Good Cop, Bad Cop

In some households, one parent is the “nice” one while the other is the “disciplinarian.” Children, of course, tend to prefer the nicer parent. The other parent – the “bad” cop – is often resentful. This parent knows that children need boundaries, limits and guidance and wants to do the best for his or her child. He or she wants support from his or her spouse. When the other parent refuses to offer that support – or worse, supports the child instead of the spouse – the “bad cop” is often extremely resentful and upset. The upset only serves to reinforce how “bad” this adult is in the eyes of the both the spouse and the child. It is no fun being a bad cop!

If you are finding yourself in the position of being the “bad cop” in your parenting team, consider the following tips:

Follow the 80-20 Rule
Each parent needs to be both “nice” and also firm. Each needs to show love and offer appropriate guidance. In other words, each should follow the 80-20 Rule independently, being 80% good-feeling and 20% education-oriented (see Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice for an in-depth explanation of the 80-20 Rule). Unfortunately, one parent cannot make the other follow this ideal ratio. Your spouse may refuse to engage in appropriate discipline and education. However, that needn’t be a problem for you. As long as you remain 80% good-feeling in your interactions with your child, your child will feel a strong and healthy bond with you. Your child will accept your guidance gracefully, because he or she will trust and love you. At the same time, your child will recognize that the lenient parent is a lenient parent – someone without much backbone. They will sense that parent’s weakness and, while maintaining affection, lose some respect.

Working Uphill
Often, lenient parents not only fail to apply rules and limitations, they also try to prevent the other parent from doing so. “Don’t worry that Mom said you had to be in bed by 9 – you’re out with me and we’ll get home whenever we get home” or “I know Daddy said you had to write out lines, but I’ll explain to him that you’re really sorry for what you did and you don’t need to write out anything.” In this case, it is very hard to institute rules, boundaries and consequences. However, don’t give up in despair. As long as you don’t exceed your 20% allowance for unpleasant-feeling communications (which includes, by the way, all instructions and corrections), you will still have tremendous influence over your child. If you give your youngster a punishment and the other parent tells the child he doesn’t have to cooperate with it, you can appeal to the child directly: “You and I both know that I warned you that you would have to go to bed early if you keep chasing your brother. Your father said you could stay up, but you know full well that you have to go to bed early. This isn’t between you and your father. It’s between you and me.” Then, if necessary, use the “jail” form of the 2X-Rule for effective discipline (see Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice for complete information on how to carry out discipline using the 2X-Rule).

Be Aware of the Impact of Your Marriage
Children don’t want their parents to fight, losing feelings of security and respect when they do. Instead of fighting with your too-lenient spouse, aim to perfect your own discipline style, improve your 80-20 Ratio and become an overall excellent parent. At the same time, work on improving yourself as a spouse. This produces the best outcome for kids – far better than ensuring that each parent does the exact same style of parenting.

Helping Your Child Deal with Your New Marriage

There are many changes that occur between the time a marriage dissolves and the time a new home is established. Children go through it all, along with their parents. In some ways, the journey is even harder for the kids; they are often unwilling passengers on a train that’s going to a place they don’t want to go. This can be especially true when a parent introduces the idea of remarriage.

If you are about to let your children know about your plans to remarry, consider the following tips:

Talk Little, Listen Much
It’s not complicated: you want to get married to someone who isn’t the parent of your kids. One sentence can convey this idea. After you say that sentence, allow the kids to react. Listen to what they have to say and nod your head even before you open your mouth. Keep nodding! When you finally do say something, it should be nothing more than a summary of what your child has said – particularly if the child has expressed negative thoughts and feelings. Consider the following dialogue, for example:

Parent: I want to let you know that Dan and I want to get married in the spring.
Child: Well if you do that then I’m leaving home.
Parent: (nods)
Child: There’s no way I’m living with him in this house.
Parent: (nods)
Child: He’s such a phony. I hate him!”
Parent: (nods)
Child: So you better rethink this thing.
Parent: (nods and adds:) You don’t want Dan in this family – you don’t want to live with him, you hate him – as far as you’re concerned, he’s just a phony.
Child: Exactly.
Parent: I understand.

There is no need to go further in the conversation at this point. The child is too emotionally aroused to deal with the information or to have a reasonable conversation about it. He needs time to process what has been said so far. Enormous changes are about to occur in his life. He’s in a state of shock, denial and rage about it all. This is not the time to tell him to “get used to it because this is what’s happening!” In fact, this first conversation isn’t the time to provide any sort of education, cheerful promises, corrective messages or anything else. It is particularly NOT the time to explain your motives, justify your decision or otherwise defend your position. Keep in mind that you are the adult and you are the one who is in charge and will make all the decisions. The child is powerless and he knows it. That is part of the reason for his extremely negative reaction.

Move Forward with Your Plans
Although you are welcoming and accepting your child’s feelings, you are not changing your plans. Carry on as usual with your new partner and go ahead and make marriage arrangements in front of your child (that is, don’t sneak around, hiding evidence of this activity). When your child protests, listen without judgment. Avoid making any remarks meant to change the child’s feelings to happier ones. For instance, DO NOT SAY anything similar to the following statements:

  • don’t worry – you’ll soon love Dan as much as I do
  • you’ll see – we’re going to be so happy together
  • Dan is a great man – you just have to get to know him better
  • you’ll love his kids and we’ll all be one big happy family

There is no need to stop the child from expressing his displeasure unless he is being rude to you or disrespectful to your partner. For instance, if your youngster says things like “I hate Dan. The guy’s a jerk!” you might say something like, “I understand you don’t feel positively toward Dan and that’s fine – no one can make you like someone you don’t like. However, I do not accept disrespectful speech, name-calling or insulting language. I don’t mind if you want to tell me your feelings about Dan, but you need to do so in a respectful way. It’s totally cool to say ‘Mom, I just don’t like Dan.’ If you have to say, say it that way. Remember, in this house we don’t GIVE and we don’t ACCEPT disrespectful speech.”

