by Les C. Wicker
1. Be Positive about the Parent from the Former Marriage. Children are a part of and an extension of their family and parents, and as such they will rise to the defense of their parents even in cases in which there has been abuse, mistreatment, or neglect. In such cases, children may accept the fact that there has been abuse, but their parents are still their parents, and children feel the need to love and honor them and defend them, if it is perceived that parents are under attack. The parent/child bond was created early in life when parents were the significant and powerful other on which the child depended for life and security. It is a strong bond and one that outlasts and transcends opposition or compelling intrusions.
It would be unwise and even reckless for a stepparent to try to win approval at the expense of the birth parent from the former marriage. Being critical of the parent is perceived as being critical of the child himself/herself and the reaction would be what could only be expected: defensiveness, and more to overcome in terms of reaching the child.
The new parent from the blended family marriage should look for opportunities to build up the parent from the former marriage. Being positive will not only win the heart of the child, it will show him/her that there is nothing to fear from the new parent and that he/she is a team player for the welfare of the child and the entire family. This will build powerfully positive feelings within the child, in addition to building his/her self-esteem.
2. Anticipate a Wonderful Future. In concert with the child, intentional conversations should be held regarding the wonderful possibilities that lie ahead. Allow the child to see that the new family will be doing fun and exciting things together and that he/she will be a part of it all. Share with the child that plans are already in place and implement some of those plans before the marriage actually takes place. Have conversations about the new home, new school, and all the new friends that are just waiting. Help the child to see a future for himself/herself, that life will go on, and that there are wonderful possibilities looming for his/her participation. If there is to be a move, take the child to see the new home and surroundings so that all guesswork is taken away and judgments are made on sound facts. Promises should never be made that cannot and will not be fulfilled, as such would only be another disappointment and would breach the trust one is so desperately seeking to establish.
3. Give More Than Is Necessary. Blending families is an emotional experience in every sense of the word. It is a time of transition, of leaving a past and familiarity, and stepping into an unknown future. During such a time, emotions are fragile and nerves are raw. Life seems open-ended with a flavor of uncertainty. People are more vulnerable. Such conditions are not a time for restraint when it comes to giving and affirming. Parents need to understand the forces that have come to bear in their children’s lives and respond in a spirit of giving more than even seems necessary in terms of the needs of their children.
4. Find Reasons to Thank the Child. Recognition is a human need. Everyone likes to be recognized or thanked for deeds well done. In the course of a day any member of a family may do a number of things worthy of appreciation, which is nothing more than recognition. As a rule, people respond quite positively to those who have taken the time to take note of the good that has been done. A grateful attitude is therefore a winning attitude. Gratitude has the power to transcend many walls of resistance because it so succinctly zeros in to the heart and this most basic of human needs.
5. Tell Jokes, Laugh Together. Laughter has a way of breaking down walls. It can call a truce even between enemies. Children are noticeably given to laughter and are able to see humor in places often overlooked by adults. Children can laugh on a pin drop, and things that seem funny to kids seem silly or are often overlooked by adults. Each succeeding generation of kids has its own set of children’s jokes that seem awfully funny to those kids, but inscrutable in terms of humor to others. The “knock-knock” jokes seemed to have hung around for a long time, but even they seem to be passing from the scene as new children’s humor becomes the fad. But jokes don’t have to be n vogue for children to laugh. They understand humor and will laugh at most anything that is remotely funny. They will even laugh at the person trying to be funny when he comes across as not so funny. They think trying to be funny is funny. Children love to laugh and laughter can be the gateway to the heart of a child.
6. Create and Maintain Secrets. Secrets are privileged information shared by only those most trusted and those closest to us. We never share private information with those whom we perceive to be in opposition, as that would violate our sense of propriety, or with those who may us e the information against us. By telling a secret, we are taking someone into our confidence and are sending a message that we trust that person with very private information. Like the rest of us, children like to feel they are included in the inner circle when covert information is being shared and they feel honored they are trusted enough to be a confidant. Secrets can be real bridge builders in the arena of blending families.
