Giving Children Permission to Like a Stepparent

A friend and I talked about how hard our whole divorce process was for our children. We shared how they struggled to figure out how to relate to whoever was new in the lives of our ex-spouses.

Divorce, conflict and new people in ex-spouse’s lives

Few divorces are amicable. Most involve tension, adversarial attitudes and behaviors.

Children are often caught in the crossfire between parents, sometimes more from one parent than the other. This conflict can promote a competitive spirit, asking children to align more with one parent than the other.

Add to this the invisible loyalty that most children experience towards their biological parents, which can cause them confusion and distress, when asked to interact with someone new in one of their parent’s life. How can the child be pleasant and sociable to this new person in mom or dad’s life when the forces of invisible loyalty cause them to feel that they are being disloyal and unfair to their biological parent if they do that?

We talked about how painful it can be for us to realize that our spouses found somebody who they obviously think is better than we are or were. It is normal for us to hope that this new spouse-to-be will embody the qualities of a wicked stepparent (think Cinderella, Snow White and Hansel and Gretel.)

The truth is that being told to not like or even be nice to the new person in a spouse’s life can add to a child’s distress (as those invisible forces of loyalty make them feel they would be hurting us if they were nice to this new person).

So what’s a parent to do?

While we can feel pulled to encourage our children to snub this new person, the kinder and healthier response on our part is to give our children permission to be nice and to even like this new person.

My friend shared how she had told her teenage children it was okay with her for them to be pleasant and even like their father’s fiancé. “This was really hard for me to do because I didn’t want to feel jealous that she was now a part of their lives and that they would like being with her.” 

“One of the things I realized, however, is that I wanted my girls to be able to embrace our values of extending kindness and grace to others, even in this circumstance. That helped me make the decision to give them permission to engage with her and to experience the freedom of not feeling guilty that they might be hurting me.”

Freeing our children from guilt

My friend reported that when her daughters came back from their first visitation with their new stepmother-to-be, they were almost giddy with excitement over how much they liked her and her home.

They talked about having fun cooking together and how they had laughed a whole lot. “I have to say that deep down inside I was a little disappointed that she seemed so nice and they liked her so much. But I also knew it was really good for them, and I guess I was a little proud of myself for being able to free them from possible guilt. But it wasn’t easy!” 

 It can feel like we are giving up our exclusive role as a beloved mother when we encourage our children to accept and even like this new person in their other parent’s life.

At the same time, this new person is going to be in our children’s lives and by influencing the process of their connecting, feeling safe and even liking this new person, we can take comfort in knowing we are giving them the gift of freedom from guilt. Not easy…but it is the nobler and healthier thing to do!

Invitation to Reflect

  1. If you have gone through a divorce, how have you felt if your ex-spouse has gotten involved with someone else?
  2. To what extent have you allowed your children to know some of your feelings, especially if those feelings involved some degree of contempt, resentment or criticism?
  3. Can you see some of the benefits of giving your children permission to be nice to and even like this new person?
  4. What might help you to do this? Are there people in your life who can give you credit for how hard this can be and can affirm you for how positive the impact will be on your children?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network