By Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
Things were going well. Then one parent remarries, a new family
emerges and the kids are in distress. The other parent determines the child
needs counseling or that a change in access is necessary to limit the child’s
exposure to the new family, viewed as the source of distress. The fight is on
again. Or need it be?
It is safe to assume that most parents will enter into a new
relationship post separation/divorce, many resulting in a combination of children.
The issue then becomes how to manage the new relationship in view of the kids
and how to manage the adjustment process.
When children appear significantly distressed in a newly blended
family, the other natural parent may take them to counseling as a means to investigate
the distress or help them cope. Unfortunately however while this provides a
sense that something is being done, often little is accomplished. In fact, counseling
only for the child with difficulty adjusting to new blended family can do more
harm than good. The issue is akin to arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
While the chairs may look nicely arranged, the ship continues to sink. While
chatting with a counselor may help the child feel better in the short run, if
the larger issues of parental adjustment, child management, communications and
boundaries within and between families are not addressed, the child can fall
back to distress shortly after a brief upturn from counseling. A failed counseling
experience will cause future counseling efforts to be viewed skeptically and
the parent may now rush to the change in access.
For children in distress in the context of adjustment to a new
blended family, rather than just sending the kids off to counseling, the parents
and their partners should enter counseling or “parent education”
or mediation themselves.
While it is preferred for both natural parents and new partners
to attend counseling together, it is understood that this may not be possible.
What matters though is that all the adults see the same counselor (or educator,
or mediator) so the counselor gets a full view of the situation as opposed to
a one-sided or biased view. With an unbiased view, the counselor can then help
in the adjustment process knowing issues on both sides.
Adjustment doesn’t necessarily mean restructuring the access regime. It
may mean identifying and sorting out feelings between former spouses regarding
any number of issues as well as issues within the newly blended family. All
pertinent matters as assessed by the counselor should be addressed in the interest
of the children.
Children can be very sensitive to their parents’ feelings
and this alone can be a great source of their distress over and above their
own adjustment. However, by meeting with the parents, even more can be achieved.
In addition to identifying emotional issues for resolution, issues such as the
children’s homework, activities, routines and matters of discipline can
be discussed. The view is to attain some consistency and stabilize the children’s
life within the entire family system consisting of both parents and new family.
As the parental issues of adjustment, management, communications
and boundaries are addressed the children’s distress often fades. They
can go back to concentrating on school and the like. So if a child is in distress
after a parent establishes a new relationship or family, the parent is advised
to take a deep breath and attend counseling or parent education or mediation
with the other parent and do this before changing the access regime. Rushing
to change the access regime only adds another layer for adjustment and given
the child will still go back and forth, the original adjustment issues would
remain. Nothing may be solved by a quick change in access and problems can actually
be compounded. It may sound scary to the parents to deal with each other in
counseling, but the children will likely be better off for it and the children’s
interest was the goal in the first place.
Kids in distress? Parents go to counseling first.