New Spouse Lacks Experience with Children

You’ve remarried after a death, divorce or a separation. But what if your new spouse is not a parent? Can you still rely on him or her to help you take care of your children from a previous marriage?

Of course! In fact, your new spouse’s lack of experience may help bring in a fresh and unbiased perspective to your daily child-rearing tasks. Keep in mind that many excellent school teachers don’t yet have kids of their own. What they have, however, is a love of children. If your new partner is the nurturing type, looking forward to developing a relationship with your kids, he or she can be very successful in the parenting role. However, there are challenges in being an experienced parent living with an inexperienced, non-biological parent. A biological parent is often more “forgiving” than an outsider, tending to overlook certain obnoxious behaviors of one’s own kids. Outsiders see these behaviors more clearly and often have less tolerance for them. A biogical parent may be more protective of his or her kids as well, worrying about hurting their fragile egos. Outsiders may be tougher on kids, expecting them to be able to withstand more. Biological parents may put up with more disrespect, accepting it in the give and take of a loving relationship. Outsiders can be shocked and dismayed at the rude behavior of children, refusing to tolerate even a fraction of it. All of these common issues can lead to conflict between new spouses in the reconstituted family.

To avoid parenting problems with your non-parent partner, consider the following:

Everyone Has a Nurturing Side
The fact that your spouse hasn’t been a parent doesn’t mean that he or she lacks parenting skills. As a son or a daughter, your spouse has opinions and values regarding family life. He or she may also have had practicum training in child-rearing as an aunt, uncle, babysitter, tutor or cousin or perhaps in a career working with kids.  Don’t discount what your new spouse can bring to the table. Remember, you were a newbie once too and you did alright!

Just be Patient — Cut some Slack!
Don’t underestimate your new spouse’s skills, but also accept that an adjustment period is expected. Making the transition from single to parent is hard on anyone. If your kids are little people already (older than a year or two), the task of becoming a parent is all the more challenging. There is no time to grow slowly into the role as natural parents do. It’s a crash course – with lots of expected crashes.

Sit down and share with your spouse all you know. Give them a copy of the book Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice as well as other resources. Employ the services of a professional counselor or parent educator to guide the two of you through parenting issues (it’s usually easier on your partner than having YOU be the “expert”). Support him or her as he finds his way around discipline issues, love and affection, and perhaps even being a breadwinner. Schedule quality family time, so that your spouse can get to know your children better. Let your kids know that, despite being a new parent, their new step-mom or dad is eager to learn — and cares for them very much. In no time a new system will form, and your spouse will feel more at home with his new role in your family.

Negotiate Your Spouse’s New Role
A step parent is a special kind of parent, and understandably has a non-traditional parenting role to play. If your ex-spouse is still alive, and still plays an active role in your children’s life, your new spouse need not assume all parenting duties in your home. He or she is not a replacement for your children’s real parent, and may in fact play an important but primarily supportive role.

Perhaps he or she can be more like a loving aunt or uncle. There’s nothing wrong with taking a backseat in a blended family structure. It’s certainly helpful if you,  your new spouse and your ex are all on the same page regarding the kind of family you want to raise, and the kind of parenting style you want to employ.

What to Call a Step-Parent

Children know that they have one mother and one father. Step-parents are parents who are “stepping in” as parents – people who are taking on a parental role in the child’s life. Nonetheless, they are not exactly the same as parents. Biological parents and children who have lost parents to death or divorce, can be quite sensitive about who is called what. For instance, the child’s biological mother can be upset if she hears her child call her ex-husband’s new wife “Mommy” when she is the one who is called “Mommy.” Similarly, children don’t necessarily want to call anyone else “Mommy” when they are calling or have called their own mother “Mommy.” Even if their mother is no longer alive, they may want to honor her memory by refusing to call anyone else by her name.

So how should a child address a step-parent?

Avoid Using First Names
First, let’s remember that a parent or any adult who is in the parental position – that is, an adult who is living in the house with a child – is an adult who needs to be respected. The adult is not a peer of a 5 year-old child or even a 15 year-old child. The adult and child are not “buddies.” Nor is the adult only the marital partner of the parent. In fact, the adult is taking care of the child, providing for the child’s needs, modelling healthy adulthood, and providing guidance. Calling a person in this position by his or her first name diminishes the role of the caregiver. It is healthier for a child to look up to an adult. Calling the adult by some appropriate title helps to remind the child of his or her position relative to the new caregiver: the adult is a teacher/protector/in charge person who is raising the child, whereas the child is a ‘student,’ a younger person being raised. The child can call the adult by a parent-like name. It doesn’t have to be “Mommy” or “Daddy.” It can be “Ma, ” “Momsy,” “Mom”  or “Pop,”  “Dad,” or “Pa.” It can even be a parental term from a different language or culture. Some people are most comfortable using a parental name as a title, such as “Mommy Carol,” or “Daddy Paul.” This strategy is often more palatable for kids who are not ready to fully acknowledge and accept a new parent figure.

