Helping your child deal with the start of your second family

Author and Psychologist Dr. Joshua Coleman offers suggestions for parents to help their children adjust to a new stepfamily
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Helping your child deal with the start of your second family

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So we know that while divorce may be stressful for children, what is actually more stressful to children, is when their parents remarry. And this is sort of obvious why that might be the case, they may feel disloyal to the parent that mum or dad is now marrying. It really formalizes the loss of the family home because kids often maintain an unconscious wish that their parents will go back together. It brings new children potentially from each person’s marriage into the household, if the kid may not like or get along with. It creates abnormal feelings of disloyalty to the other parent. It creates less time with the other parent potentially. So for all these reasons it is a very, very delicate time that can be very, very hard on children. And one of the mistakes that parents make is when they encourage children too quickly, or too soon, make their child bond with the new husband or wife. You don't tell them to call that person, 'Mum'. Don’t make them get into the parenting role early on. Encourage them to be respectful but if your kid doesn't want to love your new spouse or your new partner, you married them; your child did not marry them. You choose them; they didn't choose them. So you can't make your kid feel guilty or bad, or like they’re letting you down, or they're being a bad child if they don't like your new spouse. If they don't like your new spouse you can say, 'Sweetheart, you still have to be nice, you have to be respectful in the way you'll be to a person on the street. I understand if you don't like her, you don't have to like her. You don't love her, you don't have to love her. I mean there is things I like about her but you may not; you may never feel that way. And why do you say you may never, because you want your kid to have this big expanse of you of your acceptance and lack of pressure. The more your kid feels like your pressuring them to like somebody they don't like that they feel hugely disloyal to, by virtue of the fact that that person has replaced their mother or their father the more your kids are going to resent you and not feel nearly as close to you. So that is hugely important, just to be emphatic when your child complains. Don’t pressure your child to be more involved with that new parent than they want. And don't pressure your new spouse to be more of a parent. The model that I tell parents is that your new spouse should be more like a fun loving aunt or uncle. In general, particularly in the early phase they shouldn't really be involved very much in setting limits at all except beyond their own personal space and property. The study shows it takes about five years or so for stepfamilies to go into some kind of a workable rhythm. Don’t assume it's going to happen right away.

Author and Psychologist Dr. Joshua Coleman offers suggestions for parents to help their children adjust to a new stepfamily

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Expert Bio

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Joshua Coleman, PhD

Author & Psychologist

Dr. Coleman is a psychologist in private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area and Co-Chair of the Council on Contemporary Families, a non-partisan organization composed of leading sociologists, historians, psychologists and demographers dedicated to providing the press and public with the latest research and best-practice findings about American families. He has lectured at Harvard University and The University of California at Berkeley and blogs on parent-adult child relationships for the U.C. Berkeley publication, Greater Good Magazine, the Huffington Post and Psychology Today.

Dr. Coleman is frequently contacted by the media for opinions and commentary about changes in the American family. He has been a frequent guest on the Today Show, NPR, and The BBC, and has also been featured on Sesame Street, 20/20, Good Morning America, PBS, AARP,  America Online Coaches,  and numerous news programs for FOX, ABC, CNN, and NBC television. His advice appears often in The New York Times, The Times of London, Fortune, Newsweek, The Chicago Tribune, Slate, Psychology Today, U.S. World and News Report, Parenting Magazine, The Baltimore Sun and many others.

He has served on the clinical faculties of The University of California at San Francisco, The Wright Institute Graduate School of Psychology, and the San Francisco Psychotherapy Research Group. He is the author of numerous articles and chapters and has written four books:  When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don't Get Along (HarperCollins) The Marriage Makeover: Finding Happiness in Imperfect Harmony (St. Martin's Press); The Lazy Husband: How to Get Men to Do More Parenting and Housework (St. Martin's Press); and Married with Twins: Life, Love and the Pursuit of Marital Harmony. His books have been translated into Chinese, Croatian, and Korean, and are also available in the U.K., Canada, and Australia. He is formerly a contributing editor to Twins Magazine.

 Dr. Coleman is a sought-after public speaker on topics related to the family. He is also co-editor, along with historian Stephanie Coontz of the yearly online volume, Unconventional Wisdom: News You Can Use, a compendium of noteworthy research on the contemporary family, gender, sexuality, poverty, and work-family issues.  He runs a popular webinar series for estranged parents and a free newsletter for parents, The Coleman Report.

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