Respond to Questions
If you are careful not to shut your child down with your own anger, lectures, criticisms, excess information and cheerful pep-talks, your child is more likely to continue talking to you about his feelings about your plans to remarry. This is a good thing – you want your child to get everything off his chest. Be prepared for a barrage of questions:

  • where is everyone going to sleep?
  • what will happen to the way the house looks and runs?
  • what if he tries to tell me what to do?
  • where will he put his things?
  • where will his children stay when they visit?
  • what if we don’t like the way he cooks or cleans?
  • what if we don’t want him using our stuff?

And so on and so forth. Again, don’t answer in a sing-song voice, dismissing the questions with a bright “it will all work out – you just wait and see!” Instead, say things like,

  • Good question.
  • We’ll have to experiment at first and find the best solution.
  • It will probably take some time before we develop a routine that works.
  • It may be awkward at first.
  • Sometimes there are differences that we can’t make disappear.
  • Probably it won’t be perfect.
  • It may not be easy – especially at first.

Your child may also fish for reassurance that you will still be available as a parent. Again, don’t sweep the worry away by saying, “There’s plenty of time for everyone and everything! It will all work out!” Instead, acknowledge the valid concerns. Your acknowledgment actually helps the child to trust you more and helps reduce some of the emotional distress he is feeling. Say things like,

  • You’re right – there will be a new person in the house and my attention will be divided in a way that it isn’t right now. Right now you have me all to yourself. That will definitely change. It may not be easy at first.
  • There will be an adjustment period. After some time, we’ll figure out the best way to be together and apart, to have private time, me & you time, family time and other times. We’ll work it out by experimenting and learning.

Remarriage is a serious undertaking – and a difficult one. Your child deserves serious attention to his concerns. Even if you yourself are feeling totally in love, happy and optimistic about the undertaking, your child may be in a very different space – feeling uncertain, frightened, angry, hurt, lost and confused. Acknowledging and welcoming all these feelings helps them to leave more quickly. Ignoring them or wishing them away can cause them to stay buried inside where they can eventually lead to many kinds of distressing symptoms such as behavior problems, emotional problems, addictions, mental health disorders and more.

Address Negativity toward a Stepparent
Children don’t want more parents – particularly stepparents. They normally make this clear by saying things like, “He’s not going to be the boss of me. I’m never listening to him.” Acknowledge the child’s feelings and accept them as usual: “ You’ve already got a mother and father and you don’t want any more parents!” Again, make realistic statements. Depending on the age of the child you may say things like,

  • We’ll figure out how to live together day by day. We’ll work out the problems as they arise.
  • Your feelings will always be respected and acknowledged. I’ll do my best to make sure you feel comfortable in your own home and that my new partner relates to you in a way that will be as comfortable for you as possible. We all know that he is not your father. You’ll have a different sort of relationship with him than you have with your Dad.

Patience and Time is Required
Your child is going to go through an adjustment period. You cannot rush him into a happy relationship with your new spouse. Although it may be counter-intuitive, acknowledging the difficulty and pain of the situation will speed things along, helping your child to be open to enjoying his new life with his new family much more quickly and fully. Don’t expect this to happen overnight; allow your youngster to go through whatever he has to go through in whatever time it takes. Your calm understanding, compassion and patience will help your child more than you can imagine.

Provide opportunities for interaction before re-marriage. Do not rush to marriage just yet – do allow possibilities for your new family to spend time together first. This is to make your children feel at ease, instead of them seeing the both of you planning and working on the marriage all of a sudden.

Tips for Step-Parents

Given today’s divorce rate of 50%, cheap a lot of new families are created out of remarriage. In addition, many children become step-children after one of their parent’s has died and the other has remarried. Sometimes step-children also inherit step-siblings, meaning that the parents in such reorganized households have a lot of new family dynamics to deal with. Even if blended families are now a social norm, creating and living in one always comes with certain challenges. For a new step-parent, the road is far easier when preparations are made; it is helpful to learn about common step-parenting issues and strategies for managing them.

Honoring the Previous Family
Being a step-parent is harder than being a regular parent. Not only must you  build a new family, but you also have to do so without nullifying the original family your step-children come from. On the contrary, the more recognition, validation and honor you can give to the children’s original family, the more comfortable your new children are likely to feel around you. In cases where the other parent of your step-children has died, you can certainly ask the children about their past experiences in the family, their special memories and even their relationship with that parent. You want to show the kids that you aren’t afraid of the topic and that you aren’t trying to pretend that they didn’t once have a whole different home. Your unspoken message is “that was a precious part of your life and this new life with me in it is a different chapter of your lives. Both parts are valid.”