Discuss Possibilities with Your Child
Parents should sit down with a child and explain that the new person is not replacing a biological parent. Rather, the new person is Mommy or Daddy’s new spouse and will be looking after the children in the house alongside Mommy or Daddy. Thus the new person is a sort of parent and as such, needs to be called by a parent-type name. The children can be invited to suggest names they would be comfortable using. The new parent can also make suggestions as to what he or she would like to be called. However, it is in the new parent’s best interest NOT to be lenient and invite the kids to call him or her by a first name. The new parent will soon discover that he or she needs the status and authority of a parent when living in the house with children.

Time for Children After Divorce

Visitation arrangements don’t always give kids the opportunity to see each parent 50% of the time. Practical considerations often make equal division of visitation impossible. For instance, in some cases, one parent works longer hours than the other. Or, one parent lives in a different state or country and the child must attend school for 10 months of the year in one location. Sometimes, there are different reasons for unequal visitation, such as financial considerations or a past history of abuse or the fact that a parent travels for work reasons. Whatever the cause of the discrepancy, children can feel the pain of loss. They usually love both parents and want to see each of them on a frequent, regular and consistent basis.

What is the best way for children to get enough time with each parent after a divorce or separation? Consider the following tips:

Consult a Parenting Coordinator
Even after the legalities have been settled, parents can sometimes modify arrangements in order to meet the changing needs of their growing children. If you don’t have a great working relationship with an ex-partner, then try to enlist the services of a professional parenting co-ordinator in order to find creative ways to add minutes or hours to visitations with kids. These may involve doing a carpool, taking a child to a swimming lesson, meeting the child at religious services or any number of other ways to see each other just a little more often. Of course, as the child gets older, more dramatic changes in visitation may become appropriate as well and can sometimes be negotiated legally.

Improve the Quality of Time Spent Together
The feeling of “not enough time” does not always relate to the actual amount of time a child gets to spend with a parent. Although it certainly helps to have more actual minutes and hours, it is even more important to have more quality time with a child, time in which there is meaningful interaction. While outings to amusement parks, movies and restaurants may be fun, direct interaction is more “filling.” Children need to see their parents in natural settings (at home doing the laundry, in the grocery store doing the weekly shopping, in the kitchen cooking). While “life is happening” they need to be able to share stories, ask questions, do their own version of “show and tell.” In fact, a child can get to know a parent better if they work on a household chore together rather than if they both sit passively watching a movie. So plan the interaction, not the destination!

Utilize Technology to Create More Involvement
If a child feels that he or she is not getting enough time with a parent, then consider tapping technology to encourage more parental involvement — even across the miles. For instance, a child can consult parents about homework through chats, or include them in a birthday celebration via web cam. Telephones can be used liberally for quick contacts. Old fashioned communication strategies like sending letters and pictures via regular mail, can be used to keep up the relationship. Depending on the age of the child, cell phones can be used in addition to computers to faciliate messenging and email correspondence. Children who know that they can reach their parents easily don’t suffer from intense “cravings” for contact. For instance, when a person knows he can have a sweet treat if he wants it, he doesn’t feel so deprived and he doesn’t need it so urgently. Similarly, a child who can easily reach either parent doesn’t feel deprived or “starving” for contact.

How to Love Your Partner’s Children

If you want your re-marriage to work well, you will have to love your new spouse AND your new spouse’s kids. Many stepparents will testify that this is easier said than done. Loving someone’s else’s children can be hard. While one usually has an instinct to love one’s own children, this instinct does not apply to other people’s kids. When your own children misbehave, you may not like them but you still love them. However, when your spouse’s children misbehave, you just don’t like them.

Fortunately, it’s possible for a sincere and determined step-parent to learn how to love, or at least almost love, his or her spouse’s children. Here are some tips on how to do it:

Decide to Love
Start by making a conscious decision to love your stepchildren. After all, they are part of the man or woman you married; in a sense, they are an extension of your new spouse. Your spouse loves his or her children intensely; by caring deeply for your spouse’s children, you are able to convey deep caring for your spouse. Your new spouse will love you all the more for loving his or her kids.

