When a remarriage occurs with children, it is a safe assumption that there will be some level of difficulty with their adjustment. The intensity of this adjustment period can vary greatly based on the child’s personality, divorce/custody circumstances and also the child’s age.
Here are a few things to consider about their age when you remarry with children:
Preschoolers (Ages 2-5)
Changes at this young age can be simpler for many families due to the fact that they may not remember the previous family structure and they may be more open to new people entering their life. It’s important to understand that the changes for kids this age may cause confusion. Lifelong changes such as divorce and remarriage be difficult to grasp since most young children have a hard time understanding permanent change. They may struggle with the idea that their parents will not be getting back together and they may internalize guilt, such as believing that their parent left because they did something ‘bad’.
Keeping an eye on their behavior and maintaining a sensitivity to their thoughts and feelings will help them to adjust to the new household. You may find yourself repeating the same reassurances many times with preschoolers who have fears of abandonment or guilt. Children at this age can also benefit from giving verbal assurance that they are allowed to love their step-parent and step-siblings.
Elementary School (Ages 6-10)
Just like with preschoolers, many elementary school children will carry thoughts and feelings of guilt over the divorce or creating relationships with their new step-relatives. Repeated verbal reassurance is key to helping them work through these emotions. Behavior changes may be seen such as poor grades or arguments with friends. These changes can signal emotions that they are trying to work through such as sadness over the divorce, coming to terms with the new family structure or guilt. Giving these children choices during a time when they may feel powerless can help them in their adjustment. Age appropriate choices such as hairstyle, clothes or room décor can give them areas of freedom to express themselves.
It’s important to maintain boundaries and rules during these choices – such as following school dress codes and maintaining healthy parent / child boundaries. It’s also important to remember that even if children do not verbally acknowledge the grieving process, they may be dealing with the lost illusion that their parents will someday reunite or from other areas of loss such as a reduced amount of attention from the parent. To help your children cope with these wide range of emotions it’s important to keep lines of communication open and to be understanding of their sense of loss.
Preteens (Ages 11-12)
This is the time period that generally has the highest potential for conflict in step-families. Research has shown that the hardest time period for children to adjust to remarriage is between the ages of 10-14. This is due to all of the changes a child is already working through emotionally and physically. Major adjustments to their home life can cause them to feel that they do not have a safe and consistent place to turn.
Children in the preteen years are starting to pull away in order to gain independence and to identify themselves in a new light. Preteen resentment towards authority figures is a normal occurrence in families, but this resentment can be intensified in stepfamilies. The stepparent will be the easiest target for this resentment because the child is less likely to fear rejection from them and there usually isn’t an underlining layer of unconditional love or a long relationship to lean on.
While children in this age group do need freedom to begin exploring their independence, they also need assurance of support and understanding. Forcing kids this age into situations they are uncomfortable with can cause push back so it is recommended to give them freedom of choice in safe areas. As a stepparent it can initially feel that you should back away at this time to get out of the line of fire, but Psychologist Carl Pickhardt advises the opposite reaction. He suggests that the stepparent/stepchild relationship needs more contact and time alone to grow and enforce the existing relationship. Additional time to communicate and to create positive memories can help to reduce overall conflict.
Teens (Ages 13-18)
With teens starting to understand and becoming more aware of their own sexuality and independence, seeing their parent form a romantic relationships can cause then to feel uncomfortable. Simple acts of affection may conflicts with the views they have held about their parents.
The act of bringing in a new partner and adjusting roles in the home may also result in the teenagers responsibilities or freedoms changing. New rules and adjusted boundaries can cause resentment. The level of discomfort with the roles changes will vary based on the closeness of the relationship they previously had with their parent, changes in parenting strategies and whether or not step-siblings are present. Decisions that teens may have previously been involved in now may change to include only the parent and step-parent. This can cause the child to hold anger towards their step-parent and it may cause resentment over the marriage as a whole.
Some children may choose to spend more time with the non-custodial parent during this time of transition so that they can adjust to the changes in a slower manner. Having flexibility with your teenager while they adjust to their new role and surroundings is important and can help reduce tension. Recent studies have shown that children over the age of 15 are generally not as involved with the step-family due to the lower level of active parenting they require and their likelihood of being more externally focused towards their peers. This can result in the relationship with the step-parent being more distant.
While each age has it’s own potential for conflict, understanding the unique challenges and the strengths of each age can help you to plan for the road ahead.
How Age Affects Children’s Adjustment to Stepfamilies, Ohio State University
Making Stepfamilies Work, American Psychological Association