Coping with Loss in a Stepfamily

“Mom, listen to this text,” my 18-year-old daughter, Jodi, said early yesterday morning. “My friend, Jacob Mulberry was killed in a tragic accident last night. His brother, Keith is seriously injured. There were two others in the truck – not sure of their conditions.”

The text was from a friend of hers about two brothers they go to school with. Jodi read other details about the wreck in shock, not believing that a boy she just saw in class is now dead. She learned later that the brother, Keith, also died later that evening.

Coping with loss is never easy. I can’t imagine how this family will deal with the loss of their two sons. Their lives will never be the same.

The loss experienced in a stepfamily is not the same as an unexpected vehicle fatality, but the losses our stepchildren encounter as a result of death or divorce is significant. And when we don’t acknowledge their loss or minimize their feelings, it hinders their ability to work through their feelings and adjust to stepfamily life.

So, how do we help our stepchildren with their loss? First, we allow them to talk about their other parent when they’re in our home. We might ask if they want to have pictures of their parent in their room, or other items that help them feel comfortable. We don’t compete with the other parent or try to replace that parent for our stepchildren.

It also helps to remember that loyalty conflict is a result of the loss our stepchildren feel. My husband and I had been married more than 10 years when my stepchildren lost their mother to cancer. I had a good relationship with my stepchildren but after her loss, my stepson became very distant for awhile. He struggled with how to integrate his grief over his mother’s death with his feelings toward me. As he worked through his grief with a counselor and allowed time to heal his hurt, he was able to come back to a relationship with me.

Loss can affect everyday temperament, causing mood swings and emotional outbursts. Some children naturally handle emotions better than others, but if your stepchild shows unstable emotions regularly, it might be time to consider professional help.

Stepfamilies are born of loss. Especially in the early years of marriage, it’s likely that stepchildren will struggle with a confusing set of emotions because of loss. Be sensitive and compassionate toward them, encouraging them to talk through their feelings while helping them process their loss. Don’t be reluctant to seek professional help if necessary.

Are you sensitive toward the loss your stepchildren feel?

Healthy Stepparenting #2: Recognize the Impact of Loyalty Conflict

Loyalty conflict is a foreign term to a nuclear family. But for stepfamilies, it can be an unfortunate reality, resulting in crippling emotions for stepchildren and unseen barriers toward relationship building with stepparents.

Loyalty conflict occurs when a stepchild experiences conflicting feelings between his biological parent and his stepparent. It can also occur when a child feels emotionally torn between two biological parents and is forced to take sides.

Children naturally have strong loyalties toward their biological parents. As they build a relationship with a stepparent, they may experience guilt and confusion because they worry about the impact on their non-residential biological parent. When stepchildren struggle with conflicting emotions, they will remain loyal to their biological parent, shutting out their stepparent and any emotional ties to him/her.

If a stepparent tries to compete with the biological parent or win the child over, the loyalty conflict will increase. The stepchild may feel that enjoying a relationship with his stepparent is hurtful to his biological parent. These feelings are compounded when an insecure biological parent discourages a relationship with the stepparent.

In order to help combat these feelings for stepchildren, stepparents must never criticize the biological parent or appear in competition with them. The stepchildren should be allowed continued contact and communication with the other biological parent without a threat of anyone hindering that relationship.

In time, stepchildren learn it’s okay to love a stepparent in addition to their biological parent. It takes longer in homes where the step-relationship is discouraged by the other parent but the stepparent has no control over that. Once again, stepparents will find that time and patience are on their side.

“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” Galatians 6:9