Blended Families, Part IV
In my capacity as an outpatient psychologist, I have worked
with children of all ages for over twenty years. Usually parents
drag their kids into my office complaining of a litany of bad
behaviors, ranging from not cleaning up their rooms, to getting
bad grades, hitting their siblings, or worse, stealing, fighting
or doing drugs. I work with parents to change their children's
behavior by changing the way the parents approach the children.
This is part IV in a four-part series on this subject. Please
read the first three parts before reading this aricle.
In general, let the biological (custodial) parent remain primarily
responsible for discipline until the stepparent has developed solid
bonds with the kids. Create a list of family rules. Discuss the
rules with the children and post them in a prominent place. This may
diminish custodial parent-stepparent-stepchild tension. Try to
understand what the rules and boundaries are for the kids in their
other residence, and, if possible, be consistent.
Stepparents make the mistake of trying to control the child's
respect, affection and role by coercion. This will fail. This is
one of the surest ways to create power struggles between kids and the
new adults in their lives. Paradoxically, if the child is allowed to
relate to the "new" parent in a natural way, bonding develops faster
and deeper. Build artificial resentment and the opposite occurs.
A specific and thorny example of this kind of problem is the
question of how the child should address the stepparent.
Stepparents want to be liked by the child, and even go so far as to
invite, even mandate the child call them "Mom" or "Dad," respectively.
Bad idea. The child knows who are the real Moms and Dads and though
over time there may develop familiarity, even affection between the
children and their respective stepparents; the stepparents are not
their parents. Do not try to force the child to call the stepparents
anything that is unnatural to the child. The stepparent has to rise
above his or her own needs and allow the child to relate to them
appropriately, from the child's point of view. In one recent case,
during visitation, the step-dad refused to acknowledge the child
unless the child addressed him as "Dad." The results were and
continue to be disastrous. Try finding affectionate and/or
respectful names that reflect the reality of the new and different
child/stepparent relationship. Sometimes kids call the stepmother
"Mom 2," or likewise the new stepfather, "Dad 2" or "Pops," or
something similar. While some parents think these appellations are
a bit strange, others like it. Be creative but do not force anything
artificial, or the relationship will likely degrade, despite the
stepparent's best wishes. The exact same principles apply to
step-grandparents and stepsiblings--same ideas; different people,
circumstances, ages and developmental norms.