Step-children who come to you through the process of divorce may or may not have pleasant memories of their previous home. There are many types of divorce and in any case, the children’s experience of the dissolution of a home is normally very different from the experience of the adults involved. Again, you don’t want to pretend that the children did not have a previous life. In fact, acknowledging that all this change is difficult and must feel awkward, uncomfortable and unsettling can only help. Remember that children can feel intensely angry that they now have to live with a parent who is not their natural parent and siblings who are not their natural siblings. Acknowledging their grief and their right to anger shows that you are an understanding and trustworthy adult. “I know it’s strange having a whole new family in this house. It might make you feel upset or uncomfortable at times. We just want you guys to know that we understand and we’re here to help in whatever way we can. It isn’t easy. We don’t expect everyone to just start loving each other. That may come with time but it may not. All we ask for from everyone in this household is mutual respect. We talk to each other nicely. That will help all of us get along. If we later learn to like each other too, that will be a huge bonus!”

You May be Dealing with Trauma
Step-children have usually experienced some sort of traumatic loss, whether that was caused by death or divorce. Because of this, they often carry layers of grief, anger and anxiety – feelings that they don’t necessarily talk about. Their behavior, however, may be affected. As a step-parent you might see something that looks like an attitude problem, whereas it is much more likely to be an emotional problem. Sometimes it can be helpful to arrange for psychological counseling for kids who are being thrust into a blended family; counseling can give them a venue to work through their painful emotions far more quickly and efficiently than just waiting for “time” to do its magic. It is important to note that “time” does not necessarily heal these kinds of wounds at all. Therapy is a far better option. If therapy is out of the question, step-parents can accomplish much by being knowledgeable and utilizing resources such as books (books that can offer education and an opportunity to explore the issues in the reorganized family), pastoral services, community services and family services.

Because of all these emotions, step-children are rarely ready to give their hearts over to some new adult. It’s best if you don’t expect them to do so. Over the years, your patient, kind and understanding character will leave a strong impact, helping these youngsters to eventually open up to you and form a positive relationship. This process cannot be rushed, so just sit back and read some good parenting books (such as Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice by Sarah Chana Radcliffe) and wait.

Establish Expectations
As a new step-parent, you will want to avoid engaging in disciplining your step-children. Let their natural parent do this – unless the children are pre-schoolers. However, you can establish some basic expectations and rules just by living them yourself and using plain language to ask the children to abide by them. Work with your new spouse to create a set of basic rules and expectations that you are both willing to endorse. Suppose your new spouse never asked his kids to take their plates of the table after eating. You feel that since they are already teenagers, they should certainly be doing this for their own good as well as for the good of the household. In your home, you raised your children to do this task routinely. You have no intention of taking the step-children’s plates off for them and it irks you to see their father do it. Discuss the issue with the children’s father. If he sees the value in changing his previous philosophy and strategy, then the two of you can ask the kids to remove their plates from now on. If he doesn’t, however, then you remove your plates, you continue to ask your children to remove theirs, you express once only how you think and feel about the issue and then you let their Dad take care of it. If the problem gets out of hand, you can enlist the services of a family counselor.

Keep in mind that when you are pleasant, rather than strident, step-children are more willing to learn from you. When you keep the tone of the relationship positive, when you are willing to lead the way by your warm, kind example, you can accomplish a great deal over time. Don’t rush. Trust the process. Step-children are willing to learn more from warm, gentle step-parents than from strict, rule-oriented, authority figures.

Having said this, there is no reason for  you to accept any sort of abuse from a step-child. Read “The Relationship Rule” in Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice to learn how to establish respectful communication between you and the step-children. This is one area that you should really work hard to bring the children’s parent on board since establishing and maintaining basic standards of respect will help your new family remain healthy and caring rather than dysfunctional and destructive to its members.

Take the Lead
Don’t wait for your step-children to warm up to you. YOU warm up to them first, even if they don’t “deserve” it. Children need adults to take the lead. Pay attention to their preferences and their feelings and aim to respect both. Go ahead and “buy their affection” by getting them little treats, making favorite foods or doing special acts of kindness. By tuning into their preferences this way, you help the step-children feel safe and seen – prerequisites for a healthy relationship. You can get to know the kids better by opening up discussions stemming from issues in the news or articles you’ve read. Listen to their thoughts and opinions on all topics and accept what they have to say without judgment. Keep criticism very low – both about what they say and what they do.

Your Spouse’s Children
Your relationship with your spouse is the glue that holds your new home together. Try your best NOT to argue about your kids. Allow your new spouse to love his or her kids more than he or she loves you. Doing so helps your spouse come to love you more LATER ON. Parents have an intense, instinctive, protective love for their kids – a different kind of love than the one they have for their partners. You are NOT in competition with your spouse’s children, but if you feel you are, then accept the fact that the KIDS win and you lose. Then move on from there. Once you stop struggling, your partner will ironically love you more.

Planning the Size of Your Family

Have you always dreamed of having a large family? Maybe you grew up as an only child, and remembered how lonely it can get without siblings around. Or perhaps you always envisioned a sweet smaller household with one or two children. No doubt your spouse also has an ideal image of family size – and not necessarily the same as yours!

Planning a family is an exciting undertaking for every couple. While a welcoming attitude to “whatever will arrive” is one way to go, planning family size is another equally option. If you are the type that prefers to make a conscious choice about the number of children you will try to have, there are lots of factors for you to consider.

Here are some tips to help you in planning the size of your family:

Plan!
It’s best to set a specific time and place to discuss this issue with your partner. This is not a “passing in the kitchen” type of discussion, but rather an important, life-altering conversation. Take your time over coffee, maybe even bringing pad and paper so you can jot down thoughts, ideas and things to consider. You want to be able to sort through all possible factors the number of children you want to have, how you want to space the births, methods of birth control, financial considerations and so on.

