Divorce is hard on children; few dispute this. The irony is that the very people who have hurt our children are the ones who can and must help them heal-that would be you and me. We hold the key to our children’s pain, but also to their healing. The problem is that we too grew up in homes that were non-nurturing and perhaps even outright dysfunctional. Consequently, much of our relationship behavior has been impacted by our own past. Poor relationship choices and divorce are symptoms of this past.
Divorce is hard on children; few dispute this.
Individuals growing up in dysfunctional homes adapt self-protective strategies to survive. Over time, a child’s view of the world and his or her definition of “normal” forms around the false perceptions that develop because of this self-protective “survival” mode. Most parents who divorce and remarry are emotionally wounded and still see life through the filter of their self-protective self. OK, here’s the punch line: until we acknowledge and work through this, we will unconsciously encourage the same self-protective mechanism in our children. The unfortunate truth is that most of us never come to identify, understand or accept our woundedness. We cannot effectively nurture ourselves and therefore we cannot give this gift to our children. Affairs or changing partners will never accomplish this-only personal growth.
Let me suggest ten growth areas that will make a difference in the lives of our children. By role modeling healthy change and growth, we can impact our children and create healthier relationships for ourselves.
I am convinced that the greatest gift we can give our children is to become healthy ourselves. Let’s get started. Jeff Parziale Ph.D., M.Div. is the Director of InStep Ministries.
Stepfamilies are somewhat of an enigma in our culture. Divorce rates are higher in stepfamilies than in nuclear families, yet census data suggests that soon stepfamilies will outnumber all other family forms. Divorce rates overall are stable, hovering around 45-50%, yet marriage rates are actually dropping. Some suggest that we are losing faith in marriage—I hope not. Marriage is a great institution; not perfect, but a wonderful place to grow and share life. When marriages don’t succeed, however, most people (75-80%) remarry. The time between a death or divorce and a remarriage is also shortening; currently less than two years (less for men). Most remarriages involve children (75% or more); which means a new stepfamily is being formed.
Most stepfamilies never become as cohesive as nuclear families. Some family members never seem to “buy-in” to the new family, preferring instead to remain aloof and disconnected.
Okay, had enough dry statistics? My point is that there are a lot of stepfamilies and many of these struggle to survive. So the question is, how do we create stepfamilies that will last? How does a stepfamily become a family? A place of safety where family members feel respected, accepted and valued; a place where needs are met and members are committed to one another and to the family. Sounds impossible? You may be right. Most stepfamilies never become as cohesive as nuclear families. Some family members never seem to “buy-in” to the new family, preferring instead to remain aloof and disconnected. The high divorce rate for stepfamily marriages (55-70%) certainly provides ominous proof that many stepfamilies do not survive. In Becoming a Stepfamily, stepfamily expert Patricia Papernow says that it takes four to seven years for a stepfamily to begin to look, feel and act like a family. In fact, the first year of two of stepfamily life can be so turbulent that many families never see year four, let alone year seven. Yet more and more stepfamilies are springing up. I imagine a time will come in the near future when stepfamilies will outnumber other family forms. People continue to remarry, with all the hopes and dreams of creating family—again. If stepfamilies are to survive; specifically, if your stepfamily is to survive, what steps can you take? How can you help create a sense of family in your stepfamily? Let’s begin answering that question by examining the dynamics of a typical stepfamily.
Most stepfamilies begin as a fractured group of wounded people. In fact, a defining characteristic of all stepfamilies is that they are born of loss. Changes are happening that make everyone uncomfortable. There is a conspicuous lack of trust. Motives are suspect. Family members are disconnected; sometimes feeling like strangers. Interactions are either superficial or hostile. Members wonder, “Is this a safe place?” “Will my needs be met?” “Will I be able to interact freely with my mom/dad?” “Will I be treated differently?” To answer these and other questions, the stepfamily must develop an atmosphere of safety, where individuals can ask questions, confront issues and learn to trust one another and where both family and personal growth is promoted. Sure, each family member brings strengths and many bring a determination to succeed; but few have an awareness of just how wounded they are or how far away from “family” their new stepfamily really is and even fewer have a plan to take their new family to a place of cohesion, safety and acceptance. Adult couples bring a dream of doing “family” again—and doing it right this time. However, more often than not, their children do not share this dream. Most children are still adjusting to earlier changes and grieving earlier losses; many hope their biological parents will re-unite. Adults rarely think through how to include their children in this dream. They assume the children will “come along for the ride” with no need to prepare them or sell them on the benefits of this new venture. The idea that a new stepfamily will function (at least in the first few years) like a cohesive team or family is not a dream, it’s a delusional fantasy-and a dangerous one at that. False assumptions, unrealistic expectations, and unresolved issues are the trademarks of new stepfamilies. To survive and thrive, the family must develop a strategy, a developmental plan, for moving the assembled members from being a disconnected group to becoming a healthy, fully-functioning stepfamily.
To become a cohesive group, six inter-related issues must be addressed and resolved. I will outline them below and examine them in more detail in the next few issues.
Next time, we will examine these building blocks in greater detail. Jeff is the Director of InStep ministries in Tucson, Arizona.
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“Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you.” – Robert Fulghum
We tend to worry so much about what children see and experience when they are watching television or surfing the internet. But children have another view of the world. It’s the things they see and hear everyday in and around their family. We can turn the television off or limit internet use, but we can easily forget that they are more impacted by what they observe and experience in their own families. Whatever your family form-single parent, stepfamily, nuclear family or grandparent raising your grandchildren, children are observing how you respond to them, how you live, what you do in a crisis and yes, how you love. It’s the view from the back seat. Not what we hope to or want to present, but what our children see when we aren’t looking. It is the age old adage, not what is said but what is done.
Take a moment and remember your own childhood. What was your view from the back seat? How did it shape you as a parent? Do you remember your parents holding hands or being affectionate? Did your mom sit close to your Dad in the front seat of the car? Did they talk or sing or laugh? Perhaps you also have some not so great memories. Many of you remember fights or arguments between your parents. Some memories are downright scary, like parents talking about divorce, or one parent leaving the house. It is not usual for us to think, “When I grow up, I want to be just like…” or “When I grow up I will never …”
Children learn about life, love and relationships by watching their parents. They tend to see their parents as one unit, working together to take care of them. The challenge of parenting is to blend differing world views and values so that the needs of the parents and children are met. Sometimes bringing two worlds together causes conflict. Even then, the best interests of our children must be Healthy parents don’t ask their children to keep secrets, or choose favorites. The task of making life work belongs to us, not to our children.
So what do your children see when you are not looking? What are they learning about life and love? Here are a few ideas that might help. Learn how to do conflict well. If at all possible, don’t fight in front of your kids. Children should never see their parents hurt one another. If you are a single parent, be prudent about dating. Don’t introduce your children to every person you date.
“See, what you are doing right now is flipping through the channels. You are going from one image to another searching for what you remember about them.”
“I hate reality television shows, but in a way it’s exactly what we create everyday for our children. We act out these images we want them to see, but it’s when you think they aren’t looking…now that’s reality!”
The love they see
You can’t pretend to love.
You can’t even fake a smile.
The things you think they don’t notice, they have been watching all
Be aware that they are seeing
everything you do.
If you want your children to know love
Then it’s really all up to you.
For love isn’t just at play time
love isn’t a TV show
If you love them unconditionally
Then love will be what they know.
It’s not what you want them to remember
it’s what they will choose to see.
If you loved one another always
Then loving is what they will be.
A view from the back seat
KIDS’ VIEW: FROM THE BACK
More: Marriage Quotes