Reaching out is YOUR job – not the children’s. It’s tempting to say that kids should be the ones to welcome a new parent into their home. But remember, that after going through a divorce and remarriage, children are very stressed. They’ve experienced many changes that they did not even choose. So be patient if they are awkward, aloof or even rebellious. As the mature adult, you should be the one to reach out to them to make them feel safe, comfortable and cared for.

Get to Know Them Better
If you want to learn to love a person, you should start by getting to know them better. Ask your spouse about their likes and dislikes, what makes them excited, scared or frustrated. Better yet, spend frequent quality time with them, so that you can come to know who they really are, and they can get to know you too.

Establish Rapport
It’s unrealistic to expect immediate closeness, so aim for the next best thing: rapport. Exert the effort to make your stepchildren comfortable around you. Talk about everyday stuff, things kids are interested in like music, school or TV shows. Find out what their favorite food is and prepare it. Joke around. Show interest in their latest projects and activities. Compliment them on their new toy or dress. If possible, get to know their friends and classmates or at least recognize the names of the important players in their lives. Love can spring from routine companionship and friendship, so don’t feel like you have to rush! Over time, feelings will grow.

Understand Your Role
Many step-parents make the mistake of expecting to be loved just like a biological parent. But it’s unreasonable to expect step kids to love you as they love their own mother or father — blood is thicker than water! Try not to feel resentful if there are particular boundaries your step child does not cross with you. Maybe you will never be in their complete confidence. Maybe they will never put beside their natural parent. But you can still be a trusted and reliable member of their inner circle. Love has many faces; if you don’t try to force love to look the way you expect it to or want it to, you may discover a new, delightful way to experience it with your spouse’s children.

Parents Disagree about Discipline

It is common for any two people from different family backgrounds to have experienced their own discipline differently and therefore to have different thoughts and feelings about discipline. For example, one person may come from a home where discipline was harsh. He might react to that experience by repeating it with his own kids, feeling that although it was painful, the results were obviously successful. Or, he might react to it by vowing never to discipline his children at all. This person’s parenting partner might have come from a home where discipline was appropriately balanced with warmth and love. The partner might feel comfortable copying this “authoratative parenting style” in the family. These two parents may have trouble working together; for instance, the harsh-history parent may have no tolerance for any kind of discipline of his children, no matter how mild, reasonable, or even necessary, it might be.

The Cost of Fighting About It
The trouble is, that when parents fight about discipline, children know it and feel it. The result is often “triangulation” in the family – a situation in which the child and more lenient or more reasonable parent form an alliance against the “mean,” stricter parent. The so-called “mean,” stricter parent may actually be the healthier parent, the one who is using reasonable discipline methods. However, when pitted against a no-discipline parent, the perceived “mean” one may lose the child’s affection. In other cases, the “mean” parent really is unreasonably strict and harsh. In general, kids don’t like to be disciplined and therefore, whichever parent does it less is likely to be favored by them. This can then rob the so-called “mean” parent of ALL parental power. The nice-parent-child team discredits the other parent to the point where the child may virtually lose one parent as a life resource. While the lenient parent might be trying to protect the child from the stricter or even harsher parent, he or she may accidentally end up robbing the child of the other parent altogether. When the situation leads to divorce (see below), the child may even lose his home. Except in the case of true abuse, trying to save the child from the other parent is harmful for the child.

In addition to the effect of triangulation on the child, there is an obvious effect on the marriage. No parent likes to be disempowered by the other. Resentment builds, sometimes to the point where divorce ensues. Even if the marriage lasts, there is often bitter animosity due to triangulation.

However, triangulation isn’t the only problem that can arise out of fights about discipline. Even if the child is close to both parents equally (or distant from them both equally), the fighting itself is an intense stress in the home. Children are always troubled and sometimes even traumatized by parental conflict. They often feel deep sadness and fear – sometimes for safety of themselves or their parents, and sometimes for the sustainability of the family unit. When the subject matter of the conflict is THEM (as it is when the subject is discipline), they may feel guilty in addition to being fearful or sad. When parents fight a lot, children can become depressed and troubled in many ways. Their physical health, mental health and ability to function may all be affected. For instance, many children get stress-related headaches, stomach aches, rashes and other physical symptoms when their parents argue about discipline. They can get depressed and/or anxious and develop an array of nervous habits and acting-out types of behaviors (such as being more argumentative themselves). Their schoolwork can suffer as well.