Decide as a Couple
Whatever decision you come up with, make sure that it’s born out of consensus. Parenting is a partnership, and family size is a critical area couples need to see eye to eye on. Ideally, family planning should be a topic that was explored even before you decided to marry, but if you didn’t happen to do that, don’t worry: just do it now! If the topic is difficult to talk about calmly, enlist the aid of a therapist to help tease out the issues in a more peaceful and productive way.

Remember: There is No Such Thing as an Ideal Family Size
An ideal size of family is only what is ideal for you and your spouse. That an “only child grows up a spoiled brat” is a myth; conscious parents can always surround the sole apple of their eye with friends and situations that would give the child a balanced view of life. The same can be said about the argument that children tend to lose individuality in a large family. Supportive sibling relationships can actually be a blessing and children with a built-in group of playmates may thrive on less parental attention. Although there are lonely only children and lonely kids who grow up in large families, there are no rules for which size of family can lead to loneliness; there are so many factors involved, many of which have to do with parental skill and competence.

When you are thinking about the number of children you’d like, also think about how close or far apart you would like them. Always keep in mind of course, that what you’d “like” and what you might “get” could be very different. Human beings are not totally in charge of their reproductive capacities. People have unexpected periods of infertility or ultra-fertility, miscarriages and stillbirths, twins and triplets. There is a saying, “Man plans and God laughs” which certainly applies often when it comes to family size. However, assuming that things went the way you were hoping they would, consider the impact that close spacing might have on your lifestyle, career, health and emotional well-being.  Do you think you can handle it? If you put generous spacing between each birth, how will family life be later on when part of your family is young and part is in the teens and how do you feel about that picture of family life?

Factor in the Logistics
When you plan, it makes sense to thinking about finances.  Remember that there are hospital bills for childbirth, school tuition expenses, and the basic necessities of life like food, clothing and shelter. Will you want to send your kids to camp or private schools? Will you want to have family vacations? If a child has crooked teeth, will you want to provide orthodontics? What if there are special learning needs requiring special tutors, therapists, schooling – would you be able to handle whatever comes your way. No one knows the future – keep in mind that family “planning” will always have to leave an open door for last-minute adjustments and changes based on what develops along the way.

Do you have the time and energy to invest in your kids? If you and your partner are both working full-time to catch up on bills, can you really provide a new baby the attention he or she deserves? Are you physically healthy and strong enough to raise a new child? Do you need lots of time to recuperate after childbirth?

You might also consider your home and community environments. Does your home have enough space for kids? Does your neighborhood have resources available to assist you in parenting? Would you be raising your kids in a community of like-minded values? Or, will you be making a move to a different home and community? Can you afford to do so?

There are lots of things to talk about and dream about. You don’t need to know everything or plan everything down to every detail. You just need to get on the same page with your partner and work together toward building a family. Discussing things openly helps give you the best start in raising your family.

How to Make the Blended Family Work

Blended families occur when divorced or widowed adults with children form new relationships with other adults with children. Today’s high divorce rate has vastly increased the number of blended families. While parenting is always challenging, blended-family parenting presents additional issues that require extra skill and sensitivity.

Typical Challenges of Blending Families
The challenges of the blended family often have their roots in children’s relationship with their own parents. A parent’s re-marriage can take its toll on children, especially if the separation blindsided them. While parents may know for months or even years that their marriage will be ending, kids are often left out of the loop. They are more likely to be shocked by the time the information is presented to them. Sometimes conversations sound like “Your mom and I haven’t been getting along so I’m moving out and we’re getting divorced.” While this plan may have taken the adults a very long time to formulate, the kids may experience the dissolution of the marriage as an overnight affair. This could be true even if the parents were constantly fighting and threatening divorce within earshot of the kids. Children have no idea of what is happening behind the scenes – the marriage counseling, the lawyers, the long talks. In most cases, they just hear the final sentence. This shock aspect of the family breakdown can make the adjustment period harder. Even if the children long suspected that their home would dissolve, they are more likely to have suffered wishful thinking and serious denial. It can take them quite awhile just to come to terms with the fact that their home, as they once knew it, will exist no more.

Kids have to adjust to not only to the loss of their family, but sometimes to many other losses as well. Sometimes one parent becomes very scarce. Sometimes new caregivers enter the scene. Sometimes, they have to move to another home, school and community. Sometimes, they have to incorporate new people into their lives right away – such as the parents’ new partners and others. All of this change leaves its mark on children – many become emotionally overwhelmed, angry and/or sad. Many develop academic or behavioral problems. Moreover, while their parents want to move on quickly and establish new relationships, children can be resentful or fearful. It is common for them to be totally opposed to the idea of living with a new parental figure, as well as stepbrothers and stepsisters. It doesn’t matter how lovely these new family members might be; children are thrown together with people they don’t choose. They just want their old home and life back. If they actually have reason not to like the new parent-figure or new siblings, their pain is intensified.

But even if all is well, combining two different families in one household can be stressful. Conflicts between step-siblings are bound to arise, just because they were brought up differently. They may have different values and ways of doing things. Furthermore, there is the pressure of having to create a “new” family structure. New customs, new routines, new responsibilities, new roles and new relationships all have to be navigated within the blended family unit. In addition, the new husband and wife have to begin their relationship with a house full of children! And while people have high tolerance for their own kids, it is much harder to tolerate other people’s children. Marital conflict over parenting issues is common even when husband and wife are raising their own children; parenting conflicts in re-organized families can be even more intense.

