Blended Family Friction
anonymous Asks ...
I am newly married to a woman that has 2 kids. They are 11 and 13. We have been in a relationship for 3 years and I know the kids very well and we used to get along very well. We did not live together prior to our marriage 6 months ago. But ever since a couple of months after the marriage my relationship with the kids has become very strained. They do not seem to respect my right to discipline them, although my wife encourages me to take on that role (on an equal basis). It’s become quite uncomfortable and I have tried talking , as a family about the situation, without getting and improvements. I am at my wits end and I hate it. They used to like me and we had a lot of fun. Now they seem to hate me and I just feel anxious or angry all the time at home. I am not sure what to do?
Rob Danzman Says ...
First of all, congratulation on your recent marriage. Marriage is challenging enough without the added demands brought on by a blended family. You and many other fathers and mothers are in a similar situation where families have diverged and then merged. Generally speaking, the best thing is to get an outside professional's perspective like a individual and family counselor. Most families need no more than a few in-home sessions to improve communication, establish (or reestablish) roles and goals, and set a tone for the new family environment so everyone can appropriately share their voice and get their needs met.
In the mean time, let's jump right in to some specifics things you and your wife can do until you find outside help. If I were working with your family, I'd want to know the children's biological father's role, I'd want to know how often they see him and that the relationship is like. I'd also want to dig into specifics about how your wife and you divide roles and responsibilities (...as parents, employment, money, etc.). Based on the little you shared, it sounds like you've got yourself some pre-teen challenge to authority, specifically targeting (maybe questioning) your 'right' to parent them (aka. set boundaries). It's often with the best intentions that the new parent defers to the bio-parent. Not a good idea. There is also often a lot of guilt by the bio-parent leading to an opportunity for the children to exploit both parents to get their wants met (often not needs). Below I listed out some key thoughts for you all to consider and ultimately practice.
1. Consistency: Consistency between you and your wife. Consistency with any other adults/parents in the children's lives. Even consistency between home and school. If your wife says the kids can have 30 min of tv after homework is complete and you then tell the kids later on they can have an hour - you have just given their splitting muscle a shot of steroids. They will start going to the parent that gives them what they want.
2. Boundaries: Boundaries are the building blocks of how we relate to our world. You and your wife have an opportunity to role model and create healthy, reasonable boundaries for both kids right now. HINT: They will not like this. They will not like you and your wife combining #1 (Consistency) with #2 (Boundaries. This is a disaster from their perspective on manipulating or playing the system. It's not because they are bad kids at all. It's a natural coping skill we have as humans. When boundaries are taught, role modeled and maintained by parents, kids also learn boundary development for their personal space, their bodies, and relationships. Who wouldn't want their kids to have a healthy respect for themselves and others?
3. Concrete: Be clear, short and direct about the expectations, rewards and consequences for your home and family. Rather than engaging in the super long and exhausting negotiation to complete homework, try giving them an option "Mary - you can either complete your homework and earn 30 min of tv or you can choose to not do your homework and have no privileges for the evening." Basically, our clinicians refer to it as Decreasing the quantity and increasing the quality. Talk less, mean more. This also applies to compliments (which many children do not often hear). This approach is to be used by any adult in the children's lives.
4. Cumulative: You and your wife will hear hours and days of grumbling, fusing and arguing from the kids when you use our strategies. But - it will be worth it. They will start to see that your home and family are run with reasonable expectations (eg. good grades, completing chores, healthy relationships) as well as reasonable consequences and rewards (eg. 30 min of tv following homework).
5. Negotiation: Anything other than data collection or information seeking (eg. Dad - where is the vacuum cleaner?) from a child when given a choice or boundary is negotiating. They are attempting to negotiate for whatever is they would prefer to do or avoid. Again - Decrease the quantity and increase the quantity.
6. Family-Centered: Make sure that with this new approach is the addition of family-centered activities that are fun for everyone and fully engaging. One type of activity we particularly like facilitating is what in the business world would be called 'team building activities.' Activities that require the family to work together to accomplish a common goal. Make sure to mix it up, get the kids identifying and researching fun things for you all to do together. It's also good to have split time where sometimes you take one or both kids out to do something either fun or on the weekend to-do list.
These are just a few things you all can do to realign the family in the direction you want it heading. Kids should definitely have a voice, just not a vote. Maintain consistent boundaries and have fun. Consider pulling in a consultation from professionals like us to facilitate the process.