7. Go on an Outing Together. Time spent with children is never time wasted. The simple act of inviting a child on an outing to a movie, a park, the beach, a picnic, a ball game, shopping, the circus, the zoo, a parade, or any activity where there is quality time with the child may overcome a deadlock and soften the relationship so that there is a feeling of common ground.
8. Make Every Attempt to Be a Bright Spot. Children who have lived through the experience of seeing their parents go through the pain of separation and divorce are already walking wounded and are living in the well of deep hurt. They may feel life has lost its luster and that someone has let the air out of their balloon. They may blame themselves for the way things turned out and run the “what if” tapes over and over. Regardless of how things may look on the surface, things may be rather dark on the inside and any ray of sunshine would be a welcomed bright spot. What children do not need is for someone to rain on their parade. What they do need are smiles, joy, and enthusiasm to help them through the season of emotional decompression into the brighter days of rainbows, sunshine, and dreams.
9. Practice Giving Praise. Praise works wonders. Praise changes moods. Praise tears down walls. Praise builds bridges. Praise brightens days and lightens loads. Praise builds self-worth. Praise touches the heart. Praise boosts morale. Praise pushes forward. Praise endears and embraces. Praise makes one feel worthy. Praise is a spirit lifter and a people builder. Praise focuses on the positive. Praise looks for opportunities. Praise endorses. Praise is the lighter of candles. Praise can mend a broken heart.
10. Be a Friend. “A friend is a gift you give yourself,” so the saying goes. Who better to have as a friend than a child? Children are lovable, affable, pleasant, and usually agreeable. They reach out to those who show they care. It’s fun being around a child because in his/her innocence, so much can be given. The old adage, “A friend in need is a friend indeed,” could never be more accurately spoken than when referring to a child who has experienced the disintegration of his former family. Such is a time when a child needs a friend. Becoming a friend is an opportunity to reach across a chasm, embrace a child’s heart, and open a door to the future.
11. Believe in the Power of Love. The Apostle Paul was intuitive and discerning when he put his thoughts to pen in his 13th Chapter of Corinthians. Applying his words to the efforts of blending a family addresses the power of love to overcome and conquer the walls of resistance and mend hearts that are broken. Family transition is a time when emotions are tender and feelings easily bruised. Paul’s words could not be more fitting, and parents wishing to build bridges in merging families should take note: “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at the wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Love never ends.” (I Corinthians 13:4-8a). Love has power and love works miracles. Love never gives up.
12. Be the Parent You Would Like to Have. The simple act of putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes changes the perspective of simply seeing that person as a fixed entity to understanding that person is a person with feelings, has highs and lows, dreams, feels hurt, delights in joy, needs support, knows loneliness, experiences moods, has aspirations, and has scores and scores of needs. When families are in transition, parents need to look at their children and ask themselves, “What is my child feeling right now?” or “If I were in his/her place, what, would life be like for me?” A decision to be the kind of parent you would like to have if you were in the child’s place may transform one’ thinking and enable that parent to be more sensitive, caring, and present in the life of the child. This exercise should be practiced daily until on senses a transformation of his/her own perspective.
13. Avoid Triangulation. Triangulation is the complicated configuration of personalities in which two people in a triad are in union to the exclusion of the third. There are times when it is appropriate and expected and times when it is dangerous. In terms of parental guidance and discipline, it would be expected that the two parents would maintain unanimity in their disciplining overtures toward the child. Sending the same signal from both parents sends the message the child is the “third party,” and is incumbent on him to correct his behavior. But in terms of ongoing familial interaction, no one wants to be left out or to feel like a third party. No where this is more able to be seen than in the blending of families when a child from a former marriage is cast into the setting of a new family in which he/she perceives himself/herself as a third party. Every effort should be made to avoid triangulation and every effort made to include the child in every opportunity of involvement in the new family.
