Lesson 7 of 7 - evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily


What Typical Kids of Divorcing
Parents and Stepkids

Master Up to 60 Adjustment Tasks

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Experts Council


The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/sf/co/kid_needs.htm

Updated 06/30/2015

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      This is one of a series of lesson-7 articles on how to evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily. These articles augment, vs. replace, other qualified professional help. The "/" in re/marriage and re/divorce notes that it may be a stepparent's first union. "Co-parents" means both bioparents, or any of the three or more related stepparents and bioparents co-managing a multi-home nuclear stepfamily. 

      This brief YouTube video previews some of what you'll read in this article. The video mentuons eiht less0ns in this self-improvement Web site - I've reduced that to seven:

      Based on 36 years' clinical research and experience, this article summarizes family-adjustment needs that minor kids in typical divorcing-families and stepfamilies must fill to gain healthy adult independence.

       For perspective, first read...

  • this widely-accepted hierarchy of human psychological needs proposed by psychologist Dr. Erik Erikson.

  • minor kids' normal developmental needs, and...

  • these recent research summaries:

      Premise: families exist to nurture - to fill adults' and kids' needs. Parental divorce or death and re/marriage cause kids two sets of concurrent adjustment needs that add to their normal developmental needs.

      My experience as a stepfamily clinician and researcher since 1979 is that typical co-parents can't name most of their kids' developmental and adjustment needs. That implies that they can't nurture effectively, which puts their minor kids at risk of impaired development and inheriting psychological wounds. 

       Premise: average minor kids of parental death or divorce and parental re/marriage (stepkids) must fill extra needs from...

Healing psychological wounds from unintended nurturance deprivarions; plus...

Adapting to family changes from parental separation and divorce or death; and also... 

Adjusting to another complex extended-family reorganization when one of their bioparents re/marries and/or co-habits, and then possibly...

Adjusting to another wave of losses and role, relationship, and family-ritual adjustments if their other bioparent re/marries and/or cohabits.

    And later, millions of these kids (often teens)...

Must also adjust to stepfamily nurturance-deprivations and/or co-parents breaking up again within 10 years of cohabiting.

      These several sets of concurrent needs...

  • usually overlap each other and the kids' ~25 developmental needs; and...

  • require special co-parental awareness, teamwork, patience, and dedication to fill well enough; while...

  • each child's two to four co-parents and up to eight co-grandparents are filling their own family-adjustment needs. 

       Premise - "An effective co-parent" is a stepparent or bioparent who (a) understands each of these sets of needs, and is (b) motivated and (c) skilled at helping dependent kids fill them well enough before the kids leave home. Note that "co-parent" is a role, not a person.

      In addition to their developmental needs, typical minor kids of divorced parents  have...

  Psychological-healing Needs

       Premises - psychological and legal divorce suggests that one or both mates made unwise courtship choices and inherited psychological wounds from their ancestors. Until divorcing parents break their denials (usually in mid-life) and proactively reduce their wounds ("recover"), they risk unintentionally wounding their kids just as their parents did. Do you agree?

      Implication - average minor and grown kids of divorcing (wounded) parents need informed adult help filling needs like those below. The numbering continues from 25 common developmental needs. These healing needs are not prioritized.

_ 28)  Free their true Self to harmonize and lead their other subselves (personality). This usually requires some form of inner-family therapy over some time. Lesson 1 in this Web site focuses on this healing.

_ 29)  Reduce excessive shame and guilts to healthy levels: intentionally reverse low self-esteem and self-respect, over time, and ultimately develop unconditional love of Self and selected others.

_ 30)  Change compulsive self-neglect to authentic self-nurturance;

_ 31)  Replace fears of abandonment, the unknown, interpersonal conflict, intimacy, "failure," and emotional overwhelm with trust and confidence;

      And typical kids of parental death or divorce, and re/marriage need to...

_ 32)  Convert vague or distorted self-perceptions to clear, healthy, and appropriate senses of their unique true Self. This includes developing and accepting a realistic body image;

_ 33)  (a) Convert habitual self-doubt, ambivalence, and uncertainty (inner conflicts) into self confidence, and (b) develop trust in the dependability and good intentions of most adults and authorities;

_ 34)  Develop the abilities to (a) fully feel and (b) express all emotions within appropriate limits, without guilt, shame, or anxiety; and to (c) be comfortable enough with others doing the same. Failure to fill these three needs will seriously inhibit a child’s ability to grieve, communicate effectively, and manage interpersonal conflict well;

_ 35)  Develop the abilities to tolerate (a) change, (b) uncertainty, (c) inner and social conflict, (d) imperfection, and (e) healthy intimacies;

_ 36)  Replace toxic ways of self-soothing (e.g. addictions, reality distortions, and avoidances) with wholistically-healthy habits and healthy sources of comfort and reassurance;

_ 37)  Strengthen their ability to bond with healthy people, ideas, and goals. This is necessary for personal intimacy and effective co-parenting;

      The over-arching healing need for kids raised with too little early-childhood nurturance is to...