Strategies for Your Blended Family
Although these challenges are real and unavoidable, caring parents can adopt “success strategies” that will enable them to move through the initial adjustment period to create stable, loving blended families.

Below are some techniques that may help:

Accept Your Children’s Feelings
Don’t insist that your children like or love your new partner or their new siblings. In fact, if they tell you they hate these people, just accept their feelings. Say things such as, “I hear you” or “I see.” Don’t argue with them or try to talk them out of their feelings. If you just accept the feelings, the feelings will become a little lighter, and move on a little quicker.  Accepting a feeling is like opening a door – the feeling can exit through the opening. On the other hand, if you shut the door on the feeling by saying things like, “You have no right to feel that way; these are lovely people who are here for you, etc.” then the feeling STAYS stuck inside. To help feelings leave, remember to open the door to them by letting your child express them.

Don’t Accept Poor Behavior
On the other hand, you must make it perfectly clear that everyone has to behave respectfully toward each other. While there is no need to like the new parent or siblings, rudeness will not be tolerated. If your child cannot control his hostility, consider accessing the help of a mental health professional. It is possible that the child’s pain is too much for him to handle and he needs therapeutic intervention.

Communicate with Your Spouse
The parenting partnership is important in all families, but especially so among blended families. It is vital that you come to an understanding regarding parenting style and discipline strategies. While some differences are expected to arise, what is important is that all children will be treated fairly and loved equally. Reaching a consensus with your partner on key parenting issues can help in anticipating the problems common in a blended family structure. This can be accomplished by reading a parenting book together, taking a parenting class together or going together to a mental health professional who deals with parenting issues and blended families.

Show the Children Love and Respect
You may have your own set of rules in your previous marriage, but you have to provide allowance for step-children to understand and adjust to your beliefs and values. Similarly, you also have to be open to their way of doing things, and allot time to adjust to their idiosyncrasies. And never speak ill of their biological parent! Doing so is the fastest way to harbor anger and hatred in the hearts of your stepchildren. Let your partner do the heavy discipline of his or her own children, while you do the same for yours. The first few years are relationship-building time; just be nice to your partner’s children. Of course, you’ll have to be pretty nice to your own as well, or they will quickly become jealous and resentful. However, everyone in the family knows whose children are whose. If a step-child misbehaves, you can let your child know that the child’s parent will be dealing with that behavior. The exception is when your step-children are very young (5 or under) in which case you can step in right away as a (benevolent) authority figure. Another exception occurs when your step child is rude to you directly. Since you must establish healthy boundaries in every relationship in your life, you can also do so with members of your new family. Do not give or accept any form of disrespect. Discuss with your partner what appropriate steps can be taken to effectively set boundaries against disrespect with his or her children (and the same for yours in relationship to your partner, of course).

Accept the Feelings of Your Step-Children
It’s not your fault that your new children don’t automatically love you (unless, of course, you mistreat them or treat them harshly). It can take years for your new children to open their hearts to you. Your patience and understanding will help speed up the process. Don’t take their rejection personally, but rather understand it as a form of their own pain that they cannot help. They have lost a home and they are hurting. Sometimes they have lost a parent. They cannot just open their heart to new love relationships – it is too dangerous. They have loved and lost. Therefore, don’t push them and don’t push yourself upon them. Instead, strive to make your stepchildren comfortable in your presence by being calm, gentle and caring. Unless the child is very young, refrain from disciplining (see above). Be positive. Offer acknowledgement and praise but skip the criticism and complaints. Let the other parent raise his or her children while you concentrate on making them feel safe and comfortable in your presence.

Be Fair!
Do not take sides, even if you want to stand up for your own children. Don’t make step-kids feel like they have to vie for your attention, or that they have to fight you too when they disagree with your own children. As the parent in the family, always stand on neutral ground when the siblings fight. If you can go out of your way to empathize with your stepchildren, even better (without being unfair towards your own kids, of course!). Even if you know that the step-children are being mean to your own kids, take it as an expression of their hurt rather than as an expression of their inherent “evilness” – try to guide them gently. Ask the child’s parent for help. Consider that your own children are also in pain and may not exactly be angels either!

Be Gentle and Patient
Expect a lot of bumps and challenges along the way; these are normal. If possible, get a mental health professional on-board to help provide support and guidance for you and your new partner. Why re-invent the wheel? Professionals can show you the quick road to successful life in a blended family. Short term support in the early months of your re-negotiated family may save you and your loved ones years and even decades of pain and suffering later.

Lastly, Embrace Your New Role
Show your stepchildren that you are striving to be a good parent, without the intention of taking their biological parent’s place. This may mean defining your new role in their life. It can mean establishing a partnership with your spouse’s ex. It can be striking a friendship with kids, and leaving all discipline issues to your spouse. Unless your “new” children are babies, toddlers or pre-schoolers, accept that you will never be a true parent to them. What you can hope to be is a wonderful step-parent, an excellent role model, an awesome source of support and love and eventually (when the kids are grown up), and a marvelous grandparent.

Weddings and Other Celebrations

Family celebrations are not just occasions to have fun, but also important learning opportunities. Most parents tend to exclude children in making plans for family events, seeing them as more of a distraction than a key participants. But when parents give children an active role to play during preparations for weddings, anniversaries, victory parties, and religious milestones like baptisms, dedications, and bar/bat mitzvahs, they help them learn a lot about their family, their faith and their core family values.

