Saturday, May 15, 2010

Blended Families, Part III

Blended Families, Part III
In my capacity as an outpatient psychologist, I have worked
with children of all ages for over twenty years. Usually parents
drag their kids into my office complaining of a litany of bad
behaviors, ranging from not cleaning up their rooms, to getting
bad grades, hitting their siblings, or worse, stealing, fighting
or doing drugs. I work with parents to change their children's
behavior by changing the way the parents approach the children.
This is Part III of a four-part series. Please read Parts I and
II before reading this one.
On the psychological "dark side" are some other factors.
When told of the possibility there may be "another" adult in Mom's
or Dad's life, the child may, almost instinctively, try to sabotage
the new relationship. Remember, most children never give up the
(even secret) wish that the biological parents will sooner or later
re-unite. I have heard kids say otherwise, only to see it pop up
later in some negative behavior unconsciously designed to pull the
biological and new stepparent apart.
And, paradoxically, children want to know about the new
stepparent. The child needs to know everything to figure out how
to handle the new stressor (stepparent), even though at first this
seems counterintuitive. The dynamic is that the child is actually
lowering his or her anxiety by being as certain as possible about
the new adult vs. leaving something to chance. So, if the now
"stepchild" is more than just casually inquisitive about the new
stepparent or new adult (boyfriend or girlfriend of Mom or Dad,
respectively), this may be why.
There is also the parent's instinct to keep the new adult
relationship hidden from the child, often as long as possible to
avoid this very same conflict, or at least until the new relationship
matures and appears to be permanent, which presumably would portend a
better long-term outcome (less risk of "another" change). The
primary drive of the parent is to protect the child from further
instability by delaying informing the child there is "someone new"
in the picture. Nevertheless, the secondary drive of the parent,
which is likely to be more unconscious but equally as strong, is to
prevent the child from messing up the new relationship. Even if
conscious, this latter instinct is usually not expressed by a parent.
From the parent's point of view, this reduces the risk to the child of
further attachment and separation trauma should the new parent
relationship not survive the test of time, but just as important,
spares the parent unnecessary conflict with the child. The parent
fears this new relationship is going to cause trouble with and for
the children in some form, in some way, and that the children will
naturally resist. However, new parent relationships usually prevail,
and when they "go the distance," the child has to "for sure" deal with
When this happens, stepparents now also "visit" with the child,
or more precisely, the child has to deal with the stepparent because
the child's bio-parent "says so." Now there surface many problems.
One is of role. If the stepparent enforces a household rule, does
the child have to obey? After all, the stepparent is not a real
parent. In addition, who makes those rules? Why should a stepparent
make any rules--its not their house...(it's Mom's or Dad's house, by
psychological default, regardless of reality...).
-Dr. Griggs

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