The decision to remarry doesn’t just affect you, it’s going to drastically change the lives of your children. Yet in one survey of more than 500 stepfamilies across the U.S., 40% of parents said they didn’t prepare their children in any way for the remarriage, often defending this oversight on the grounds that “they were adults, that they had their own needs, and that they did not feel it necessary to ‘prepare’ others or to have their children ‘validate’ their decisions.” (Artlip et al., 1993, pp. 63-64) This trend was especially pronounced among parents without joint or primary custody. Yet two-thirds of parents in successful stepfamilies DID take time to prepare their children for what was to come; a-statistic that speaks for itself. It was concluded that “many of the parents who did not prepare their children beforehand did not realize the impact of the decision that was being made.” (ibid) Not a very wise approach considering the ability children have to wreck your new marriage.
Let’s be clear about one thing: Preparing children for remarriage DOES NOT mean asking their permission or ceding control over personal decisions to them. It simply means preparing them for what’s to come, talking over the process and listening to their concerns, and involving them in planning what’s to come. It’s about respecting your children enough to care about their feelings and provide as much control over their life as possible.
How to tell children that you’re getting married
The beginning of your stepfamily starts by breaking the news to children. This truly is the first step in your new life together, and how you announce the news can set the tone going forward.
- Warm children to the idea gradually, don’t just spring the news on them one afternoon. Even if the marriage is already a foregone conclusion, it helps to give them a little time to think about the prospect before officially breaking the news:
- What would you think about your mom getting married again?
- Do you think Robert would make a good stepdad?
- What would you say if I told you mommy met a very special person that she was thinking about marrying?
Drop a few hints like this, and let children grapple with the idea for a week or two. By allowing them time to “sleep on it” like this, you’ll be able to have a more meaningful, rational discussion once you do break the news.
- When parents do tell their kids, many announcements are startlingly businesslike, with minimal discussion and a “here’s what’s happening” attitude. This is a mistake. Such a cold, un-empathetic message will create a bad first impression, then leave them to sit and fester over this bad first impression in the weeks to follow. Here’s a better approach that will get things started off on the right track:
Plan a fun excursion somewhere that involves both of you and all the kids. Then towards the end, maybe over dinner, tell the kids that you’re getting married. Then address the following:
- Acknowledge that it will be a bit of an adjustment for everyone, but that you’re determined to make it work.
- Talk about your hopes and dreams for the future and the happiness you envision in the new family.
- Have each new stepparent talk about how they look forward to getting to know the kids better, and that you’ll listen to them and do all you can to make the arrangement work for them, too, not just each other.
Even if kids have an initial revulsion to the idea of you getting married, this more comprehensive approach will leave your offspring feeling a whole lot better about what is happening.
- Ask for their input and perspective. Explain that although you’ve already decided to marry and that this decision is yours and yours alone to make, invite them to share their feelings with you. Be clear that while the decision is non-negotiable, both of you are dedicated to making this transition as easy as possible. You want them to be as happy in the stepfamily as you now feel with each other.
If all goes well, you’ll encounter reasonable and cooperative children, and the concerns they’ll have will be more technical than philosophical. But some kids might be downright hostile towards the idea. If this is the case, don’t disregard their feelings with a statement like, “well, if you feel that way, just keep your opinions to yourself.” This doesn’t fix the problem, it merely rubs salt in the wound and ingrains the defiance deeper into the psyche. These feelings are going to need to be worked out sooner or later, so trust me when I say that you’ll pay dearly for such callousness later on. As unpleasant as it might be, listen to their feelings without getting angry, and respond with something like, “I’m sorry you feel that way, but I think you’re being a little melodramatic. Hopefully we can change those feelings in the weeks to come, because I really think you could benefit from this situation too, and I certainly don’t want you to be miserable.”
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