14. Be Flexible. The process of blending families is infused with all kinds of knee-jerk reactions associated with merging and assimilating personalities involved in pervious family relationships into new family relationships. Baggage from the past does drag emotions into the present, emotions that may be tender or volatile. Emotional transference often conceals the true sources of pain, estrangement, or underlying sentiment. Such times are not times for rigid approaches, as inflexibility only immobilizes emotional expression and often sets feelings in concrete. On the other hand, flexibility gives needed space for sharing what is in one’s heart and soul, as there is an atmosphere of openness and affirmation. Simply having space in which to maneuver emotionally can, in itself, be oil for troubled waters and balm for healing. In the process of building and growing new families from previous or existing ones, the need for flexibility cannot be overstated, and the adults who are responsible for shaping the future need to be especially sensitive to parameters s they exist.
15. Play Age-Appropriate Games. Most every child enjoys playing games, especially if he/she is able to capture the attention of an adult either as a partner or as an opponent. Nothing thrills a child like thinking he/she has won a game over an adult opponent. One can usually observe the glee of winning in a child’s eyes. As cognitive skills develop, the desire for more sophisticated and mentally challenging games also increases. Games provide unique opportunities for adults to interplay with children, opportunities that parents who are meshing two families can ill-afford to miss. Younger children usually always love Uno because they understand it and can fairly compete. Older children love Twister, Sorry, Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, Battleship, and Operation.
16. Look for Common Interests. There are activities/interests which adults and children may have in common, things which they can do together to build harmony and accord. Sporting activities, while not limited to males, can usually provide common ground among men and boys. Such concerns as pulling for a favorite team, collecting their logos, watching or attending their games, keeping up with the stats, knowing who their players are, all have the potential for building bridges and cementing relationships. Shopping, beauty shops, fashion, and cosmetics are girl things, enjoyed by adults and youth alike. Massaging such interests creates feeling of inclusion and acceptance and they are great springboards to capturing hearts and winning support.
17. Be a Cheerleader. Cheerleaders have a unique role in the landscape of athletics. Sporting events are lackluster without someone leading the cheers. Although the focus is on the game, cheerleaders add emotion and feeling and instill team spirit, support, and stimulation to the game. Without the presence of cheerleaders gathering support and amplifying the excitement, many athletic events would be rather flat. Cheerleaders are also important in the landscape of human exchange. Everyone needs someone in his/her corner cheering them on, creating a desire to be a winner, and believing he/she is the very best. Just as athletes on the playing field are buoyed by cheers and drawn toward those leading the cheers, children are also uplifted by the support of parents who lead the cheers and they are drawn toward those persons.
18. Overcome Resistance. Blending families is difficult even under the most favorable of circumstances. Loyalties are to familiarity, to the way it was, and often to the parent who is now absent. Children have any number of weapons at their disposal to put up a wall of resistance, and they can be quite creative and immovable in the process. In some cases, stepparents try every conceivable tactic to win over a child whose will is as steel. The temptation is to give up and throw in the towel, believing the child’s heart will never be won. But perseverance always pays off and will win in the end. Stepparents who want harmony and unity must not give up; they must go the distance to overcome resistance.
19. Include Children in Your Plans. In planning an outing, a day’s activities, or a get-away, adults often make plans to the exclusion of input from their children, assuming the things parents want to do will also be the things their children would want to do. This approach works for many families as children go along with whatever has been planned, although their own wishes have been overlooked. This approach is less plausible for stepchildren as they may already feel like the “fifth wheel” in terms of planning and inclusion. Gaining input from children creates ownership in whatever activity and should be encouraged to ensure success in bridge building in blended families.
20. Never Give Up. In seeking to win the hearts of a stepson/daughter, and in seeking to overcome resistance, the inclination is to give in and give up. Going on day after day, seeing very little if any sunlight, the temptation is to throw in the towel or send up the white flag. Yet surrender is not what the child wants and not what the parent wants. Mostly, children want things to be the way they were, but they know they cannot be that way again. The very strain on emotions is enough in itself to cause most to surrender. Yet, it is the NEVER GIVE UP attitude that separates winners from losers. Believing you can overcome negativity and creating a positive setting will eventually bring the much sought after victory and put the new family in the winner’s circle.
Taken from Preparing Couples for Marriage: A Guide for Pastors for Premarital Counseling, by Less C. Wicker, 2003; CSS Publishing Company, Inc., P.O. Box 4503, Lima, OH 45802-4503. Used by permission.