How Not to Fight about it
When parents have radically different views of what should happen in discipline, they need to work to get more on the same page. It could be that each parent has to move a little away from his or her own position and a little closer to the partner’s position. There are different ways for this to happen.

Parents can take a parenting course together. Learning philosophies and strategies from an objective outsider is often far easier than taking instruction from one’s spouse. While this outsider may be a parenting insructor in a group setting, it can also be a private practitioner (such as a family therapist, psychologist or other mental health professional). Choose a professional who has a special expertise in parenting in order to get the most helpful guidance. Parents can also read and discuss a parenting book together (have a book-club a deux) or look up questions and answers on-line together.

Another strategy to attain a meeting of the minds on the subject of discipline, is to refrain from criticizing your partner’s parenting EVER. If you don’t like what your spouse is doing, approach him or her with curiosity and a desire to understand rather than with complaint and criticism. For instance, suppose your spouse gave your son a negative consequence on Monday for failing to come home by his curfew (“you’ve lost your cell phone for a week…”). On Tuesday, you see that your spouse has returned your son’s cell phone to him already, clearly failing to follow through with discipline. Avoid approaching your spouse in a confrontational manner – “If you never carry through, he’ll never learn”…etc. Instead, you ASK your spouse what made him or her change his mind. Ask this with genuine curiousity, not with bitter sarcasm. Greet the answer with Emotional Coaching (empathic listening and naming of feelings). For example, imagine that your spouse explains, “I felt bad for him. He really needs that phone.” You might respond with, “You’re such a good mom/dad – you really care about him! I’m just wondering how we’re going to help him come home on time – I get so worried when he stays out past his curfew – I really want us to be able to get this through to him. What do you think we should do about it?”  If every disciplinary difference of opinion is handled in a caring, respectful manner, the parents will be able to negotiate their differences and find ways to do what’s best for the kids – eventually.

Finally, parents who are too harsh or too lenient in their discipline styles tend to love their children and are trying to do what they think is best for the child. Because of this, most people can see the wisdom of applying the 80-20 Rule. The 80-20 Rule is the ideal good-feeling to bad-feeling ratio of parenting communications to children. Laughter, praise, gifts, physical affection, empathy, and any other good-feeling communication needs to happen 4 times for every 1 bad-feeling communication like giving an instruction, correction, complaint, threat of punishment, actual punishment and so on. Moreover, the bad-feeling communications need to be only mildy-bad-feeling. Otherwise, they can completely wipe out the positive effects of the good-feeling communications, no matter how many there might have been. Full details on the 80-20 Rule are available in Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice, by Sarah Chana Radcliffe.

Other Parent is Too Strict

It is quite common for one parent to think that the other parent is too strict. The overly strict parent may be the biological parent of your child (i.e. your current spouse or your ex-spouse). Just as easily, the overly strict parent may be the child’s step-parent (i.e. your spouse from your recent re-marriage). No matter who it is, watching this person parent your child (or children) is a painful experience for you. You think that this person is unduly harsh or demanding and may be damaging your child. What can you do about it?

What is Too Strict?
Few parents feel that they, themselves, are too strict. In fact, most parents think that their own perspective on setting rules and boundaries for children is “just right.” If the other parent does it differently, that other parent is seen as “too lenient” or “too strict.” We use our our own values as as the golden standard!

In fact, there is a more objective way to determine whether or not a parent is too strict. We can look at how the children are doing. We need to look at three main areas:

  • the quality of the parent-child relationship
  • the child’s behavior and performance
  • the child’s emotional health

Let’s look at each of these individually. If a parent is too strict, this will affect the quality of the parent-child relationship. Children resent parents who are overly strict. They feel closer to those who seem to understand them and respect their natures and their limitations. Take the case of 17 year-old Sandra, for example. Sandra’s father insists that she come home at 9p.m. on the weekends, whereas her friends are typically allowed to stay out till midnight. Since her father’s strict rule ruins Sandra’s social life, she resents him – in fact, she says she “hates” him. Sandra feels that her father doesn’t understand how important her social life is to her and when she tries to explain it to him, he seems more interested in his own rules than in her happiness and well-being. As a result, her affection for the man is seriously compromised. An overly strict parent will not be able to have a warm, loving relationship with his or her kids because the parent’s standards convey lack of empathy for the child. Even if the parent applies strict rules and standards out of love, as most do, it is not the love that the child experiences, but rather, the unreasonableness of the rules and standards. True love has to take the child’s feelings into account.

