Small Steps Make a Blended Family

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potted plant-smDear Mr. Dad: I’m engaged to an amazing man with a 9-year old son who’s with him every other weekend. When I first started going out with his father, the boy and I got along great. But the closer we get to the marriage, the worse things get between us. I’ve tried to talk with him about it, but he just screams at me that, “you’re not my mother!” and runs to his dad, whose usual response us to take his son’s side and spend more time with him. That leaves me feeling completely left out and unheard. I’m not trying to replace my fiancé’s son’s mother or interfere with his relationship with his dad. At the same time, I need more attention and understanding from my fiancé. How do I have these conversations?

A: The dynamic you’re describing is incredibly common, but that doesn’t make it any less unpleasant for anyone involved. Think about this from your boyfriend’s point of view: He’s trying to balance being there for you and being a good dad. Because he sees his son only every other weekend, he wants those precious days to be as conflict-free as possible, which may explain why he seems to be taking his son’s side over yours (although there really are no “sides” here). He may also be feeling guilty about not being able to be more involved, which may explain why his response to conflict is to spend more time with his son. Unfortunately, that leaves you out in the cold.
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Yours, Mine, and Ouch

Dear Mr. Dad: I have two kids from a previous marriage, ages 7 and 9. My new husband’s two children are almost the same age and spend every weekend and all holidays with us. Problem is, my kids and the step-kids don’t get along. In fact, it seems like they hate each other and they spend most of their time together fighting and bickering. My husband and I don’t know what to do. Any advice?

A: Sounds like a really unpleasant situation for everyone involved—kids and adults. But before we can start looking at possible solutions, it’s important to try to understand why your home becomes a battlefield every weekend.

From your biological children’s point of view, their home (and possibly their rooms) aren’t theirs any longer. Their once-familiar and comfortable physical and emotional spaces have been invaded by strangers. Like dogs, children are creatures of habit and they may be feeling more than a little confused about roles, rules, and boundaries: who gets to set and enforce them, and do they apply to everyone who doesn’t have a driver’s license, or just to them?

The resentment they’re display towards the uninvited interlopers is at least in part a reflection of their uncertainty and fears that things they’ve taken for granted all their lives (like their toys, other belongings, and even your love) will be somehow taken away from them and given to their step-siblings. In a way, they—again, like dogs—are defending their territory and their rights.

On the other side of the equation, your step-kids, are being taken, albeit temporarily, from the security and comfort zone of their own home and dropped behind enemy lines, in the middle of uncharted and hostile territory. They aren’t sure of the prevailing family dynamics, where they fit in, and what they’re allowed to do or play with.

I’m not sure whether this is good or bad news, but this situation is pretty common. Many blended families, at least initially, go through a pretty lengthy adjustment period. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to make the transition easier.
• You and your husband need to come to an agreement about how best to handle this situation and resolve conflicts. To start with, he should have the primary responsibility for disciplining his kids, and you for yours.
• If you haven’t already, have a friendly talk with all four children. Ask each of them why they fight. Whatever they say, take their grievances seriously and involve them in finding solutions they can all agree on.
• Write a new set of family rules, so that all four kids know what their rights and responsibilities are at your house. Make sure the rules are fair and don’t favor one set of kids over the other.
• Plan ahead of time the weekends and holidays when the step-children will be with you. Ask each child to come up with an activity that all the family members can participate in–trips to the zoo or a sporting event, family game night, and rotate so that each one can have a say in what you’ll be doing.
• Ease up on the pressure. You may mean well, but telling your kids (or your husband telling his) that they’re “really going to love” their new step-siblings is almost a guarantee that they won’t. They need to forge their own relationships.

It may take a while for things to calm down, so be patient, loving, and positive. Others have gone down this path before and have found (at least some) peace and harmony in the end.

Evil Stepmother No More

Dear Mr. Dad: I recently married a man who has a 13-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. He and I met long after his divorced, so it’s not like I caused the breakup. Still, the girl has never liked me and, whenever she visits, she is arrogant and rude. I’m trying hard to be pleasant and establish a good relationship with her, and my husband has tried to smooth the way, but to no avail. What should I do?

A: Would it make you feel better to know that pre-teens and teens are insolent towards their biological parents as well? And that in some twisted way, your stepdaughter is giving you a complement by treating you just like a “real” parent ? No, probably not …

As painful as it is, what you’re describing is pretty much the standard in blended families. And while it’s entirely possible that you and your stepdaughter may never be best friends, there’s no reason why the two of you can’t at least get along.
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