I Object! Helping Adult Children Cope When Their Parent Remarries
The recoupling or remarriage of a parent affects children of all ages, including those that are no longer children. Older teens, young adults and even older adult children can experience powerful, often mixed, emotions when they suddenly become part of a new blended-family.
Mid-life step-couples are often stunned and disappointed when their adult children find it difficult to accept their decision to remarry. They may think: "My children should be able to handle this…why can't they be more mature"?
According to step-family expert Patricia Papernow: "Waiting until the kids are grown does not protect children as much as we would like. This is because our parents remain part of our identities for life. Even after we're grown, our parent's divorce or remarriage can make us feel as if we've lost ourfoundation".
The problem with change
Logically thinking, adult children should be thrilled for their single parent when they find love and happiness…right? But just as with young children, adults often struggle to cope with major changes taking place in their family. And change often leads to loss and grief. Accepting and adjusting to a parent's mid-life marriage is not as easy as it sounds.
Unsettling changes might include the sale of their family home, shifts in family traditions, or a parent choosing to relocate, alter priorities or reduce their involvement with grandkids. Adult children may feel slighted, forgotten and conflicted; they may want good things for their parent, but feel the cost is too great for them, their siblings and children. Are their feelings and concerns selfish or legit?
A woman we know (in her sixty's) expressed the challenges she's had to face since her mother remarried several years ago. Although she appreciates her mom's new husband (her step-dad) and thinks they're a good match, she has never warmed up to his daughter (her step-sister). As she described the stark differences between herself and her step-sister, I pictured the frustration of trying to mix oil and water…it was very messy. Because of this uneasy step-relationship, she dreads family gatherings and holidays and struggles to fully embrace her new family structure.
Step-family expert Ron Deal states this: "Never mind that they are adults, this is a hard transition for them because it comes at a great cost".
Understanding goes a long way
Gaining understanding of the perspective of adult children can help mid-life couples approach these complex dynamics with compassion and skill.
As they struggle to find their place within the new family structure, adult childrenmay think of themselves more as a child - especially those that have a close relationship with their parent. Their parent's new emotional attachment now competes with the old, long-standing ones causing adult children to become territorial and insecure.
Adult children may also tend to revert to more of a childlike posture if they've carried unresolved wounds or burdens from the past, such as loyalty conflicts. This can emerge regardless of how their parents were separated, either through divorce or death. A parent's remarriage may awaken old grief and painful feelings such as abandonment, anger or sadness.
Mid-life step-couples may not be prepared for the objections that come their way. But with understanding, intentional action and lots of patience, adult children can be softened and family bonds can be protected. These strategies can help:
Acknowledge and accept that your remarriage will shake the family's identity. This may create legitimate feelings of discomfort, loss, fear, rejection and other conflicting emotions for your grown children. Don't be surprised by their strong reactions, instead choose to be understanding and intentional!
Be open to opportunities that bring about restoration. Resurrected pain and unresolved issues from the past need to be processed. Forgiveness may need to be granted or sought. If relational repair needs to occur between parent and child, move forward with compassion and respect.
Listen to your adult children and don't dismiss their concerns, even if you feel they're behavior is immature. Allow them to share what's going on for them - offer empathy and validation.
The new step-parent should not start enforcing boundaries or attempt to push their way in. Instead, let the adult child set the pace with your relationship and strive for genuine connection through friendship. Meet them where they are and apply crockpot patience as you slowly begin working toward developing a new family identity.
Before and after the wedding, biological parents should spend time with their adult children - alone. This will help to maintain family bonds without the constant sacrifice of having to share a parent. Even adult children need one-on-one connection with their parent, especially now.
We've seen step-couples resist these strategies simply because they didn't think it was necessary to consider their adult children: "We're just moving on and they've got their own lives" or "We shouldn't have to plan our life around the opinions of our grown kids".
Unfortunately, this attitude inevitably leads to resentments, broken relationships and heartbreak on both sides. Don't allow this to happen in your family. Continue to learn about step-family dynamics and reach out for help. Your intentional efforts will positively impact the trajectory of your family's future!
QUESTION: How can you be more intentional and understanding when handling the mixed emotions of your adult children?