The second criteria for overly strict parenting is the effect on the child’s behavior and performance. When a parent puts reasonable boundaries and limits on a child in a loving and flexible way, the child thrives. For instance, parents who limit computer time, insist on homework time, impose a bedtime and demand punctuality for school, actually help their children learn to function well – providing all these fixed times are appropriate and reasonable for the child’s age and personal limitations (this is where flexibility comes in). However, when parents raise the bar too high with overly strict rules and regulations (i.e. the computer time is virtually non-existent, the homework time is excessively long, the bedtime is unreasonably early and the morning routine is so tight as to be unpleasant), children often react with poor behavior of various types. When a child becomes sneaky, manipulative and/or dishonest, it can be an indication that the rules are too many and/or too strict. Children have to survive somehow and one way is by breaking the rules constantly. However, since overly strict parents also tend to be punitive, the kids become experts at devious behavior. On the other hand, in homes where the standards are reasonable and the child can breathe freely, there is no need for deceptive behavior; the child is able to comply with parental demands without resorting to lies and games. In short, the more deceptive your child is, the more likely it is that a parent is being overly strict.

Finally, we can look at the child’s emotional health. When parents are warm, understanding and reasonable, children thrive emotionally. On the other hand, when parents are intimidating, rigid and unreasonable (overly strict), then children can manifest various types of stress reactions. Some kids develop eating disorders. Some develop addictive behaviors. Some have anxiety. Others get depressed. Some don’t seem to react at the time they are dealing with an unreasonable parent, but later on in life, develop trauma syndromes or personality problems related to the dysfunctional home in which they grew up. Although children suffer stress and emotional problems for many reasons (some of them purely biological, others triggered by social and academic stress or personal traumatic experiences), living for a couple of decades with an overly strict parent is a definite stressor and can trigger both emotional issues and physical stress syndromes like headaches, stomach problems and other health problems.

If Your Spouse is Too Strict
Parents who are strict usually love their kids and have no desire to hurt them. They just want them to grow up “right.” They cannot see the damage they are causing. However, one thing is clear: you cannot get your spouse to lighten up by reprimanding him or her for being too strict. Criticizing the strict spouse for his or her parenting approach simply makes the person feel unsupported. The spouse is likely to turn against YOU for “siding” with the children.

Instead of attacking your spouse for overly strict parenting, PRAISE him or her for wise and compassionate parenting. No one is strict on every issue all the time. Let’s say that your overly strict wife decides to let your son sleep over at a friend’s house on a school night. You can say something like, “That was really nice of you. I know that Jay really appreciates that. He’s lucky to have a mom like you!” Of course, do this in a way that sounds genuinely appreciative and definitely NOT sarcastic! By attending to appropriate parenting behaviors, you can reinforce this kind of parenting and help extinguish overly strict tendencies.

Another step you can take is to talk to your spouse about how much the kids love him or her. This helps the overly strict parent relax into more relationship-oriented (as opposed to rule-oriented) parenting.

When your spouse is overly strict to children in front of you, don’t intervene unless there is an issue of physical or emotional abuse (of the kind that Family Services would call “abuse”). If you disagree with his or her intervention, but it is not abusive, then let it go – until you have a private moment with your spouse. When clearly out of earshot of the kids, you can then talk to your partner. Start off by describing what you think is right about your partner’s intervention (i.e. “I’m so glad you laid down the law about homework time! These kids need to apply themselves more seriously to their schoolwork.”) Only AFTER naming the positive side of your parnter’s intervention, should you go on to attempt to modify the overly strict side of it (“I’m just thinking that 3 hours might be too much for them right after school and I was wondering how you would feel if we knocked that down to two hours, with one hour before dinner and one hour after dinner. That would leave them time for their extra-curricular activities which I think are also important for their development. What do you think?”). This sort of approach is far less confrontational than direct accusations (“the kids are going to hate your guts if you lay down rules like that for them”). As a result, it has a better chance of helping your partner learn to address the child’s needs and feelings as he or she is setting rules and limits.

Finding the Right Professional Support During Divorce or Separation

Ending a marriage is a painful process. There are many losses to accept: the loss of a relationship, the loss of a promise and the loss of the dream and vision of an enduring, intact family. If the divorce or separation is less than amicable, then the tension of overt and hidden conflict adds even more stress and pain.

Because divorce and separation are difficult times — for any family — it’s recommended that families seek professional help along the way. Even when there are no unmanageable challenges, professional support can help reduce the pain and trauma involved in breaking up a family. Keep in mind that difficult divorces can leave their mark for years or even decades. Counseling can facilitate personal adjustment, as well as the re-defining and re-building of relationships within the family after divorce.

