Updated: Apr 23
When a family ends due to death or divorce, the dynamics between parent and child can change dramatically. Single parents tend to cling to and perhaps overly indulge their children as a way to provide comfort or to relieve guilt for the breakup of the family unit and all the changes forced upon the children. The single parent is grieving, regardless of the circumstances of the breakup, and the children are certainly grieving the changes in their life when their parents separate. A common coping mechanism is for the parent to literally and figuratively move the oldest child (or rotate the children) into the front seat of their car and their life, into the vacated place their spouse once occupied.
What it Looks Like When Children are in the Front Seat with Their Single Parent
When a traditional family unit ends and a single parent family begins, the place where the spouse once occupied is glaringly empty and it feels good to have someone step up and fill that spot. The age of the children affects how much this happens literally in the car, but to some degree it can happen with even young children figuratively. Young children may not physically ride in the front seat of the car, like an older child would, but the child/children as a whole take the place of the missing parent. Mom or Dad fill their need for companionship by centering their lives around their children. While this is not a bad thing to do under the circumstances, the longer the parent remains single the more of an issue moving the child/children out of the ‘front seat’ will be when they remarry or blend their family with another family.
Children in a single parent home become accustomed to being the center of that parent’s world and their top priority. In a traditional family, the couple came together before any children entered the picture. The couple also knows that after the children leave the home, they will once again be only two of them. With this foundation in place, the family unit has a natural order where the power and authority rests with the parents. In single family homes, if the children are old enough, they may play a large part in the decision making. They may help decide where they live, what vacations they take, how they celebrate holidays in the new family unit, what meals they commonly have, what the family does in their free time, which parent they want to live with, and countless other decisions. Older children can become equals to the single parent because the breakup of the family changes everyone; they are never quite the same after that happens. There is a defining ‘before and after’ moment in each person’s life when that breakup occurs. These ‘upgrades’ in a child’s privileges are difficult to remove when couples come together and attempt to blend their families and shift children back to the traditional parent-child roles.
How Parent-Child Roles Shift from Single Family Homes to Blended Family Homes
Prior to the biological parents separating, the roles are clearly defined between parent and child. After the separation, the roles can shift dramatically. In extreme cases children take on parental roles if the parent is struggling with depression, anxiety, or has an especially difficult time making the adjustment. Commonly parents and older children become peers within the family. They consult with one another, they lean on one another, they support one another through the healing process and this new dynamic puts them on equal footing. Very young children’s roles may not shift in this way with their single parents, but they will grow up expecting the full attention of that parent as the norm. All of this gets turned upside down when two single families come together and merge into a blended family.
Children are fiercely loyal to their biological parents and those bonds can make it challenging to blend families. The shift that must take place once couples join households in a stepfamily situation is not an easy one to make. Children are once again put through a major life change and change is not something anyone embraces without some resistance first. Children may resent the new stepparent that now takes time away from the time they get to spend with their biological parent. The parent-child roles that shifted at the time of the first breakup of the family, are now being adjusted once more. Children have enjoyed the privileges of being top priority in their parent’s world and will not readily accept being ‘demoted’ when a new adult enters the family and occupies the ‘front seat’ with their biological parent.
The Key to Successfully Moving Kids into the Backseat After Riding Shotgun
In blended families, without the marriage or partnership there is no family at all. The couple is the only tie that brings the two families together into one. If that relationship falls apart, the entire family unit will separate as there is nothing that ties them together but the couple.
The key to moving the kids into the backseat, literally and figuratively in blended families, is to make your couple relationship the #1 priority in your stepfamily. Each parent must put that spouse/partner relationship at the very top because if that relationship fails, there is no family unit left to try to blend. The couple must be united and committed to one another in such a way that the children learn that they cannot come between them or manipulate them because both parent and stepparent are on the same page when it comes to rules, discipline, rewards, consequences, etc.
When an issue arises with one or more of the children, both parent and stepparent need to discuss the best solution or consequence together, without the child present, then present a united front when dealing with the situation.
Ron Deal, during the Smart Stepfamily Conference, provided two ways that this can best be accomplished:
Show Compassion - Express your love, understanding, and apologies for the adjustments the child has been asked to make in the new blended family
Set Behavioral Limits - After expressing your love, enforce the behavioral limits the child needs in order to shift the power and authority back to the parent/stepparent
If the biological parent continues to consult with the stepparent, and together they come to an agreement on each issue that arises, the children will learn that they cannot pull them apart and they will begin to respect this new partnership and the authority of the stepparent.
Problems develop when the parent and stepparent don’t align and begin to take the side of their biological children over their spouse/partner. If this happens it will begin to cause a riff in the family, and over time if this continues each parent and their biological child/children start to pull away from the other family. This can only be prevented when partners cling to each other through all of the challenges and struggles that are natural in stepfamilies and put the couple relationship first. This is the key to shifting the children back into their roles as children, and into the backseat.
Being united as a couple not only brings harmony into the blended family dynamics, it shows the children that the new stepparent is an important part of the family. Children will come to accept and respect the stepparent when they see the love and devotion their biological parent has for them. Through love and an unwavering commitment to each other, the couple becomes the solid foundation upon which the blended family can thrive.