_ 38)  Firmly believe that their lives have intrinsic worth, promise, and purpose, vs. pessimism, worthlessness, and inner emptiness.

      Do you think typical family adults and supporters can describe these inner-healing needs? Kids can't articulate these vital needs, and are totally dependent on their adults' awareness and motivation to help fill them.

      Most divorcing parents and widow/ers are unaware. They each may have their own mix of these needs, and don't know that or what to do about them. The minority that become aware usually does so in midlife, when their kids are adults  This is why the [wounds + unawareness] cycle is inexorably spreading in our culture.

      Picture each child in your life now, and appreciate their concurrent needs to develop and heal while they slowly...

  3) Adjust to Parental Divorce or Death

      Many American kids are under 20 when their birthfamily slowly adjusts to the death, divorce, or desertion (absence) of a parent. Many factors determine each child's reactions to family restructuring from parental death or divorce - e.g. age + gender + birth-order + extended-family presence and coherence + ethnicity + finances + education etc.

      Generally, the lower the child's psychological and spiritual nurturance before parental separation or death, the more trouble s/he will have in filling developmental and psychological-healing needs (above) and the family-adjustment needs below.

      Depending on many factors, it may take an average minor child many years to adjust to the changes and losses from family reorganization. Kids whose stepfamily breaks up must fill these needs a second time - often before filling the first group of them. Numbering continues from above. 

      Typical minor girls and boys in divorcing families and stepfamilies need to...

_  39)  Make sense out of (a) why one parent left them and (b) why their biofamily came apart;

_  40)  Accept that they didn't cause their biofamily reorganization;

_  41)  Change their views of one or both parents from hero/ine to “flawed and still lovable” special adults. This need may include forgiving one or both parents for change-related pain and loss;

_ 42)   Grieve many concrete and invisible losses (broken psychological bonds), over years. Parental dwelling changes and visitations may cause waves of losses for adults and children;

_ 43)  Heal unwarranted guilts ("I did bad things that made them divorce") and new shame ["I’m too bad of a person, so Dad (Mom) left me / us"];

_ 44)  Draw and enforce firm new personal boundaries: the child needs to separate themselves from their parents' and relatives anxiety, needs, and conflicts, without undue guilt, anxiety, and shame;

_ 45)  Re/build trust that adult caregivers and authorities will not reject or abandon them, despite the child’s major problems and (self-perceived) "flaws";

_ 46)  Build new trust that living bioparents and key sibs and relatives are safe, healthy, and happy enough after the separation and divorce/s.

      More common kids' adjustment needs...

_ 47)  Adjust to many new roles, rules, rituals, and living conditions, including (eventual) parental dating, and new post-separation responsibilities - like taking more care of their home, themselves, younger sibs, and/or an overwhelmed bioparent.

      This need often is compounded by learning new and sometimes clashing roles and rules in two bioparental homes, plus evolving inter-home visitation rituals.

      If a child came from a significantly low-nurturance childhood, s/he will probably shuttle between two low-nurturance homes after parents separate. There are exceptions!

_ 48)  Cope with one or both bioparents using them as a weapon, spy, confidant, lure, or courier in ongoing relations with their other bioparent and/or key relatives. This is specially likely when parents battle in court over child support, custody, and/or visitations; and when one or both bioparents verbally attack or revile the other parent in front of the child. Kids also must...

_  49)  Adjust their personal and family identities over time to "OK divorced (or bereaved) [ boy / son / brother / relative ] or [ girl / daughter / sister / relative ]";

_ 50)  Find and use other healthy adult nurturance if their bioparents are too wounded and/or distracted. This is specially vital if their custodial bioparent is significantly wounded, unaware, and/or overwhelmed.

      And over time, typical minor kids of divorce or parent-death need to...

_ 51)  Re/build authentic feelings of personal security + confidence + optimism + hope for (a) their future as a whole, and (b) becoming a competent adult, spouse, wage-earner, and (potential) parent.

      "Rebellious" and "defiant" kids of divorce are often really grieving their losses and/or testing for security and status in their reorganized family. They may also be controlled by one or more angry and/or rebellious personality subselves. Unaware, wounded adults can shame such kids for these unconscious behaviors. 

+ + +

      How long do you think the average child of parental divorce or death would take to fill their mix of these 13 adjustment needs, while progressing on their 27 developmental needs, burdened by up to six unseen psychological wounds?

      If their Mom or Dad re/marries too soon after divorce or mate death, average minor kids are further burdened by...