In what ways can parents involve children during weddings and other celebrations? Consider the following tips:

Always Explain What is Behind a Celebration
Milestones and achievements are worthy of celebration – but why? Explain to your child what is so special about a wedding (i.e. commitment, love, spiritual values, community relationships and so on) or other special event. Try to take it beyond the food and fun. You can say something like the following, modifying it to fit your own values: “Uncle David is getting married to his girlfriend Carol! Carol will become part of our family now – she’ll be your aunt. Weddings bring more people into our family to love. Maybe one day David and Carol will have children and those children will be your cousins. We’re all going to the church/synagogue/mosque for the wedding because people get married in front of all their friends and relatives and God. A person’s wedding day is one of the most important days in his or her life. You can help make it special by helping us make the cookies for their engagement party.”

Involve the Children in the Planning of the Celebration
Another way parents can make family celebrations fruitful for children is to involve them in the planning and preparation stage.This may be most appropriate when arranging a party at home for one of the members of the nuclear family. “We’re making a birthday party for Daddy’s 40th birthday. We’re starting to think of what we should do to make the party special. So far, we’re thinking that we’ll have balloons and a banner and we’d like you guys to make up a funny poem or story to tell about Daddy. But what other ideas do you have for the party?” When children are part of the effort, they will naturally learn to appreciate celebrations in their lives. These special events don’t “just happen.” Loved ones go to a lot of trouble to make things beautiful, meaningful and pleasureable. Most importantly, children will learn the intense pleasure of doing for others; it is very satisfying to bring happiness to other people and all too often, children are robbed of that particular pleasure. Involving them in part planning and participation provides education in how to give, as well as the pleasureable experience of giving itself.

Give Your Child a Role in the Celebration
As a family member, your child is more than a guest. If there are important family occasions, give kids a role, such as usher in a birthday toast or flower-girl/ring-bearer in a wedding. Being part of the actual ritual makes a child feel involved and appreciated — a part of the family. It also facilitates bonding with the rest of the clan. Family occasions after all mean solidarity in the family — so it makes sense not to leave kids behind! When photos are taken and the child sees him or herself as an important part of the celebration, it helps create lifelong impressions of the importance of giving, loving and celebrating.

Use Occasions to Help Kids Manage Difficult Transitions
Some family occasions can be emotional moments for children. Having a big celebration like a bar mitzvah, graduation or wedding right after a parent passes away can be very hard on a child. Or, having such a celebration while a parent is deathly ill, can be very difficult. Similarly, having such a celebration when the child himself is dealing with serious illness or trauma can also be hard. In addition, the re-marriage of a parent after a death or divorce can be difficult, as it’s both a hello to a new family life and a goodbye to the old. In all these cases, sensitivity is required. Don’t force a child to participate if he doesn’t want to. Allow him to have his natural feelings of grief and/or resentment. You can use “emotional coaching” (the naming of feelings) to show him that you understand and accept his emotions. For instance, Jan and Ted divorced 3 years ago. Jan had since become involved with a new man, named Joe. She had dated Joe for 7 months but only introduced him to her son 2 months ago. The boy had been complaining to his mom that he didn’t want to come to the wedding. This is what Jan said to her 10 year old son a few weeks before she was to marry her new boyfriend Joe. “I know the wedding day is going to be a hard one for you. You still miss Daddy and wish that he were part of our family again. That is very natural. And I know that while you kind of like Joe, you really don’t know him all that well yet and you’re not sure how this is all going to be for us. And the truth is, we need time to see how things are going to be (although I’m marrying Joe because I believe he’ll be a good man in our family). Right now, I guess you’re more upset than happy about all this. I can really understand why you don’t want to be at the wedding. We still have a few weeks to decide things. We’re not going to insist that you do anything that you aren’t comfortable with. We’ll talk more about this later. ”

When there are mixed emotions or just negative emotions, parents can include the child by asking him what level of involvement he’d like, where he’d like to sit, what role he’d like to play. Respecting the child’s responses and working with him can be healing as well as caring. When a child feels that he won’t be pushed, it helps him WANT to be part of things (in his own time). At times like these, it isn’t about what other people will think; it’s about what the child really needs.

In-Laws

Dealing with your spouse’s family, especially his or her parents can be quite stressful. Sometimes your mother-in-law criticizes the way you raise your children. Perhaps your brother-in-law excludes you in the family reunion. Maybe you feel like your spouse’s entire clan is ganging up on you. In most families, there are interpersonal challenges. It’s hard enough to deal with one’s own clan; it’s doubly hard to deal with one’s spouse’s clan.

However, it’s important to exert every effort to get along with, even establish a close relationship, with one’s in-laws. Not only because you have no choice (technically, you married into their family), but because in-laws are a rich source of support and caring. There is nothing that says you can’t expand your family; in fact, you are giving your children greater stability when you are in good terms with everyone.

The following are some tips on how to build healthy relationships with one’s in-laws:

Earn Their Positive Regard
Problems arise when we have the mentality that our spouse’s family should automatically accept us, simply because their loved one chose us to marry. While it’s an ideal, the reality is: we are strangers to our in-laws. To be really accepted into the fold takes work; at the very least we should exert the effort to establish rapport with everyone. After all, you can’t expect your in-laws to like you if you yourself don’t work on the relationship.

So do your best to earn your in-laws positive regard. Create opportunities to get to know them — and for them to get to know you. Invite them for dinner (or at least, lunch!). Bring them small gifts. Express gratitude easily and gerously. Show interest in what they have to say. Compliment them. Offer to help out – especially when you are a guest in their homes. And be patient; relationships take time. What’s important is that you consistently communicate your openness to be part of their family.

