There may be no tougher task in the world than to help your children cope with your divorce and a subsequent remarriage. When you divorce, your dreams are shattered; at the very moment when you most need someone to take care of you, you find yourself needing to somehow bravely guide your broken-hearted kids through the most painful time in their lives too. And when you remarry, you find your joy in moving on with your exciting new life restrained by the complicated adjustments of a kid who just isn’t ready to go there yet.
There are no easy answers to the problems you face, but drawing on our years of experience as a counsellor to blended families (Dave) and a child of divorce (Glen), we have some suggestions as to how you can best help your kids survive your divorce and remarriage.
Be Honest with Them
Telling your kids the truth about what’s going on is paramount. Within the constraints of age-appropriateness, they deserve to know what’s going on in their family. People often try to keep secrets from their kids, thinking it’s best for them not to know. While that may be easier in the short term, it can really backfire.
Children of divorce have a very fragile confidence in their parents. No matter how carefully and wisely you have handled the break-up, their sense of security has been severely undermined. It will only be compounded if they sense that you aren’t being straight with them. And yes, they will figure this out. Whether they hear it from someone else, or they just pick things up that you didn’t think they caught, kids usually know more than we think they do. And if they don’t know, they’ll make assumptions that may be even worse than the truth.
So be honest with them. Tell them why the marriage failed, but do it without bad-mouthing your former spouse (see below). Admit to your own mistakes and faults that contributed to the failure of the marriage – kids see these things clearly anyway! Reassure them that it was in no way their fault. Leave them no doubt about your unconditional love for them and your commitment to help them through the difficult road that lies ahead.
Obviously, there are some things that are just not appropriate for sharing with children. But in general, being open and vulnerable with your kids is critical to maintaining a strong relationship with them.
Protect Your Kids from Negativity
Being honest with your kids does not require that you expose them to all the violence of emotion involved. Keep the negativity as private as possible.
I’ve heard so many tragic stories as I’ve worked with children of divorce. They talk about the explosive fights they’ve witnessed. They vividly remember the night that mom or dad left. They are emotionally scarred from the night Mom or Dad secretly snuck them away. They cry as they tell of the endless verbal thrashing as their parents go at it on the phone.
I know that controlling your emotions is difficult. I understand that in the heat of battle it’s easy to lose it and do things that you regret. But for the sake of your kids, you need to keep them away from the battles. If you fail to do so, the likely result is an angry, bitter child who has lost respect for both parents, and who is likely to repeat your mistakes down the road. Don’t go there.
Refuse to Trash Your Former Spouse
Being honest with your kids also does not require you to share your angry thoughts about their other parent. It takes a tremendous strength of character to refrain from bad-mouthing your former spouse in front of your kids, particularly if he or she is not extending you the same courtesy. But this is absolutely vital to your children’s self-image and their perception of you.
Trashing your ex-spouse and trying to bring your kids into an alliance against them does not accomplish anything, ever. Far from winning your kids to your side, it is more likely to turn them against you. As they grow into teenagers and beyond, they’re going to see Dad and Mom for who they really are, and not just the one side they got from you. Then they’ll actually resent you, because they have stayed away from their father or mother because of the things that you have said. Now they start to discover, “Hey, Dad’s not all that bad. In fact, I kind of like him. Why did you tell me all these terrible things about him?”
Ultimately, saying nasty things about the other person is going to reflect worse on your character than it will on theirs. And beyond that, it damages your kids’ feelings about themselves. After all, half of who they are has come from this person that you’re slamming left and right. If he or she is so horrible, what does that say about the child?
Make the difficult but brave choice to treat your former spouse with kindness and grace. Encourage your children to develop a good relationship with their other parent. They will respect you and thank you for it in the long run.
Remember the words of Proverbs 25:21-22: “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.”
Your Kids are Not Your Spies
(Glen:) As a child of divorce, if I could say only one thing to divorced parents, it would be this: don’t ever use your kids as spies or as messengers. Children want to have a good relationship with both their parents. Allow them to enjoy their time with their other parent without having to report back to you at the end of the weekend. When adults start using their kids as a window into what’s going on in the other home, it puts a heavy burden on them that parents don’t fully understand. I used to dread those moments. Adults have to learn to talk to one another directly. If you have something to tell your former spouse, don’t ask your kids to tell them for you; tell them yourself. You need to find ways to be civil with one another, even if it means using e-mail or meeting with a third party. When children are used as intermediaries, they inevitably get dragged into the fray. The result is a bitter, insecure child.
Divorce is hard enough on kids without them having to act as a mouthpiece for one or both parents. Remember, the goal is to remove the burdens from the kids, not to create additional stresses.
Give Kids Time to Adjust to New Realities
This is particularly important in the context of a remarriage. Kids need time to adjust. They need time to come to grips with the idea of Dad or Mom getting married again, and they also need time to get used to the new stepparent. The role of stepson or stepdaughter is new to them, and it’s likely not a position they ever wanted to be in.
You can’t rush or force acceptance. Parents often push too hard, too fast. They want a fairytale blended family, and expect that things can become normal very quickly. When it doesn’t happen right away, the parents are ticked off. Some even foolishly insist that children address stepparents as Mom and Dad.
It’s very important to take the time needed to really allow the new relationships to grow. Each person has a completely different timeline of when they’re going to respond. Trust and respect develop over a period of years, especially for a kid who’s been burned by the divorce of his parents. The best way to develop the blended family you desire is to simply love your kids and give them time and space to grow to accept the new family reality.
Handle Discipline Wisely
The number one issue that blended families struggle with is disciplining the children. Which parent disciplines which kids? When two families come together with distinct rules and expectations, which rules are enforced? Are there different rules for different kids?
You and your spouse need to work together to establish the rules for your home. Try to keep things as close to what the kids are used to as possible, so they aren’t faced with a whole different set of standards than what they are raised with, but all the children must be held to the same rules when they are under your roof. Anything less is guaranteed to produce resentment and rivalry.
When it comes time to discipline, the birth parent must be the primary disciplinarian. The best way to raise a rebellious kid is to administer discipline outside the context of a loving, supportive relationship. So if there hasn’t been enough time for that kind of relationship to develop between the stepparent and stepchild, it follows that the discipline should not be handled by the stepparent. The stepparent should initially only reinforce the rules. Over time, the kids will likely begin to accept the stepparent as a bonafide authority, and that’s when they can start taking more of a role in the discipline process.
Trust the God of Second Chances
Like many who have gone through the tragedy of divorce, you may find yourself struggling with guilt, depression, and feelings of failure. We want you to know that there is hope. We have a God who is truly a God of second chances. Regardless of how you ended up where you are now, with Jesus there is forgiveness if you turn to him. He can bring you wholeness where there is now brokenness. He can give you the wisdom and strength to do things right so that both your new marriage and your children really thrive.
So pray to him. Pray for your own healing. Pray that he will protect your marriage. Pray with and for your kids. Take him up on his promise: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future'” (Jeremiah 29:11).
Are you interested in starting a relationship with God? Read Discover Life to learn how.
Helping your children through divorce and remarriage can seem at times like an awfully long, dark tunnel. We’d love to tell you that there are shortcuts, but there really aren’t. The only path through entails a lot of time, a great deal of patience, countless hours of listening and talking, and unconditional love and support. If you are willing to travel that road, there are great rewards to be found at the end.
Related: read Michael’s Story of Fighting to Save His Second Marriage.
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