Dad can reconcile kids with his new family


When a father starts a new family, the older children can often feel less valued and will feel indifferent to the baby. — Jan Tepass/Westend61/dpa

The baby has arrived! The parents are over the moon, but the reaction of the father's teenaged kids from his first marriage is restrained, to say the least. Couldn't they show some enthusiasm?

"This situation often leads to conflicts and can make many parents feel helpless," notes family therapist Maria Wiprich. It's sometimes hard for them to take, particularly amid their budding domestic bliss, but withdrawal or reproach on the part of the older children is perfectly understandable, she says.

"They're worried that their needs may be neglected."

Will Dad still be there for me? Will he give me assurance that I'm provided for? Does he respect me? These are the things that are running through their minds.

The first step the cold-shouldered father should take, Wiprich says, is to identify and acknowledge their anxieties. "I've got the impression you're unhappy at the moment," he might volunteer. The children often aren't able to say exactly what's bothering them and makes them so angry, though.

"Many of them have very ambivalent feelings," says psychologist Katharina Gruenewald, who counsels blended families in her work. "They love and need their father, but at the same time they're angry that he left the family."

In her experience, fathers who start a new family after a messy divorce are particular targets of reproach. "Their ex-partner and children often blame them for the family breakup," she remarks.

When Dad's new family is made complete with a baby, she says, the older children have the impression that "first he left Mum, and now he's replaced us too".

Many fathers who start a second family have a guilty conscience, according to Gruenewald, so they fulfil as many of their original children's wishes as possible. This causes friction with their new partner, who also wants his loyalty, especially if she feels rejected by his children.

"She and the new child often become a surrogate target of the older children's anger and disappointment at their father," she says, adding that from their point of view, she has made their parents' split irreversible by having their father's baby.

Is there a solution to this quandary?

"It's essential that the father continue to meet his parental responsibilities, regardless of whether the children approve of the situation or not," says Wiprich, explaining that he must let them know: "You're important to me and I won't abandon you."

Simply being accessible, offering contact and keeping appointments – even if he's knackered because the baby hardly lets him sleep – can give them a sense of security.

Sensible though this is in theory, putting it into practice can be a challenge. A father's feelings are hurt when his offers of joint activities are rudely rejected, or when his teenaged son refuses to talk to him and slams the door in his face. What then? Should he keep on trying?

Recriminations against the child are taboo, Wiprich says, but "parents don't have to mutate into superheroes either".

How well everyone copes depends largely on how consolidated the new family structures are, according to developmental psychologist and early childhood educator Hartmut Kasten, who has done decades of research on sibling relationships. Is the breakup still fresh and everyone's new role still in flux? Or have they had a few years to adjust to the new normal?

Hoping that a new baby will make everything right is misguided, Kasten says, pointing out that the arrival of a half-sibling "doesn't automatically promote the integration process and cohesion of family members".

"Children have a very keen sense of when they're disadvantaged," Kasten goes on. Conversely, when they feel they're being treated fairly and the fatherly bond is secure, it's much easier for them to deal with the situation and establish a relationship with a little half-brother or -sister. – dpa/Eva Dignoes

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