Successful Step Parenting: Dealing With The Loss Of A Parent
Whenever the subject of single parents marrying again arises, there is a tendency to think that the greatest consideration should be given to the impact of divorce on children. Those coping with the loss of a parent through death appear to receive less in the way of attention. Perhaps the concept of a ‘replacement parent’ is perceived, by onlookers, to be a net gain? But this simplification of complex emotions shows a complete lack of understanding, and grossly under-estimates the problems which such attitudes may foster in the resulting stepfamily.
The issues break broadly into three:
- The emotions of the child dealing with the loss of a parent.
- The feelings of the ‘replacement parent’.
- The behaviour of the biological parent.
Today, I shall be dealing only with the first: the effects of grief on a child whose remaining parent is marrying again.
THE CHILD DEALING WITH THE LOSS OF A PARENT
The concept of the wicked step parent has been at the centre of fiction and drama probably since the beginning of time. From Cinderella to Oliver, Hamlet to Princess Diana, the step-relationship has proved an endlessly fascinating topic. The distress and affect may be different for each child, but chances are that they will experience one or more of the following emotions, and that these may not be immediately obvious.
Dawn, widowed when her daughter, Amy, was barely pubescent, recalls her despair when faced, years later, with the teenager’s hostility over the prospect of her remarriage.
“My youngest daughter was about sixteen when John asked me to marry him. She really resented it when I told her. I used to dread it when he came to stay. She was so rude to both of us, I thought I’d lose him because of her.”
Unable to get to the root of Amy’s offensive behaviour, Dawn was at her wit’s end. But finally, the solution turned out to be simple. Her parents, Amy’s grandparents, suggested that Amy move in with them.
Some time later after a cooling off period, Amy was able to tell her mother that, since the death of her father, she couldn’t bear the idea of her sleeping with another man. Suddenly, Amy’s insolence made sense. Dawn had already been involved with someone who’d said he wanted to marry her, but who in fact was simply using her to get custody of his own child. Dawn realised that Amy’s misgivings had some justification.
“She must have thought: ‘Oh no! We don’t have to go through all that again, do we!’ On top of that, my other daughter was getting married just a month before John and me. Amy must have felt she was losing everything.”
It took time, but talking honestly about their feelings together cleared the air. And once Amy came to see for herself that John was genuine, the two of them were eventually able to establish a fond and tactile relationship.
In extreme cases, children may become highly manipulative and take a perverse pleasure in the power of turning the thumbscrew on their parent’s guilt. In my opinion, it is never a good idea to allow them to get away with believing that they can dictate the terms of their parent’s happiness. But neither should their feelings be ignored. If a ‘cooling off period’ such as Amy’s fails to produce a solution, it may be that the intervention of a third party is called for: someone impartial, whom the child likes and trusts; someone with the discernment to see through the obnoxious behaviour, to the hurt and suspicion that often lies behind it.
THE CHILD COMPENSATING A PARENT FOR THEIR LOSS OF A PARTNER
Sometimes, children coping with the loss of a parent are expected, also, to help the remaining parent deal with their loss of a spouse. It is never cited, as such, of course, but is a subtle call on the child’s emotional support. Consequently, in addition to having to cope with their own emotions, they may have to adopt a quite adult response to mum’s or dad’s sorrow.
What happens, is that a special kind of bonding is formed between the bereaved parent and child, which supersedes the usual parent-child relationship. The two become close friends. In some instances, a sense of parity may occur. In others, role-reversal, with the child assuming a pseudo-parental responsibility for the parent.
In such circumstances it can be quite devastating to the child to discover a third party on the scene. Someone who, in their eyes, may be seen as a rival; an interloper. Jealously protective of their own relationship with mum or dad, they may feel that they have lost not only the parent who died, but the remaining parent, also. This second ‘rejection’, may be felt even more keenly than the first, precisely because of the unique and close relationship that has grown up between parent and child.
Of course, such a rarefied relationship cannot be healthy and should never have been allowed to flourish in the first place. But I know, from first-hand experience, the solace to be found for a bruised ego in the aftermath of divorce, when one of your offspring becomes especially close to you, and understand that similar sentiments are felt by bereaved parents. At such times, it’s easy to convince yourself that it is to the child’s benefit too.
On the surface, the intensity of this new bond may appear to enable the child to come to terms with their own grief, but in my view, it is almost always a mask. As such it merely delays the normal grieving process for an indefinite period, and may result in long-term damage.
The truth is that such a relationship would, ultimately, leave a teenager’s emotional and psychological growth impaired. He or she may feel guilty about any activity that appears to be detrimental to the relationship with the parent. Inevitably, this can then result in isolation from friends.
Solitary children are particularly susceptible to this sort of reasoning. Though we, as parents, may boast about how close we are to our offspring, we need to stop and think. For the fact is that we may actually be contributing to a lonely old-age for them - and for us.
“I was touched when I heard Kate whispering into the telephone to one of her friends that she wouldn’t be able to go out any more because she couldn’t leave me on my own” said one mother. “But at the same time I was horrified. I realised that I had to make a life of my own - fast. I knew I had to convince her (without letting on that I knew what she was up to) that much as I enjoyed her company, I could get along very well on my own.”
It takes a special sort of discipline to urge such children to pursue their own interests, knowing that in doing so, we may be condemning ourselves to spending our evenings alone. However, the sacrifice that this demands is no more than a child’s due. It is not our offspring’s fault if we’ve been left alone. Nor is it their responsibility to provide us with unlimited companionship.
The greatest freedom we can offer our children is the freedom to be young; to be ‘irresponsible’; to be carefree. But they need our help to assuage those feelings of guilt. They need to know that we have a life of our own. A life that sometimes excludes them. A life that fulfils us.
They need, from a position of security, to be gently thrust from the nest in order that they might make meaningful relationships of their own. But the emphasis must be on the ‘gently’. Producing a potential step-parent out of the blue can hardly be any less damaging in its way, than allowing an unnatural equality and intimacy to develop between parent and offspring.
So, to sum up: how should children who are already coping with the loss of a parent be introduced to the idea of you marrying again? I think above all they need:
- Time. To allow them to get used to the idea of being part of a step family.
- Space. To get to know their prospective step-parent - in relation to their world, rather than simply as ‘mummy’s boyfriend’, or ‘daddy’s girlfriend’.
- Sensitivity. To encourage them to talk out any hidden fears, and never to feel that a ‘replacement parent’ is being foisted upon them.
- And finally: a brisk no-nonsense approach, rather than an apology. Anything less might suggest that problems are inevitable (when none might exist) and this may be placing a weapon in their hands to be used against us.
Successful step parenting is perfectly possible. Children in step families can be happy and fulfilled. All it requires is a little thought and preparation. If you have experience of what it's like to be a widow or widower who remarried, leave a comment below and contribute to the pool of understanding.
ALL PROCEEDS FROM MEL'S LATEST NOVEL, A Painful Post Mortem
Author of a number of books, one a No 4 Bestseller, Mel Menzies is also an experienced Speaker at live events, as well as on Radio and TV.
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