Set Boundaries
Your in-laws are not YOU; they have a different way of doing things than you do. They might feel strongly about giving the baby his or her own room; you’re from the co-sleeping school of thought. You don’t like junk foods ever; your father-in-law wins his way to your child’s heart through sweets. Your mother-in-law may think you’re starving her child; you’re quite confident that you’re doing a good job as a spouse. The possible areas of contention between a spouse and in-laws are broad and limitless.

What’s important is that you set your boundaries beforehand. Just because you want to earn their approval doesn’t mean that you have to give up your values and beliefs. At the end of the day you are raising your own family —a different family from theirs. While your in-law’s input and experience are valuable, you have to use your own values as compass for what to do.

So make a list of what for you are non-negotiables, and what you can concede to your spouse’s family. And then, discuss this with your spouse. If the two of you are in consensus regarding an issue, then you can both communicate your boundaries to the family.

Strike That Balance
It’s important to set boundaries, but it’s as important to be reasonable. When there’s conflict with the in-laws, don’t make your spouse choose between you and his or her family. You don’t want your in-laws to do the same (blackmail their loved one into an agreement), so play fair. All issues can be attacked objectively, if you only present facts instead of emotions.

It’s important to concede from the very beginning that your spouse will always have loyalties to his or her family of origin. And the closer your spouse is to the family, the stronger is this bond. Be willing to compromise. This will work well for you when it’s your spouse turn to have conflict with your own family!

Difficult Spouse

Like difficult children, difficult spouses may be rigid, over-sensitive, explosive, stubborn and more. This makes them challenging to get along with and one has to be a very skilled communicator in order to bring out the best in such a partner and minimize conflict. Although a difficult spouse’s personality presents certain predictable challenges in marriage, it also creates certain predictable challenges in parenting.

Here are just some problems that you may encounter with your spouse as a parent:

  • Your spouse has a tendency to spoil your children. A spouse who spoils the kids can be frustrating to deal with. He or she harms the children directly by overindulging them, refusing to establish appropriate limits and/or failing to establish healthy boundaries. In addition, such a spouse can harm the marriage as he or she contradicts the parenting rules you try to put in place and thereby aligns him or herself with the children rather than with you. In this way, the spoiling spouse diminishes your authority as a parent, causing real harm to your children through the process of “triangulation” (setting kids against the other parent).
  • Your spouse is too strict. Sometimes the opposite is true; your spouse establishes so much control in the family that there is barely room to breathe! Parenting should be a balance of love and authority, and rules must be flexible enough to accommodate the family’s changing needs. If your spouse tend to be too closed-minded, inflexible, rule-oriented and stern, he or she can alienate you and the children in one sweep.
  • Your spouse has to be right about everything. Marriage requires give-and-take as well as flexibility and the ability to compromise. Some difficult adults are simply too rigid and righteous to negotiate about parenting issues or anything else. Such a spouse provides a poor model of respectful negotiation for the children to emulate. Instead, the youngsters see an immature, controlling parent who cannot see another person’s point of view.
  • Your spouse is overly-dependent on you for decision-making. It’s great to be relied upon, but not for everything! When a partner refuses to step up to the plate to make decisions and take responsibility, you are left raising a family on your own. It’s not fair and its maddening. And watch out – the abstaining spouse may even accuse you of making poor decisions and being to blame for the children’s problems!
  • Your spouse is too critical. Getting constructive feedback from your spouse can be helpful. However, some spouses have a tendency to criticize everything you do. Whether your spouse claims that you are not feeding the kids the right kind of food, buying the right kind of clothing, or putting the kids to bed correctly, it feels like nothing but complaints.

What can you do when you have a difficult spouse?

Improve Your Own Communication and Relationship Skills
Just like a parent has to be highly skilled in order to raise a difficult child, a spouse has to be highly skilled in order to deal effectively with a difficult partner. Read marriage books or take marriage classes. Use the same excellent skills you’ve acquired in parenting to reduce defensiveness and encourage spousal cooperation. Use plenty of positive techniques like praise, acknowledgment, and empathy. Limit criticism and correction and eliminate anger. All of this will help your difficult spouse be more open to your suggestions and help in parenting and in every other area of marriage.

Consult a Third Party
Let a parenting expert guide you and your spouse together in creating your parenting plans. This can help avoid conflict over parenting issues and facilitate decision-making. When a neutral third party makes a suggestion, it is easier for your spouse to follow than when you make a suggestion (even if it’s exactly the same suggestion!).

Consult a Marriage Counselor
You aren’t the best one to teach your spouse how to behave. If you want him or her to provide a healthier model for your kids and to be a more pleasant person for you to live with, let a marriage counselor help out. Marriage counselors have the training and know-how to help people make significant changes in the way they behave as spouses. Your difficult spouse can become an easier spouse after a number of months of marriage counseling. Do not send your difficult spouse for individual counseling since the counselor will lack the necessary information (i.e. YOUR point of view) to truly help your spouse.

When You Don’t Approve of Your Child’s Romantic Partner

We were young once; we know how young love works. We also know intuitively, that if we interfere in something as private as a romantic relationship, we risk the possibility of alienating our child — pushing him or her more toward the person we don’t like in the first place!

