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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Treatment Tuesday - Blended Families

This week’s assessment comes courtesy of Anna. She’s writing a “mega family” series about a blended family. I love Anna’s questions, because they are so pertinent to understanding blended families with his, hers, and their children.

Here’s the scenario (in the spirit of the Brady Bunch): Carol*, the mom, has about five children and is pregnant with twins when there is a huge accident where she looses her husband and one of her sisters. Her bro-in-law, Mike*, grieves the loss of his wife with several young kids of his own. They both want to get remarried sooner than later, but feel the changes of meeting someone willing to jump into a ready-made, full-time parental role are slim. So Mike and Carol eventually marry each other (3-4 months later!), thinking they will better be able to care for their children together than separately. The children are ALL under the age of 10 at the time of the marriage, and likely Mike and Carol will have some little ones of their own.

Anna had several questions about blended families that she posed to me, but before I get to them, I want to give you an idea of how prevalent blended families are today. About 65% of remarriages involve children from previous relationships and form blended families. In 2001 5.4 million children lived with one biological parent and either a stepparent or adoptive parent (Kreider & Fields). One source I looked at said that blended families are now more common than biological families. Another source said approximately half of all Americans are involved in a step relationship.

This is something that is so prevalent in our world today that it’s bound to be in some of your works-in-progress! If YOU have any questions about blended families for your WIP, type them up in the comment section and I’ll see what I can do about answering them.

Without further ado, Anna’s first five questions are:

1) What I can expect from this extra-large family as the kids start to enter their teens and twenties?

For sure, you’ve got an unusual family situation here. The kids will know that. Certainly as they get older, they could have a reaction against how “weird” their family is, or they could rally together…like their own football team against the world sort of thing. A lot will depend on how you depict the parents. If they just get married after 3-4 months, they won’t even be 1/4th of the way through a typical grieving process for a loss spouse (2 years). If you portray them as frantic, desperate people scraping the bottom of the barrel when they reach for each other…this will affect the way they run their home and family.

As the kids get older (after graduation), you’ll have college tuitions and fees to worry about. I would think older children would be encouraged to hold down jobs, but this could even be an undue stressor on the family unless the working children have cars (which cost money!). So I’d spend considerable time figuring out just how much you want to make them struggle. The Bradys seemed to have it all together, what with Mr. Brady being an architect and all.

This house will likely be like Grand Central Station the older the kids get, too. Some might opt to spend as much time away from home as possible, to avoid the crush of all the bodies and all the noise. But girlfriends, boyfriends, and spend-the-night parties…these children are going to want all of that. Imagine if each kid brought home a friend from school just one day out of the week. That’s like 10 additional mouths to feed a snack to and dinner….you see where I’m going. It’s chaos. But the attitude of the parents will have a BIG impact on how the children see it, so we’re back to that again.

2) Will the kids hate each other and resent the stepparent?

These children were already cousins. So chances are they’ve spent considerable time around each other as it is and probably have gotten along up to date when all the family was together (with maybe a squabble or two here or there). But throw grief into the mix. These children will be grieving the loss of one parent, and children respond to grief usually with anger and acting out. A few will get the classic depressed symptoms, but for the most part, younger children just don’t know how to handle all the strong sad emotions, so that’s why they “act out” at school and home. So to be realistic, you’ll need to pick one or two “problem children” who are going to give the parents and maybe even each other a run for their money. This is just real life. To quote the back of my high school Peer Counselors tee shirt, “Life is not a rerun of the Brady Bunch show.”

As for resenting the stepparent…that’s a different beast. These children won’t want a stand-in mother or father to replace the one they loss. The really young ones might slip right into calling the new parent mom or dad, but the older ones (8-10 years) might not be comfortable doing this. Again, it depends on how the parents handle it. I see your question four addresses some of this, so I’ll stop here.

3) Will they bond well because they were young at the time of the marriage?

Most likely, yes. Of course, there are always exceptions. But the younger children are when parents remarry, the better the outcome seems to be. Some of this might have to do with inability to retain memories (how much do you remember when you were 4?) at young ages. But one of the positives in your scenario is that they are young.

4) Will the younger ones remember the parent that they lost, and if not should they be reminded?

The younger ones will need help remembering as time passes. And yes, I think they should be reminded. I’m not one for having some sort of shrine in the house to the deceased parent, though. And I don’t think they should be reminded every day. Initially, like maybe even up to a year or so, younger children will be more likely to remind the adults than need reminding. They’ll remember. But eventually, in their mind’s eye, the deceased parent’s face will start to fade. They will no longer be able to recall the sound of his or her voice. It’s totally fine (maybe even preferred) to replay home videos or go through picture albums to help them remember. In fact, it might should be part of a ritual you have the family start. (More on this next week.) It might even be a good idea to have everyone sit around each others' albums to help the children from the opposite family to understand a bit about their cousins’ past history.

5) Someone who was once the oldest won't be the oldest anymore. Will that be a problem?

Yikes. Having the throne usurped isn’t easy for anyone. Have you ever heard the old adage, “Don’t disrupt the pecking order?” Here, it sounds like it will be unavoidable. I think it will be very important for the parent of the child who is no longer the “oldest” of the family to have a discussion with them, hopefully prior to the remarriage to prevent any foreseen problems. Also the living parent should affirm to their firstborn that his or her worth is in no way tied up to actually being firstborn. We no longer live in Bible times where only the firstborn inherits the majority.

I would advocate not fixating on age at this conversation, but on maturity levels. In some families, there might be a child who is only 12, but has a mental maturity of 15. Or vice-versa. More privileges are usually granted to the older children…but make sure the privileges come when the child is truly mentally mature enough for them. Girls shouldn’t automatically date when they reach a certain age if they aren’t ready for it. (So setting aside a specific birthday for when they can do this can be a fallacy!) But the short answer to your question is yes. Expect this to be a problem for that child. And the first oldest kid from the other marriage will very possibly lord this over the second oldest…because it’s something he or she will have control and power over in a powerless situation for them.

That's it for this week's assessment...but join me next week as I conclude this fascinating look into blended families. And be sure to leave your own blended family questions in the comment section!

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Jessica Nelson said...

Cool post! Very true about stuff. Everyone I know practically has divorced parents. Including myself. Interesting dynamics here. Thanks!

Stephanie Faris said...

Very complicated situation and one that is often glossed over in fiction as though it's all hunky-dory. I grew up in a blended family and remember the complications. And now, as someone who is living with her boyfriend who has a 9-year-old daughter every other weekend, I'm getting a glimpse into step-parenting and all the drama it entails. It's not easy by any stretch of the imagination...the step-parent is in a VERY awkward position. I'd love to work it into a book eventually...I just haven't had the opportunity yet.

awidge said...

This has been very helpful and given me a lot to think about. I'm very excited. Thank you so much!

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

awidge - be sure to come back next week! lots more to ponder, i hope.

Katie Ganshert said...

I'm part of two blended families...although it doesn't really count because

1. I never lived with my dad and stepmom and stepbrother. I lived with my mom in high school (when my dad got married), so it wasn't that big of a deal.

2. I never lived with my mom and stepdad and four stepsisters. By the time my mom got married, I was a freshman in college.

Great insights, Jeannie girl!

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

katie - that is interesting that you missed being a part of each stepfamily.

hope school's going well.

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Both comments and questions are welcome. I hope you enjoyed your time on the couch today.