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Ron L. Deal

Three years into his mom’s marriage, Samuel, a fourteen year old boy, told me, “I used to be best friends with mom. But I got pushed back to fifth place when she met Benny.”

When a first-marriage precedes the birth or adoption of children, the resulting parent-child relationships don’t inherently compete with the couple’s marriage. Further, when one parent cares for the child they are also caring for their marriage and vice versa. However, when a single parent marries someone who is not the child’s parent, a competing attachment is formed. To the child, their parent’s increasing affection, dedication, and time spent with the stepparent challenges the perceived importance of the child. In a very real sense, marriage sometimes destabilizes the child’s world and decentralizes them.

Biological parents, of course, don’t feel this way. I’ve never met a parent that said they loved their child less since getting married. Nevertheless, it is easy for children to feel displaced and less important. After all, someone unrelated to them (e.g., a stepparent or stepsibling) is vying for the time and energy of their parent.

More Pieces of the Problem Pie

In addition to a natural shift in focus to a spouse and away from children, a number of other factors potentially contribute to this problem. While parents have an endless number of love-points for all the people in their life, they have a limited number of time-points and energy-points. And because parents can’t be in two emotional places at once children feel pushed aside. Plus, the shift to a two-parent household is vastly different for children than a one-parent household. Asking for permission used to be a simple process between parent and child, but now is a more complex process where the parent considers another person’s opinion, and sometimes changes how they typically answer because of the stepparent’s influence. All of this decentralizes the child—and they feel the difference.

Another possible factor is when a parent loses time with the child because of custodial and visitation arrangements. Even further, noncustodial fathers sometimes think it easier on their children if they keep their distance. They are deceived into thinking that reducing between-home transitions somehow helps their children. It does not. It only confuses the child and adds to their sense of lost connection.

When children feel “downgraded” another negative dynamic can come into play. Some children shrink back from engaging their parent or attack their stepparent. Essentially their withdrawal or criticism is a backward request for reassurance, but the negative behavior further alienates them from their parent and generates conflict in the stepfamily.

The Solution

The biological parent holds the key to this issue in blended families. Maintaining an active emotional connection with your children is essentially what they need. You must make this a priority, even if you think not much has changed since your marriage (the kids probably do).

  • Verbally communicate your love for your children on a regular basis and reinforce your commitment to them.
  • Show empathy for the child by acknowledging “if I were you, I’d feel left out and displaced sometimes.” This shows your heart for them and opens the door to honest communication.
  • Maintain touch-points with your children. This are important rituals, like a shared wink or hand-shake, holding hands in the park, or bedtime stories, that communicate love, involvement, and commitment. If the transition to a new family has made you lose some of them, try to reestablish this valuable form of communication.
  • Noncustodial parents should take advantage of modern technology to stay connected (e.g., text messages, Skype, etc.)
  • Don’t let changes in the other home (e.g., residential or church changes, moving out of state, etc.) reduce your continued involvement. Adjust and stay connected.
  • Strive to find balance in your multiple blended family commitments. For example, find couple time to nurture your marriage, but also carve out special one-on-one time with each child. Occasional time with all of your kids together, without any stepfamily members, is also helpful.
  • Be fully present. It’s easy when spending time with one party to divide your attention as you feel guilty about not being with someone else. Try to be full engaged where you are.

Even when implementing these strategies, it’s important to have realistic expectations. No matter who you are spending time with, someone else will probably feel left out; this cannot be avoided. The nature of competing attachments within blended families makes this very common. Still, your children need to affirmed and reassured of your continued commitment.

Ron L. Deal is Founder & President of Smart Stepfamilies™ and Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®. He is a bestselling author, highly sought-after speaker, and therapist specializing in marriage enrichment and blended family education. Learn more here.