely to find effective and permanent solutions in a shorter time.
Persons with problems often become discouraged. They overlook strengths still present in themselves, as well as alternatives for managing problems. A counselor can help them find better understanding of their strengths and weaknesses.
Professional counseling may create an awareness that can help you deal with your and your family’s problems. Contact family service agencies, your family doctor or your clergy for help in finding a marriage and family counselor. Choose a counselor as you would a doctor or lawyer. Ask about credentials, training and experience. Do not head blindly towards the yellow pages. Such listings often include persons with little training or experience.
Developed by the staff of the Los Angeles County Conciliation Courts (1987). Revised 2003. Taken from the Association of Conciliation Courts website afccnet.org
A Guide for Stepparents
Parenting is difficult these days. Helping raise someone else’s child is even harder. Schools typically consider only biological parents, ignoring stepparents. You might feel all alone—although stepparent families are a rapidly growing group in our society. You may wonder:
Stepparent, Parent, Friend
Children always have two parents, even if one is deceased or the parents are separated. The influence of those parents will continue through your stepchildren’s lives, regardless of how often or rarely they see each other.
As a stepparent, you are a relative newcomer to the family, so you have to define your role. What’s more, your role, like everyone else’s, will change over time. Stepparents usually fall into one of three general types: primary parent, other parent or friend.
Primary parent stepparents usually live in the same household as the children. They operate much like biological parents with many of the same responsibilities and benefits. The children may call them “mom” or “dad” and accept their role. These relationships most often exist when the counterpart biological parent has little or no contact with the children. They generally develop over time and are more common when the children meet the stepparent at a young age.
Other parent is the role most stepparents play. Their job may be the most difficult because the children continue active relationships with both biological parents. Other parents often have regular parental duties, but lack authority or the children’s acceptance of their role. Other parent stepparents need to maintain clear communication with their partners and accept that it takes time to develop good relationships with the children.
Friend stepparents do not usually reside with their stepchildren. Older children are often most comfortable with this kind of relationship and may use the stepparent’s first name. While friend stepparents may have considerable influence with their stepchildren, this is due to the strength of their relationship, not because of their parental role.
Each of these roles is appropriate in certain circumstances. Only you, your partner and the children can decide which is best for your situation, and how family roles will evolve.
A New Kind of Family
You, your partner and the children will form a new kind of family: a blended family. This is difficult because there are few guidelines or rules. But it is an opportunity, too. The lack of rules means you can build your new family to best meet everyone’s expectations and needs.
Guidelines for Stepparents
Don’t expect too much too soon. Love and relationships develop over time, especially between stepparents and stepchildren. Old relationships and conflicting feelings can slow the progress, so be patient and remember you have many years to develop your relationships with the children.
Maintain a healthy relationship with your partner. This is critical to a satisfactory family life. This does not mean you and your partner will never disagree, especially about the children, but you need to resolve issues to keep your relationship alive and growing. You also need to make time to enjoy one another and balance the sacrifices each of you must make to provide for your family.
Avoid competing with your partner’s ex. It is easy to fall into the trap of competing with the children’s biological parent. However, you are different people with different talents, values, and personalities. This doesn’t mean one of you is better, just that you are different.
Respect the differences between your histories and households. A stepparent joins a family with established traditions affecting everything from how people show affection to who gets the shower first. As the newcomer, you’ll probably have to do most of the adjusting at first. That doesn’t mean you aren’t valued, just that habits are hard to break and it’s usually easier for one person to adjust than a whole group.
Your new family will also share a history of common memories that do not include you. Remember that you and the family are now creating new memories of which you are a part.
More memories and traditions are created if the children spend time with their other biological parent. This can cause tension if there are differences in discipline, values or religion. The children may be confused or even reject your standards and beliefs. It is best to compromise but acceptance works when that is not possible. The children need to understand that both sets of standards might be different, but they must respect both.
Discipline carefully. Discipline causes the most problems for stepparents, as it does for biological parents. Responsibility for discipline should rest with the biological parent, especially early in the relationship. A stepparent can play a greater role as time goes by and relationships with the stepchildren grow. Discipline requires close communication between the biological parent and the stepparent, and mutual support when one must discipline. Your partner must make certain the children understand that you are in charge when s/he is not available.
Be aware of potential money problems. Other than discipline, money causes most problems for stepfamilies. Step+-families often experience financial stress. Add the guilt, resentment and hurt people can feel about how money is spent and it is not surprising that conflicts develop over money. Clear communication between you and your partner, and sometimes the children, is the best way to prevent money-related problems. A written budget can be helpful so everyone knows where the money is going.
Be sensitive on sexual matters. The absence of a biological relationship between you and the stepchildren, and between stepsiblings, can bring heightened sexual tension to normal activities. This tension should not be ignored, and the fact that you are now all a family should be emphasized. Your physical relationship with your partner may be more visible than was your partner’s former relationship and that may distress the children. Recognize these differences and be prepared to provide greater discretion than you might prefer, particularly in the early stages of your relationship.
Expect stepchildren to be angry. Children are hurt and frustrated when their parents end their relationship. This may be expressed as anger, which is easily focused on a stepparent. The children may believe a stepparent is responsible for the parental break-up or that the stepparent is preventing reconciliation.
Children are often very angry if they believe a stepparent does not like or approve of a biological parent. They may also feel disloyal if they accept or like a stepparent, and may therefore act angry or cold with that stepparent.
Understand what causes your stepchildren’s anger and recognize that it is healthier for these feelings to be expressed than to be bottled up inside.
Yours, mine and ours. Things will be even more complicated if you and your new partner each bring children into your relationship. Birth orders change as do the roles of each child in the new family situation. Some parents try to cope with this by treating every child equally but this isn’t really possible. Attitudes and expectations on everyone’s part will still lead to hurt feelings, resentment and feelings of inequality. It may be better to strive for understanding and openness in discussing feelings and resolving conflict.
Adopting your stepchildren. This should be approached only when your new relationship is well established and stable. Talk with the other biological parent early in the process if that person is available. It may be best to drop the matter if he or she opposes it or if the children are strongly opposed. Children may feel intense, loyalty conflicts or fear it is an attempt to eliminate their biological parent. Be sure to use an experienced adoption attorney to handle the complex legal requirements if you do proceed.
If you separate from your new partner. Stepparents and stepchildren often develop very close and meaningful relationships so it is understandably painful when they are disrupted by further family problems. Many states have laws that permit stepparent visitation under certain circumstances, but first try talking with the children’s parent about maintaining contact.
Developed by AFCC members Emily Brown, Hon. Michael Dugan, Paul Hopkins,