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BLENDED FAMILY: Parenting (and Step-Parenting) Two Sets of Kids

QUESTION:

I’m a blended family situation where my husband’s two children stay with us and our two children every other weekend. The children get along fine, but I resent that my husband’s attention goes completely to his visiting children when they’re around. When they’re not around, he’s a good dad to our two daughters but they don’t understand what’s happening when his attention shifts and I can see that this is confusing and hurtful to them. I’ve tried to make him aware of this pattern, but he doesn’t see it. What can I do?

ANSWER:

Lynsey Mattingly said “If marriage has a blind spot, remarriage with offspring on one or both sides is like driving straight into the sun.”

For certain, there is no universal road map for success in Blended Familyland and the experience — especially for a step-parent — can feel exhilarating, frustrating, and frightening all at once.

Rest assured, however, that there are some simple strategies you can put in place to help everyone focus on what’s most important – FAMILY.

 

Blended Family-1Everyone is Innocent

Blending two families together is never easy, and it is natural for your children to feel like they are not getting the attention they’re used to when your husband’s children come for their twice-a-month visit. At any age, it can be confusing and hurtful for them to feel their father’s attention shift to his other children, particularly if their relationship with these children is not warm or close.

Likewise, because your husband’s time with his visiting children is so limited, he  may overcompensate during these visits. While he IS a part of your children’s’ everyday lives, he misses out on precious day-to-day moments with his other children who reside with his ex-wife. Being excited about their occasional presence and wanting to “make up for lost time” is understandable.

The point here is that, in the vast majority of cases, the desire of all parties is a natural and healthy desire to be close to their family members. There is not typically malicious or evil intent on the part of children or the proverbial “evil” step-parent.  But, as you’ve highlighted, the situation itself is fertile ground for resentment, hurt, and conflict between parents, step-parents, children, and step-children if not dealt with in a healthy and intentional way.

Keep reading for a few suggestions.

 

Develop a Parenting Plan

Work collaboratively with your husband to develop a game plan when the children are together. For example, you should agree on a general approach to discipline and rewards that you use consistently with all the children.  Nothing is more divisive than a feeling between kids that one of them receives special or favorable treatment (or receives lighter punishment).

Be clear – with each other and then with the kids – about who will be enforcing the rules most of the time.  Does it work best for your husband to discipline his visiting children or are you attempting to underscore both your roles as their parents when they’re in your home?

Step-ParentingIf possible, the same rules you use in your home should apply to your own children and the home your step-children live in most of the time.  This prevents a situation where they must adjust to new expectations every other weekend.

If they have a productive, amicable relationship, your husband should try to discuss this with his ex-wife, or even suggest a group meeting attended by you, your husband, and his ex (and her current spouse if she has one) in order to come to terms for the benefit of the children.

Perhaps the biggest mistake parents make when visiting children are present is to avoid enforcing any rules, which sends the message that it’s a total free-for-all.  This only creates more confusion and conflict in the long run, however tempting it is in the short-term.

Explain your guidelines and rules to all the children in one sitting to make sure they hear the same thing and rules are clear for everyone (taking into consideration age and maturity).  Be sure to include mention of what consequences will be for certain behavior and then follow through and stick to it.

Also beware of a common tendency to allow one parent to discipline the children and allow one to avoid that duty.  The “good-cop, bad-cop” is an approach that may appear to be effective, but again, is likely to backfire.

Make sure that everyone watches their language when the family is a unit and strive to eliminate the word “step-“ when you are all together.  Actions tend to follow words, so banning this derogative reference can facilitate closer bonds and the feeling that there is enough love to go around.

 

For more thoughts on this subject, check out this article on
How to Create Blended Family Rules That Everyone Can Agree On

 

Communicate and Develop Smoke Signals

When you see your husband’s attention begin to shift to your step-children, let him know privately, but quickly. This is not about catching him doing wrong, but helping him recognize behavior that may be completely unconscious.

Talk about ways he can regroup and become more emotionally or physically present to all the children so there are no hard feelings.

Other scenarios that require you as parents to communicate swiftly and skillfully include when:

>>  One of the children becomes angry or upset about blended family issues.

>>  The kids form two separate and opposing groups.

>>  There are major disciplinary events that require your husband to intervene with his visiting children.

>>  Your husband’s ex-wife becomes involved in your family’s choices or activities.

 

For more information about how to negotiate this subject with your husband,
read our blog on Polar Opposites: How to Handle Parenting Differences.

 

Game NightCreate New Routines and Traditions

Creating family routines will help unite the family and take the pressure off everyone.  That’s not to say that you can’t have fun or be spontaneous but knowing what to expect tends to make children feel safe, secure, and calm.

Incorporate at least one new weekend tradition that everyone looks forward to such as a game, movie, or story night.  Maybe it’s Saturdays at the amusement park, pool, or beach in the summer.  Or a family-made treat or certain meal each Sunday.

This new ritual can be as big or as small as you’d like, and of course it should be appropriate for all ages, but the idea is to remain consistent, keep everyone together, and build memories of happy family times. Positive attention and family fun will strengthen the bond with all your children.

There is nothing that says that you need to keep the same habits forever.  As the children grow and express different interests, you can broaden this practice.  For example, assign each child a weekend and allow them to choose the family activity that weekend.  Everything is on the table as long as it’s within reason and involves each member of the family.  One additional benefit of this plan is that each and every child can feel special on his/her assigned weekend.

 

Allow for Separateness

Because my emphasis, up to this point, has been on shared activities, you may be surprised that I also recommend activities that create quality time with segments of the family, but hear me out.

Consider that your husband and step-children share a history that occurred before you probably came onto the scene.  Their original experience of family, with both parents in the home, was first upended by the divorce and then later by his remarriage to you.

That’s not to make you feel bad or say it’s your fault, but it’s easy to see why they might crave and appreciate their father’s attention.  When this means that you and your other children get short-shrift, recognize this as a need they have for him and not as a slight to you or the other children.

Blended Family-3It is okay and even advisable for them to have alone time together occasionally, as this is needed and deserved to engender feelings of security and love for all of them. Your husband will appreciate your understanding of his need to create a special and supportive relationship with children who don’t have regular access to him.

This need might be especially strong if his divorce and remarriage have occurred recently.  The good news is that it may also lesson in time if you allow and even encourage it.  In other words, don’t give them the opportunity to see you as a threat!

Think about it.  Being supportive of your husband’s need to spend some quality time with his older children will facilitate their openness to and eventually bring them back into the fold.  This also allows him to focus fully on them without hurting the feelings of your other children and then focus on all the kids more evenly when you’re back together.

To balance his absence from the other two at home, take them out to do something fun yourself while they’re gone or have your husband take them out (when his visiting children aren’t around) for some quality daddy-daughter time.  As they grow, you’ll be able to explain what these times were all about.  Children are more resilient and understanding than we think when we explain things in a way they can understand.

 

Ultimately, be patient and remember that being able to navigate the adventure of blended family is a journey and not a destination. You are building a family bond built on love, happiness and togetherness – – no matter what shape the togetherness takes – – and there is no need to rush or panic.  While it may be messy, some of the very best things in life are just that. 

If you could use our help to make blended family life more smooth, just jump on our calendar.

Chat with us (for free)

 

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