New relationship: Why are the kids acting up?

I am dating a divorced mother of two young girls. I am concerned about the rebelliousness that I see in the girls immediately after they return from visits with their father. They show little respect to their mother or to me. Can you shed some light on why they are behaving in this manner?

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Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

Transitions between homes can be stressful for children as well as adults. These transitions are smoother when the quality of the relationship between ex-spouses is cordial and there is a good working relationship between parents about the caretaking of their children. Initial adjustment to new situations can cause tension, and children may experience grief and loss over their parents separation for some time. Sadness and grieving may be masked by anger, especially if children have not been given an opportunity to express their feelings or if the security needs of the child have not been adequately addressed during the process of separation and divorce. Adjustments like these two-home transitions also become easier with the length of time following the divorce, as children become more secure with the tremendous change that a dissolution of their parents' marriage means for them.

However, when a new romantic partner appears on the scene, old feelings of loss are usually rekindled, and it is natural for children to rebel against what they may experience as a person threatening to take the place of the father they have just been visiting. Though you may have enjoyed a pleasant connection with these same children earlier, more "negative" feelings will often surface following time with the other parent because they have not been in their home with their mother and you have! Feeling insecure about their place in their family can be likened to an instinctive battle for their "territory." And, afterall, what are you doing in their home when they are not even able to be present? Remember that children may often feel out of control of what is happening to them because it is the adults who are making the decisions which result in disruption to their lives! Younger children may not have the vocabulary or the command of language to articulate their feelings, and so acting out becomes their only avenue of expression.

Even when a commitment is secured in a new relationship, it is natural for children to test a new stepparent-to-be for durability and loyalty. However, in your situation, dating may not yet mean a commitment. If this is the case, do not expect a child to welcome you into the intimacy of their home, for you are a stranger. Inviting you in means opening up to the possibility of loss. One way children attempt to protect themselves from further loss is to distance themselves from you. And one way to distance is through expressions of anger and rebellious behavior. It is crucial to try to understand what the meaning of this behavior is in order to handle this kind of tension appropriately.

A suggestion that may help ease this transition is to create clear boundaries between their time home with their mother and the time that they see you again with her in their home. Let them reunite with Mom first and reorient themselves to being back. If they come back on a Sunday evening, for example, the evening or the majority of it should be spent alone with Mom. Should your romantic relationship become more defined in terms of commitment and you are no longer dating but committing yourselves to one another in a serious relationship, then the impact on the children of a new relationship must be considered in a new light. Children do not do well to attach to a spouse's romantic partner if they are just "passing through." Until a commitment is defined, this transitional boundary time protects a child from feeling invaded. With this boundary intact, a child may feel ready to see Mommy's friend the next day, or after family relationships have been reestablished.

Respecting the family boundary and keeping the romantic relationship with the woman you are dating more separate, until the question of commitment is addressed is in the best interests of both the children and the developing relationship. Becoming a significant part of the children's life too quickly will cause enough stress to curtail any opportunity for the relationship to flourish. Go slow. Take time to know one another apart from the children. Spend time building the length of time you are together with the children and their mother. Getting to know one another will take longer in this situation because there are more people's needs to consider. There is no such thing as instant intimacy or instant family. Emotional attachments take time to solidify. Trust develops through experience and there are no shortcuts. You are considering yourself when you allow the relationship to mature slowly and with realistic boundaries.

See also Making Healthy Stepfamilies

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