  4Typical Stepfamily Adjustment Needs

      The mix and complexity of stepfamily-adjustment needs for a given child depends on many factors. Key factors are the nurturance-levels of their pre and post-divorce homes, schools, churches, activities, and neighborhoods.

      These new adjustment needs usual overlap the child's developmental and other needs, so numbering continues from the above.

_ 52)  Accept less (custodial) bioparental attention and accessibility. For teens, this coincides with the growing need to socialize with friends and develop appropriate independence;

_ 53)  Redefine (a) personal and (b) family identity, and (c) decide clearly " who is my family now?" And typical stepkids also need to...

_ 54)  Evolve and stabilize several to many unchosen stepfamily relationships; and...

_ 55)  Learn, stabilize, and rank many alien stepfamily roles (e.g. stepchild, stepsib, step-grandchild, etc.) Three-generational biofamilies can have 15 common roles (mother, father, brother, uncle...). Multi-home stepfamilies can have over 30...

_ 56)  Learn and adjust to new privacy and sexual conditions in their home/s; and they also need to...

_ 57)  Continue grieving old losses and start mourning a complex set of new tangible and invisible losses from the ending of their prior living situation and merging several multi-generational biofamilies over several years.

      Recall: a stepchild's "acting out" may be the anger phase of healthy grief, and/or appropriate testing of their adults' leadership, boundaries, unity, and power.

_ 58)  Detach from anyone's disapproval of (a) their parent's re/marriage and/or cohabiting, and/or (b) the child's acceptance of her or his new step-kin.

      And new stepchildren also need to...

_ 59)  Learn clearly and accept...

What are the rules, boundaries, and consequences in my two homes and complex multi-generational (extended) stepfamily?

Who's really in charge of each of my co-parenting homes?

How much power and status do I have now in each home, and what roles am I expected to play (e.g. peacemaker, entertainer, black sheep, star, ...) - by whom?

How do I handle the differences in the rules, roles, and consequences between my two co-parenting homes? Restated: how do I react to webs of values and loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles?

_ 60)  Build trust that this home and family are safe to belong to and bond with, because they won't break up like my ALL my other ones did." Achieving this trust usually requires creative, persistent reality testing over months or years.

      And new stepkids also need to...

_ 61)  Reduce feelings of isolation, self-doubt, and "weirdness" because most of her or his relatives, teachers, and some friends don't really understand what it's like to live in a stepfamily.

_ 62)  Adjust their identity, roles, loyalties, and "rank" in their home and stepfamily each time their co-parents have a new child (i.e. a half-sibling), or a bio or stepsib moves in or out of their  home, or a key person dies, moves away, re/marries, or re/divorces. And also...

_ 63)  Re-fill most of these needs (with more experience and knowledge) if their other bioparent re/marries. Then stepkids may have four co-parents, eight co-grandparents, and dozens of co-relatives - some of whom they've never met.

_ 64)  Many (most?) American stepfamilies re/divorce psychologically or legally within 10 years of cohabiting. This suggests that a significant percentage of the (usually teenaged) kids in them must re-do many of needs 37- 49 above over time. Re/divorce strongly suggests wounded, unaware co-parents, which raises the odds each stepchild must eventually fill their own personal healing needs (above).

      Stepfamily literature suggests that it commonly takes co-parents and kids four or more years to stabilize (vs. fill) all these stepfamily-adjustment needs well enough after cohabiting. In researching stepfamily realities since 1979, I've never seen any acknowledgement of these concurrent sets of ~ 60 kids' developmental + healing + family-adjustment needs. Have you?

      Note what you’re thinking and feeling. How many of these needs could you have named before you read this? Think of the minor kids in your life: do you know which of these needs they’ve filled and which they need help with now? What kind of help do they need? From whom? What kind of help do you need to help them?


      What can you do with this information? You can...

  • do nothing now, and keep studying Lesson 7 (form a healthy stepfamily);

  • refresh your understanding of effective parenting - take this quiz, and/or review Lesson 6;

  • show this article to other family adults and supporters - specially grandparents - and discuss it with them with your kids in  mind;

  • read and discuss this article on how to assess kids' status with their several sets of simultaneous needs;

  • assess one or more kids, and set some co-parenting goals for them as appropriate;

  • review and/or update any legal parenting agreement as needed;

  • review this article on co-parent "job descriptions," and/or draft or update your job description for one or more kids; and/or you can...

  • discuss these resources in a parenting support group you participate in.


      This article proposes three sets of simultaneous needs that kids in typical divorcing families and stepfamilies need informed adult help with: (a) healing psychological wounds; and adjusting to parental (b) death or divorce; and (c) re/marriage (stepfamily life). This follows a similar article proposing typical minor kids' developmental needs.

      These articles exist because U.S. divorce and parental recommitment is widespread, and many co-parents and family supporters are unaware of their kids' many needs. Informed parenting is the main defense against the spread of the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle in our global society.

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