So what is a parent to do? Consider the following tips:

Ask Yourself: Is this One Worth a Fight?
There are many reasons why a parent would not approve of a child’s romantic partner. The reasons can range from serious, to more superficial. Differences in values usually tops the “serious” list. For instance, maybe your child’s partner has a different belief system or seems irresponsible or untrustworthy. Sometimes you can’t point out a specific problem and you can’t explain your reaction rationally – it’s simply gut instinct. You have a sense from having seen the young man or woman that the partner is right for your child! You want the relationship to end.

Keep in mind that your gut instinct is a source of important information but it is not infallible. It is possible that the partner’s positive qualities have not yet  been fully revealed. Maybe you need more time before passing judgment. Or, maybe the person you are judging is so young that maturity alone will help bring things around. Before you nix the relationship, slow down and try to think it through. What are the chances that your child is going to end up marrying this person? If your child is fifteen years-old, you probably have time for him or her to learn (the hard way) that not all partners are suitable. On the other hand, if your child is having his or her first serious relationship at age twenty-eight, you may have truly valid concerns. However, the older the child the more risks you may be taking with your own parent-child relationship. Even if you choose to share your thoughts and feelings, you will have to be very careful to leave conclusions up to the child. Coming down hard with dire warnings is likely to backfire and leave you out of the loop altogether.

The more positive your parent-child relationship is, the easier it will be to speak honestly about your concerns. The more negative you tend to be – the more critical, anxious or disapproving you are – the less likely it is the your child will trust your judgment about his or her partner. Therefore, try to maintain your parental power of influence by being careful to reduce criticism and complaints in general. Save negativity for the really big things. Your child will then give your words more weight.

An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure
Relationship education can often help a child make better choices in partners. Hopefully you are modelling a healthy romantic relationship for your kids (that is, between you and your spouse!). If you and your spouse fight a lot, your child may find an abusive partner to be “normal.” Or, if you or your spouse use abusive parenting strategies  like yelling, swearing, insulting and criticizing, then your child may find such communication to be normal in a romantic partner. Therefore, do your best to demonstrate what healthy relationships look and feel like. In addition, talk to your teenagers about relationships and marriage – what should people look for in a partner, what should they be careful to avoid? There are some excellent relationship books out there – bring them home and discuss them at the dinner table or just leave them lying around the house for your kids to pick up and study on their own.

Talk to Your Child
If you do feel that you need to warn your child, then go ahead and do so. If you feel that the other person is a threat to your child’s physical and/or emotional well-being, then it’s indeed a matter worthy of an intervention. Possible reasons can include drug addiction, aggression, a history of questionable behavior, or even extreme age gaps. If this is the case, then talk to your child about your concerns — but don’t give a direct order to break up with the partner. If you deem your child as old enough to date, then you consider him or her as mature enough to make important decisions. Present your arguments in a respectful, calm and rational manner, and let your child be the one to make the conclusions. It’s fine to share your personal thoughts and feelings but don’t issue ultimatums: “It’s up to you what you do, but if I were the one with the decision, I would move on.”  Ordering your child to break up can simply lead to “Romeo and Juliet style” rebellion. The kids may continue to meet behind your back or even run away together. Avoid extreme reactions by acknowledging that the decision is truly up to your child.  Be prepared that your child may not agree with your assessment. Part of parenting is being respectful of individual boundaries.

Enhancing Marriage

Marriage is one of our most important relationships and yet we often neglect it. Many married people put their relationship at the bottom of their list of their priorities while they attend to their jobs, sildenafil their kids, order their extended family, find their community, and themselves. And yet, putting the marriage at the top of the list can improve every other aspect of life. When people are happily married, they thrive physically and emotionally – and their kids do too. How can couples find more time to strengthen and nurture their bond?

Here are some tips:

Surprise your Spouse from Time to Time
Surprise your spouse with gifts and acts of kindness. Pick up a coffe or pastry or magazine that you know your spouse loves and bring it home with you. Give a neck rub. Wash a sink full of his or her dishes. All acts of thoughtfulness powerfully boost the relationship with just a small investment of time.

Mark your Calendar
Remember the significant days of your lives, like the first day you met or the first time you went out on a date. And don’t forget those birthdays and anniversaries! Give your spouse a little token to mark the occasion. Maybe you could watch a movie too, or go to your favorite restaurant. And if can, aim for something grand and special. You need not splurge every month, but having that second or third honeymoon every other year is not a bad idea.

Sneak some Romance in the Normal, Everyday Tasks
Nothing beats a romantic spouse; it’s like winning your loved one’s heart all over again. Leave a small note to say “I love you” as you go to work. Serve breakfast in bed. Have a kiss while doing the laundry. Or share a bar of chocolate or a pint of ice cream while watching the game. If you’re creative, you can create quality couple time without even planning to go out.

Declare “Sacred Couple Time.”
Don’t wait until you can free some time to devote to your spouse. Doing so is often an exercise in frustration, as busy parents and breadwinners will always have an “emergency” to attend to. Instead, declare a day or hour (e.g. the first Monday or Friday of every month) as “couple time” —and plan around it! Your sacred couple time can be the day you hire a nanny to look after the kids, the day you say no to a guy’s or girl’s night out, the day you tell your boss “no overtime please.” If you can make your sacred couple time a routine in your home, eventually even kids will know that they are not to do anything to jeopardize your schedule! Use this time for QUALITY time only – no upsetting or stressful discussions on any topic. “Date” each other as friends – just have fun together as if you have no responsibilities. The one activity of setting aside “Date Night” weekly is probably the single, most important marital skill there is. It affects all the other days, weeks and years of your marriage in a very positive way!