Sixteen-year-old Kenziah Wambua has never accepted her father’s remarriage, which happened five years ago after a bitter divorce from her mother.
Her father’s remarriage destroyed any hope that her parents would get back together and made her angry because she saw it as an act of betrayal against the family.
The only thing she felt for her father’s new wife and her step-siblings was hatred and since she was living with her mother, she stopped visiting her father to avoid interacting with his new family.
Kenziah is now more understanding of her family situation but still has difficulties bonding with her stepmother and step-siblings.
“I had been quietly hoping that somehow, things would be resolved and my dad and mom would reunite, but the remarriage dashed all my hopes. But I have realised that it is something I can’t change, so I am learning to accommodate them, though it is really hard,” she says.
The struggle in children
Kenziah’s feelings are typical of what children struggle with when their parents separate and move into new relationships. According to Esther Kariuki, a Nairobi-based counselling psychologist, such feelings of betrayal and the unmet expectations that the parents will reunite leave the children, especially the older ones, feeling angry.
Remarriage is especially painful if it occurs hot on the heels of the death of one parent.
“If the parent remarries shortly after the death or separation of one parent, your child may think that you are in a hurry to replace or get rid of his or her natural parent,” Esther explains.
Her sentiments are reflected in Miriam Muraguri’s nine-year-old daughter’s behaviour. After her husband’s death last year, Miriam met a man and got married recently, but her daughter, Stacy, has refused to accept her new husband.
“Stacy began to sulk when I first introduced her to him. Today, she hardly accepts anything from him, not even assistance with her homework. This is unlike the way she was with her father.”
Jane Wanjiku, a housewife, is also trying to solve her 10-year-old son’s frequent fights with his stepsisters. The boy also told his stepfather off when the man tried to discipline him, leaving Jane shocked.
“He yelled that he was not his real dad and should not spank him.”
While such statements may be hurtful for any parent — whether biological or adopted — to hear, Esther says they reflect the emotional strain that the child may be going through due to the changes in the family.
She adds that such behaviour means that the child is trying to distance himself from the new father because he feels that he is trying to take his biological father’s place. Ironically, some children grow fond of the step-parent, but this may trigger feelings of guilt.
“The child may feel as if he is betraying his natural parent by loving the new step-parent. Consequently, the child may try to create a wedge between you and your new spouse with the hope that it will make you reunite with his birth parent,” Esther observes.
A child’s resentment towards a step-parent can cause a fight between the parents. Georgina Atieno got into a heated argument with her second husband after he decided to discipline her son for his destructive outbursts.
“I didn’t like my husband’s approach and he told me to choose who I wanted to be the man of the house,” says Georgina. The relationship has been strained as she tries to balance between her son and her husband.
Communicate with your child
Such tiffs can be minimised if the child is prepared well before and after the remarriage to handle the various situations and emotions that arise out of having a step-parent and step-siblings. Esther advises that the first step should begin after the separation from one’s former partner.
“Explain to your child why you cannot be with his or her birth parent because that will lower his or her expectations that you may reunite. Use age appropriate language and emotions.
You also need to prepare your child to accommodate a new partner by explaining that there is a possibility that you will date again,” Esther advises.
She adds that it is important to let your children know how special your new relationship is and how it will contribute to his or her wellbeing. Similarly, you need to familiarise your new partner with your child by engaging him in activities that will help them bond.
Ways to help your child adapt to your remarriage
1. Reassure her: Children fear that their relationship with their birth parent will be affected. Reassure the child of your unconditional love and discuss a plan to enable them to interact with their birth parent.
2. Be understanding: Your child may not be receptive to your new partner and may worry about sharing his or her things with step-siblings. Have an honest discussion about these fears and explain how you will handle any big changes that may occur after you remarry.
3. Family Routine: Involve your child and his step-siblings in creating new house rules and routines to help them through the transition process. Explain that with more people on board, it will be easier to get things done around the house.
4. Be patient: Bear in mind that your child’s rebellion and emotional outbursts will not fade overnight, and talk to your spouse and ex-spouse for support in helping your child understand the new relationship. Show your child that you and your former partner still have her welfare at heart.