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Stepfamilies and Extended Family

When my brother got divorced, he became a full-time single parent to two little girls, aged two and six. Fortunately, my mom and I lived nearby, and we stepped in to help him. I sincerely love my nieces as if they were my own kids. And I enjoyed every minute that I was able to be a “substitute mom” for them.

And then he got remarried. I was incredibly surprised at the difficulty I had with letting go of him and his kids. I fully embraced my new sister-in-law and her two children. I felt she was a wonderful mate for him, and I could tell they loved each other. However, I was not sure she would love the girls and care for them as I had done. My nieces had already suffered so much loss and pain during their parents’ divorce. I wanted to protect them from anymore change and grief. My fears that they might suffer propelled me to say and do things that made it harder for my brother, his new wife, and the kids to become a family.

My heart was right, but my method was wrong.

My brother and his newly formed stepfamily needed time to bond. My sister-in-law needed time to learn how to become a stepmom to two kids who had very deep wounds. She didn’t need a meddling, overprotective sister-in-law.

Divorce affects the entire family. It is likely you have suffered grief, loss, anger and resentment alongside your loved one during this process. You may be a mom or dad, grandmother or grandfather, sibling or cousin who has watched a family member get remarried and form a stepfamily.

Or you might be the new stepparent who is dealing with in-laws who are skeptical, worried, overbearing, or disapproving, about the remarriage.

The key is for both sides to learn how to respond and communicate with loving reassurance. Whenever possible help to turn a tumultuous situation around toward harmony.

Here are a few examples:

For the new stepparent:

  • Communicate with your in laws that you desire for them to maintain a close, loving relationship with the kids.

  • Do not expect the in-laws to immediately embrace your biological kids as their own. It takes time. Some will try, others will not.

  • It is your spouse’s job to help ease his family back into the original role that they held before the divorce occurred. This occurs more frequently with male family members when mom or his sibling have stepped in to help.

  • Understand that when a grandmother, brother or sister takes over the “parent role” for your spouses’ child after a divorce it will be a process for them to step away from that role. Going back to being “grandma, uncle or aunt” may take some time.

  • Do not expect the in laws to abandon or alienate the other parent. Extended family often remains on good terms and in communication with the other parent so that they can continue a relationship with the grandkids. Mom and dad got a divorce. Grandma and grandchild did not. The often fear losing the relationship with their family if they do not stay connected to the other parent.

For the In-Laws:

  • Your child has chosen to remarry. That means they have decided to leave their single life and become one flesh with a new spouse. You must respect that decision.

  • If you love your grandkids, or nieces and nephews is to help them with the transition when mom or dad remarries. The goal needs to be to make it easier for them—not harder. They already are battling confusing emotions. They do not need one more family member creating chaos.

  • It takes a long time for a stepfamily to bond. In the beginning you will be tempted to protect your loved ones from the painful process. Step back unless the child is being abused, abandoned, or harmed.

  • It’s fine to be cordial to your former son or daughter in law. However, if your family member has remarried displaying wedding or family photos that include him/ her is unwise. Along with inviting him/her to thanksgiving dinner when the new stepfamily will be present. Your new in law is already living in the shadow of the former spouse. It’s best to avoid anything that could cause additional discomfort.

  • Your new in-law has never been a stepparent before. Take the time to read resources that help you to learn exactly what’s involved in creating a stepfamily and how it’s radically different than a bio family.

  • Most stepparents have a big, loving heart for their stepkids. But the entered the remarriage without understanding how complicated it was going to become. Embrace their learning process, ease the stress, and accept that he or she will make mistakes.

  • Single parents are often loose with discipline, consequences and boundaries with their kids. Stepparents often desire more structure and correction. The couple must learn how to unify on these issues. It frequently takes time and several squabbles (translation, fights) before they land on solid ground. If extended family interferes it makes the process worse and it takes longer to resolve.

Discovering the most common issues stepfamilies encounter is the wisest step for both groups. It’s prudent to do this before the remarriage, but it’s sensible no matter where you are in the process. The key is to ask Christ to help you see the situation from the other person’s perspective. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes before you react or judge.

And extend grace whenever and as often as He gives you the strength.

Benefits of extended family

  • They provide children with comfort and company, so they do not feel alone even if their parents are not with them.

  • The kids develop a stronger bond with the family unit, creating a sense of belonging.

  • It provides support for the blended family, and can reduce the workload of the parents and stepparents

  • Children learn how to care for and respect other family members

  • Grandparents can provide a sense of safety so the kids aren’t accessing the internet.

  • Children of divorce are more susceptible to feelings of despair and hopelessness. As our world becomes increasingly more secluded, isolation breeds depression. They need extended family.

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