When Life Hurts: Understanding Children and Loss
Ron L. Deal
During dinner and his first date a few years after his divorce Doug received a text message from his twelve year-old daughter, Danielle, “I know you don’t want to talk to me anymore, but I want to tell you something—have fun without me because I’m all by myself now.”
After working with stepfamilies for over 15 years there is one truth of which I am sure: adults in stepfamilies underestimate the losses of children and how those losses affect their behavior. On the surface, Danielle’s text message to her father might appear manipulative and hateful. Instead, view it as a statement of sadness. Danielle was again feeling fearful of another loss. After all, she had already experienced her mother’s infidelity, her parents ensuing divorce, and many other losses that are wrapped up in the disintegration of her family. Why wouldn’t she be hypersensitive to the possibility of another loss?
The sadness of the present was joining with the sadness of the past resulting in feelings of desperation. Restoring safety to her life was her only concern and a guilt-inducing text message was her way of trying to make that happen.
Children in stepfamilies have experienced a multitude of losses and the death of a parent or a parental divorce is just the beginning. Changes in school and church attendance, friendships, family economic status, embarrassment over the family’s problems, lost contact with extended family, and a loss of perceived control in life precede the new stepfamily which then brings more changes like having to share a bedroom with stepsiblings, learning new rules and routines in the home, and changes to the visitation schedule and access to family in the other household. Having to share a parent is one of the most challenging issues for children. Before the wedding, children of single parents have complete access to their parent; when a parent begins to date (like Doug) or decides to marry, they are essentially asking the children to share them with someone else (and sometimes with the stepparent’s children!). To a child who has already experienced great loss, this can be extremely anxiety producing. I once asked a seven year-old what it felt like when her mother married her stepfather. She said, “It’s like when a friend knocks you down on the playground and runs off without you.”
Hot and Cold
Losses impact how children accept new steprelationships. One stepfather contacted our ministry asking why his nine year-old daughter was acting “hot then cold” toward his stepmother. One minute she would love to be with her stepmother and the next, she acted as if she wanted nothing to do with her. One reason children act this way is that while new relationships bring many blessings, they also bring losses. This creates confusion in the child’s heart and it shows itself as “hot and cold” responses. Adults must learn not to take this personally and instead hear it as a statement of sadness.
Loss, Fear, and Resistance
In my book The Smart Stepfamily I show parents the relationship between loss, fear, and resistance in children. Loss brings the fear of more loss, which in turn brings resistance to new relationships (usually within the stepfamily). Let me explain. A child who says, “You’re not my dad, I don’t have to do what you say!” is in part resisting the stepparents authority, but they are also making a statement of loss and sadness. If we could listen beneath the child’s angry attitude we might hear this:
“No, I don’t want to clean my room. What right do you have to tell me to clean it? You’re not my dad. Besides, if I cooperate I have to let you have authority in my life and to be honest, I didn’t ask for that. It was thrust upon me like every other tragedy in my life. And furthermore, if I do let you in and my father finds out, he might be offended. I won’t hurt him. I love him. He’s my dad—and I wish he were here instead of you. So, no, I’m not going to cooperate.”
Resistance within children resulting from loss often shows itself as either anger, depression, isolation, a lack of cooperation, and in some extreme situations rebellion. It’s very important that biological parents not allow a child’s depression or anger, for example, paralyze them from setting proper limits or giving punishment. Even though their sadness is legitimate, a child who learns that yelling or guilt-messages keep their parent from discipline, is a child that will never stop using their sadness to control others in their life. At the same time, however, parents should not ignore a child’s sadness. Be sensitive to it and try to help the child give appropriate expressions of sadness (see sidebar). One response to “you’re not my dad” would be to say:
“You’re right. I’m not. But I am the adult here right now and you still have to clean your room. It’s your call; you can clean it yourself or we’ll pay your sister to do it for you with your allowance. By the way, I know it’s tough not having your dad here. I get that. I’m sorry. Would you like to talk about that—it won’t hurt my feelings? [If the parent is still living add] Perhaps I could take you to see him this weekend. What you like that?”
There is so much going on inside a child that parents often do not hear. Give careful consideration to the losses your child or stepchild has experienced and try to be compassionate for their hurts.
Ron L. Deal is Founder & President of Smart Stepfamilies™ and Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®. He is a bestselling author, highly sought-after speaker, and therapist specializing in marriage enrichment and blended family education. Learn more here.