Thursday, September 24, 2009

Parents, Step Parents and Children's Needs

Children need two parents in their lives, whether they are married to one another or not. They also need stability and routine to help them feel grounded, keep their world orderly and allow them to feel safe. There is much psychological evidence to support those facts. Some parents may forget at times that our children are developing and have different needs than we do as adults.

Step parents often have a difficult time adjusting to the fact that their role is limited. They may want to impress their new partner with their ability to handle the kids, or make a new home, or make their new partner feel like they are a family. None of this is relevant because none of it is actually about what is best for the kids.

Step parents do have a role, which is best described as making a safe place for kids to live or visit (whichever is appropriate), and being a support to the rules set down by the biological parents. If the step parent and the biological parents can work out at way to effectively cooperate this is actually the best situation for the kids. In that case there is little friction and the kids needs are put first. Many times, however, this does not happen and parents must choose how to manage their personal lives and their children's lives effectively.

Children's lives need routine, stability, safety and certainty. They need to know that both Mom and Dad still love them and will make time with them a priority. They need to see their biological parent alone some of the time to feel valued and important. Parents also need time to be adults and bond with their new partner. It may not be appropriate for parents to share time with their new partner when the kids are present soon after a split.

Studies have shown that kids should be given time to grieve the loss of the family unit without being expected to form any new bonds. This can take time - each child is different, but up to two years or more can be needed for some children. Even then, the introduction of a new partner for a parent is wrenching for a child because it underlines the fact that Mom and Dad aren't getting back together - the dream for which the child secretly hopes.

Parents are not expected to put their adult lives on hold for their children indefinitely, however, it is reasonable for parents to keep their adult lives separate from the lives they lead with their children for as long as possible to give their children a chance to heal. Remember, children have no say in divorce, they cannot get what they really want... Mom and Dad back together again in a happy family. Since they can't get what they want, is it really so hard for us adults to give them the time to heal from their grief by giving them what they need? Security, safety, stability, boundaries, love, attention and the feeling of being valued as a person.

Children will make relationships with their step parents in their own time and in their own way. They only have one set of biological parents in their lives, but they have the opportunity to be loved by many more people as time passes. No one will ever be Mom or Dad but Mom and Dad in a child's heart... period. But that doesn't mean that step parents can't be loved and valued for their ability to be a trusted friend or companion.

Making roles an issue over which to fight is a waste of time. No one will take the place of Mom or Dad in any child's heart. How many times have counselors watched an adult in their 60's sob as they talk about the love the wished they could have received from a deceased parent...

Let us have faith in ourselves and our relationship with our children. They need us and want us in their lives. They love us with all their hearts. Let us be there for them. Let us give them the love we were denied as a child. Let us give them what we were never able to receive. Let us be the one to break the chain of pain.

We are all well loved. Let's share that gift with our kids.

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