We all can agree that step-parenting is hard. And sometimes we have a really hard time loving the stepkids or even liking them.
But I want to shed a little light on loss and grief for kids. This may partially explain why it’s so hard to connect with the stepkids or even establish a positive relationship with them.
We can all agree that divorce is a profound loss. With significant loss comes grief. Grief has it’s own cycle and it’s own timelines. For most couples divorce is devastating. For children this may be even more devastating, life altering in ways we may not fully understand. The type of loss that literally turns their world upside down.
I remember reading a book on the impact of divorce on children almost 25 years ago for personal reference.
The information in it was about how the experience of divorce for kids and the experience of the death of a parent are very similar.
The biggest difference is that with divorce you can see or spend time with the parent for things like visits, birthdays or holidays. But that contact can be a reminder of the loss and re-experiencing the loss on an on-going basis. Like ripping a scab off a deep wound and having it open again. It can take so much longer to heal.
From the adult’s perspective we eventually learn to move on, we meet someone special and we remarry. We are happy! BUUT not so much for the kids. And when parents are unavailable to help the kids sort out their stuff- because the parents themselves are grieving, scared and in pain- that adds to the kids’ insecurity and fear.
Kids go through the same stages as we do. Shock, protest, despair and adjustment.
Shock may look like compliance. We can call this the honeymoon stage. You know best behaviour kind of stuff. Or maybe you’ll see aloofness because they aren’t sure about you yet and you haven’t earned the authority figure role yet.
Protest may look like anger and defiance-like in your face and screw- you- you’re- not- my- real- mom attitude. This phase in particular can get really drawn out. Especially if they have parents at either residence adding fuel to the fire.
Despair is like depression and it looks like they’ve given up. Perhaps they understand or at the very least have resigned themselves to the fact that the fantasy of their parents getting back together is no longer a reality. That is a painful reality to hold onto.
Adjustment is when things are finally going well, and they have accepted what’s happened to them. The divorce isn’t hanging over them like a ghost haunting them and they are able to move on in their lives as well. Things are more positive and a new normal is achieved. Your relationships with your stepchildren are more viable because they are seeking new relationships.
Timelines for grief and loss are very personal. We all have anticipated deadlines for grief but when it comes to our children those timelines need to be adjusted. And when the child is going back and forth between parents’ homes that process can be drawn out over a longer period than what would be considered normal or typical.
Kids might get stuck in the protest phase. If they have a mom who’s helping them make their protest signs and fuelling the flames that stage might get a little bit comfortable for them.
Unfortunately you may be the easy target for that pent up fear and anger. And it’s way easier to blame you when they aren’t loyal to you. It’s a loss and grief cycle that is being misdirected at you. Understanding this perspective can also ease the burden of you feeling like the bad guy and feeling like you can’t win. This is about disengaging from the negative behaviours playing on centre stage and making clear boundaries for yourself. Self care ladies self care!
Stay tuned for my next blog in my loss and grief series: how do we support our children to heal while we are supporting ourselves to heal.
My name is Ali Wilks (www.aliwilks.com) and I have a BA in Psychology with a MSc in Human Ecology specializing in Family Studies and I am a certified stepfamily coach.
I have been working in Children’s Services since 1998 in Edmonton, Alberta. I am currently a trainer on Edmonton’s Caregiver Training Unit providing classes for foster, kinship, and adoptive parents. These classes include building essential skills in raising children not born to them who present with special needs. I am a stepmother of 3 adult children (with a couple of grandkids too) and the birthmother of 2 beautiful girls.