Entering the kitchen, Sarah says: “My mom would never make something like that for dinner!” Scowling, she skips off into the living room, ignoring her stepmother Jill’s attempts to engage her.

With a deep sigh, Jill reflects on the many times she’s watched her stepchildren — Sarah and her two sisters — lovingly surround their father, giving him their full attention, while treating her with contempt. It’s likely most stepparents have endured times like this, when they wonder whether their new families will ever be successful.

It’s common when adults remarry that their children are often hostile to the new spouse, their stepparent. Although it is indeed difficult not to take this behavior personally, it’s usually not as much about the new parent as it is about the newly configured family constellation.

Children can grieve for a very long time after the breakup of their family, needing emotional space and understanding to negotiate the changes that come with divorce or with the death of a parent. Things have shifted for them, typically in ways over which they have no control: new relationships, new living situations, new schedules, possibly sharing bedrooms with step-siblings, sometimes new schools, adjusting to different expectations and considerable disruption.

It’s important that parents and stepparents understand that beneath each hurtful comment and hostile behavior is a frightened child, desperately trying to get her needs met. Just like all children, stepchildren need to feel unconditional love and acceptance. They also need a sense of belonging, with some control over their changing lives. Their needs can be undermined by the emotional and physical disruptions the parent’s remarriage imposes on them.

Many children do very well, understanding they can belong to two families. However, a child’s age and temperament play an important role in determining the goodness of fit and her adjustment to her stepfamily. Of course, another integral factor to consider is the personality of the stepparent and how accepting he/she is of the new spouse’s children, as well as whether a parent’s remarriage results from death or divorce. The quality of the relationship between the adults and whether other children are involved also matters a great deal.

The best way to help children cope with all these factors, in easing the transition, is by understanding the child’s viewpoint. This involves patience and connective communication, allowing children to express any feelings without judgment or censorship, while being careful to avoid any adult conflicts. We must appreciate that the idea of remarriage is threatening to children.

For the parents, the new marriage is exciting, joyful, bringing a hopeful, fresh start. It represents an opportunity to shape a new family following death or divorce. However, for children, this is just another change in a series of changes they have endured. They want something quite different from what the adults want — they want their old family back, not new families imposed on them. Parents and stepparents can become impatient with their children’s lack of acceptance and slower adjustment, expecting everything to be as positive and thrilling as they’re feeling. A child’s most fervent wish is to have her parents get back together — a parents’ remarriage brings a crushing blow to this hope.

All children need individual attention from their parents, which is often compromised by the attention parents devote to their new spouse. By parents planning ahead before remarriage, understanding what makes children behave the way they do, parents and stepparents can be better prepared to resolve problems. Children struggle to feel at home in their new families. Their vulnerable feelings of displacement cause them to be possessive with their belongings — their toys, their clothes, their room, etc. It’s important for parents to create ways for each child to assume some control in his new environment.

Parents and stepparents often describe their new families as “blended,” which is an interesting term. What this implies is a more seamless adjustment. Although we can smoothly mix together ingredients in a blender, two separate families usually do not “blend” as successfully. We simply can’t mix new partners and children without very sensitive care and attention to the vulnerability, sense of loss, bitterness, sadness and anger these kids are feeling.

Of course, as much as new partners are excited to join their two families, creating stability and peace after divorce or death, these expectations are often unrealistic. Although parents and stepparents want to enjoy a flawless transition, we must consider what’s required of a child in adapting comfortably to his parent’s new partner — he needs acceptance, space, compassion, patience and unconditional love, with the understanding that his adjustment can be at his own pace.

Please send me your questions.