When blended families curdle
BACP Children, Young People and Families Journal, September 2018
Rachel Eastop starts a mini series in which she shares aspects of what our arena looks like from where she stands. Firstly, the difficulties faced by teenagers in new family formations.
A blended family, or stepfamily, forms when two people make a life together with the children from one or both previous relationships – and possibly go on to have children in their new relationship.1 But it’s easy to forget that ‘when parents get divorced, a second divorce occurs between them and their children’.2 I counsel many teenagers from blended families. Although each situation is slightly different, and some aspects are similar, the teenage experience within the family can be particularly difficult.
The ideal scenario is that both parents act with maturity and kindness to each other and their children. Both will be present when the children are told that Mum and Dad are separating, neither blames the other, and both are willing to answer questions and comfort their children as they are told what is, in some cases, the worst news they will ever hear.
This maturity will continue while one of the parents moves out and makes a new home with someone else, providing space and a place for their children. Each parent will be allocated fair and equal time for their children to spend time with them, and each will continue to parent their children as the gradual merging of families takes place.
Sadly, this is rarely the norm. What may be forgotten by parents who wish to move on is that something had to be destroyed before a blended family could be created, and dealing with the fallout of that destruction is often avoided in favour of a new shinier life.3 Instead, from their perspective, they’re working very hard to build a blended family or combine random ingredients into a mixture called family. Younger children can be more accepting of the situation because their parents play a vital role in their lives (although many hold on to the fantasy that their parents will eventually get back together).
But adolescent attachments shift away from parents to friends, and acceptance often turns to intolerance. This can be particularly difficult on the parent who only sees their children at weekends.
This is because, for adolescents, the weekends are ‘down time’ to spend with friends, video games and the internet. Playing nice with stepsiblings doesn’t come into it. So the ideals, expectations, hopes and dreams for this new family dynamic are now no longer within the adult’s power to control. Adolescent behaviour becomes more resistant and vocal; relationships become strained. What is required, then, is less of a smoothie and more of a smoothing out.
This is when parents may start to consider counselling. I’m approached each year by parents who are experiencing a range of behaviours from their teenager, such as resistance, anger, solitude and rudeness. All of which resembles normal adolescence, and there is usually a natural grieving for parents as they watch their child transition/ metamorphose into an adolescent.
There may be a parental desire, too, to turn back the clock, or eke out a few more years of childhood. But in the case of break-up and blending, when the new family dynamic fails to materialise, the mutual intolerance of teen and parents leaves me in my counselling room faced with both a reluctant and negative teenager, demonised by the parents, and a couple of confused adults, ignorant that their own behaviour in the past has contributed to the stand-off they currently find themselves in. The mixture that sits before me is messy, that shade of yucky brown that children often end up with when they combine all the colours of paint on their palette.
A messy situation
I’m reminded of a 15-year-old female client whose parents did not speak or communicate with each other in any way. Their separation and divorce had been acrimonious and their negativity towards each other was never hidden from their children. Their behaviour had been so bad that neither of them had a scrap of credibility in the girl’s eyes. When they tried to enforce rules, moral values and the concept of right and wrong, she simply rolled her eyes at their hypocrisy.
Their main dispute since separating had been around money and both insisted she spend 50 per cent of her time at each of their homes. This forced her to live out of a suitcase. Home was with Mum, although they argued a lot, yet in her bedroom and with her friends was where she felt she belonged.
My client did not prefer either parent, but she didn’t want to spend half of her time away from her bedroom and friends. She resented not having any time alone with her dad. She was expected to join in with the ‘family’, his family, and make small talk with ‘her’ kids. She was disciplined, judged and criticised by both her dad and his wife. This angered my client the most. According to her, they had both had a secret affair, they had lied, and therefore had no right to judge her.
Her disconnection from ‘the family’ was absolute, avoiding ‘family life’ completely. This was interpreted by Dad’s new wife as arrogant and rude. The girl was labelled spoilt by the stepfamily and embarrassing by her dad.
Her head was full of dark thoughts and her heart heavy with scary emotions that manifested in door slamming, swearing and ‘I hate you’. Her lid had lifted and the contents sprayed over anyone who came into negative contact with her.
Over time, in the counselling room, she could explore her feelings of anger, disappointment, sadness, grief, worry and insecurity. And, eventually, she invited her dad to a counselling session, where she explained her feelings and he agreed she could stay with him only one weekend a month.
This may sound as if the lumps were being smoothed out, but the mixture was about to curdle. After a few weeks, Dad refused to pay the same amount in maintenance, because he was seeing less of his daughter. As a result, Mum stopped her pocket money. The girl began to self-harm and skip school. And by this time, she was more emotionally detached from both families than ever before. Dad wanted an update meeting. He felt it was time his daughter saw him more often, as Mum could not manage and counselling was not working. This time Mum was invited into a session. Thankfully, she realised she had punished her daughter for her father’s actions, and she agreed to reinstate pocket money.
Soon the girl returned to school and stopped cutting. It was not the money that changed things for her, but that both parents had finally acknowledged her plight and begun to own their part in her emotional distress.
Although she never received an apology from her parents for their actions, and continued to feel unimportant in the presence of her dad, she felt she had won a small battle and this was important to her.
It was also clear that her connection with me as a non-judgmental, consistent and trusted adult at this vulnerable time in her life was valued. In her striving for independence, she still needed to depend on someone and, more importantly, have someone contain her emotional distress safely and protectively.
1 Wooding S. Step parenting and the blended family: recognizing the problems and overcoming the obstacles. Ontario: Fitzhenry & Whiteside; 2008.
2 Marripedia. Effects of divorce on family relationships. [Online.] http://marripedia. org/effects_of_divorce_on_family_ relationships (accessed 15 June 2018).
3 Thomson KM. Managing the blended family: steps to create a stronger, healthier stepfamily and succeed at step parenting. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 2015.