Children have the right to refuse

Renate Hölzer-Hasselberg

It is the right of every adult to end a relationship or to begin a new one. This is a consequence of the priority we lay on the autonomy which modern consciousness accords to the individual.

However, what does this mean for the children involved? They too have the right to reject from the bottom of their heart the decision of their biological parents, as well as the new caregivers chosen by their mother or father. As long as violence or neglect do not play any role, children will always have the legitimate right to want the relationship of their biological parents to continue, seeing as they have “chosen” these parents.

This has to be considered and then adjusted for at the beginning of every patchwork family.  And then the question has to be asked: am I ready to face this fact?  Children should never be admonished for rejecting their parent’s new partner. 

A parent’s expectation that their children will also love their new partner because they do so themselves is naïve.  Sometimes this attitude is rationalised by saying, “What’s good for the mother or father (entering into a new relationship) is also good for the child”.  This is, however, a false perception with the aim of avoiding paying due attention to the needs of the child.

In fact, it is much more reasonable to realise that a child, in the best possible case, might feel the following, even if they cannot find the words to express it: “I am happy that you have a new partner, but that’s your relationship and not mine. I myself don’t want to live with this person, I don’t want to go on holiday with them. Do what you want, but I just feel that I didn’t choose this person.” No matter how difficult it is, the adult must respect this reaction. The opposite approach to this, where the child simply has to adapt to the new situation, must clearly be rejected as an outdated method of education which pays too little attention to the vulnerabilities and needs of the child’s psyche.

It might be argued, why can’t one demand a minimum of politeness and respect from children, similar to the respect they pay to their teachers. However, schools and nurseries can be changed, families cannot. The “terms and conditions” between pupils and teachers are clearly defined, but children are not at their mercy in the way that they are with their parents in the drama that is the destiny between parents and children.

The new partner in a patchwork family does not have any responsibility for raising a child that is not their own. The responsibility for the upbringing of the child always remains with their biological parents. This only changes when the stepmother or stepfather earns the respect and trust of their stepchild. This then leads to a climate of cooperative upbringing, but only when this has been affirmed by everyone involved. Parents, however, have one thing in common with teachers when it comes to their relationship with children and young adults; without trust, love and respect, which both stepparents and teachers first have to earn, no upbringing can take place as the child or young person will simply boycott all attempts.

“You can’t tell me what to do!”

The relationship between the prospective stepmother or stepfather and the stepchildren follows completely different rules to those between the parent and their new partner themselves. Incoming partners should adjust themselves to the challenge of earning the respect and perhaps at some point the affection of the stepchild, something that should by no means be taken for granted.

Take, for example, the case of a “new” father, who moved in with the long-divorced mother of four children, some of them experiencing various stages of puberty. Several of them strongly rejected the new man in the house.

In contrast to their biological father who, owing to his career, was only at home on Sundays and who the younger two children only knew from his weekend visits, the stepfather devoted himself to his new family in a way that was touching to see for external observers. However, he was not their “real” father, and he was often made aware of this. “You can’t tell me what to do, you’re not my real father!” This is the formulation which, in the words of the child, sums up the situation in such cases of conflict.

The new step-father took this with the patience of an angel. Most likely he did not take the rejection that was shown personally, but rather took it as being against the situation that originated through the mother’s decision to separate, which was rejected by the children with various degrees of intensity. However, due to the love they had for their mother they did not take it out on her but rather on her new partner. It was only a lot later, when they had already partially left home, that the children were able to show their mother’s new partner more respect and treat him like an old friend.

Whoever decides to form a patchwork family has to be prepared to work hard and make a big effort, a lot more than required when forming a “normal” family. All involved bring with them their own baggage of destiny and they are all required to work on it themselves; except, of course, the children.

Parents have to recognise their personal problems

What is normal for a patchwork family and what are the necessary steps so that children and adults can make themselves at home in the new life situation? The adults forming a patchwork family should recognise their own personal problems. Why? The challenges of forming a patchwork family requires a lot of sensitivity, tolerance of frustration, readiness for compromise and humour from all effected. If the vulnerabilities and needs, as well as the expectations and wishes, of the adults aren’t made clear, this can lead to misunderstandings and finger-pointing. Who hasn’t experienced the following; “You’re children have done it again...,” “Well yours are no different...” It sounds mundane and harmless, but if the roles of the step and biological parents in terms of their rights and responsibilities have not been made clear, then it can lead to disappointment and misunderstanding.

There needs to be a readiness to talk at all times, so that every member of the family feels that they can express themselves openly and without fear. The adults have to be prepared, however, to deal with criticism, doubts and rejection from the children and young adults. A home can only develop when everyone has the assurance that they will be loved and accepted for who they are. From such an attitude every form of development is possible.

How teachers can help

Pupils often react to radical change at home by refusing to work and withdrawing socially. This can be a dangerous situation! Teachers should quickly recognise when this situation is occurring and attempt to communicate with the parents. It is essential that both the teacher and the parents offer strong support to the child. If the teacher has the impression that the pupil has become overwhelmed by the new familial constellation, then a special support plan for the pupil should be prepared. Children who are obviously overwhelmed by a new familial constellation need special protection, and the intervention of a family therapist is often necessary. 

However, teachers should not let themselves be pressured by the parents into taking on the role of a therapist as this can lead to them too becoming overwhelmed with the situation. Above all, they should remain in the role of the “advocate” of their pupils’ needs and necessities.

About the author: Renate Hölzer-Hasselberg runs her own psychotherapeutic practice located in Ammersbek.