What are the types of professional support available for families going through divorce and separation?

Marriage/Family Counselors and Therapists
The help of a licensed marriage/family counselor or therapist can be invaluable. These highly trained mental health professionals can provide psychological help to individual family members, and to the family as a whole, as parents and children adjust to their new situations, grieve losses and begin life anew within a changed family structure. Often, counselors and therapists are holders of post-graduate degrees in Psychology, Counseling or Social Work, with specialization in marriage and family dynamics.

Counselors can assist before, during and after a divorce or separation. Knowing that a mental health professional can be of help even before marital dissolution is contemplated is important — many marriages can still be saved when couples seek early intervention. Indeed, even when the idea of separation or divorce has been raised, reconciliation is still possible if willingness and open-mindedness to rebuild a relationship is present in both members of the couple. Counseling during divorce can help reduce the chances of increasing hostilities and smooth the way for every member of the family. After divorce, counseling helps family members deal with their new lives with a minimum of stress, confusion, disorientation and pain.

Support Groups
Joining support groups can also be a big help to families undergoing divorce or separation. Support groups are formal or informal organizations of individuals undergoing the same experience. A support group for divorced parents for example, can provide assistance on issues like self-care, co-parenting and even going back to the dating world. A support group for children survivors of separation also exists, to help kids cope. There are also support groups for survivors of abusive relationships.

Support groups effectively send the message to families undergoing divorce or separation that they are not alone, and that the issues that they are undergoing are expected and normal for people within their unique situation. For many, talking to fellow support group members is less threatening than talking to a mental health professional one-on-one. This is because of the feeling that one is not talking to a stranger, but to someone who they can truly relate to.

One can usually find support groups within community centers, social service centers, churches, schools, and offices of special interest organizations. Online support groups are also available.

Legal Mediators
There are situations when divorce or separation will require the assistance of a lawyer or a legal consultant. Child custody, property division and alimony arrangement can be sensitive issues for a divorced or separated couple to navigate, and may even be the cause of many a heated discussion and debate. At present, there are professional divorce and separation legal mediators that can help families come up with amicable agreements within having to go to court. If these issues can be sorted out without a messy legal battle, then families undergoing divorce or separation can move on to their new lives more smoothly. Parenting Co-ordinators are empowered by law to help parents work out the details of daily life after divorce. They can help with schedules of visitation as well as the nitty-gritty details such as how the children’s belongings get from one location to the next, who takes the child to after-school lessons, which lessons the child should be taking, and so on. Parenting Co-ordinators are especially important in high conflict divorce where ex-spouses cannot or will not talk to each other. Obviously, sharing parenting responsibilities requires a great deal of communication and negotiation – if the parents can’t do this on their own, Parenting Co-ordinators will do it for them.

Other Professionals that May Help
Social workers, school guidance counselors, as well as rabbis/pastors/priests or can also help families cope with the stresses of divorce and separation.

New Baby – Interfering In-laws

Parents-in-law can be wonderful assets in one’s family life but sometimes they can present tremendous challenge. Often,  it’s a little of both! And when one’s in-laws become the grandparents of one’s new baby, one’s relationship with them often takes on a new curve. Focus is diverted away from the adult children, to the new baby instead. But what does one do when in-laws are a bit too helpful or too opinionated, too needy or too intrusive?

If you have an interfering in-law, consider the following:

Start with Understanding
Babies are exciting! And if this is the first grandchild, you can especially understand the enthusiasm of your in-laws. In fact, you’d probably be disappointed if they showed no interest whatsoever in your new child. Moreover, if this is a first grandchild, keep in mind that your in-laws don’t yet know where to put themselves, don’t know the boundaries, don’t yet know the place of the grandparent. Even if this is not the first grandchild, your in-laws may not, for some reason, know how to behave appropriately. (In many cases, there are obvious reasons why they don’t know). You can, in a gentle and respectful way, begin to set boundaries in a way that your in-laws might be able to benefit from. For instance, you can say “Oh, thanks Mom – but we prefer to give the baby her bath ourselves.” Even if Mom-in-law is upset by this, you’ve done nothing wrong. You’re not responsible for her upset, unless you’ve abused her by being insulting, loud or harsh. Being quietly persistent with your wishes can set the boundaries over time.

Be One With Your Spouse in Planning How to Draw the Line
What if your in-laws are the stubborn type? They contradict your guidance, make major decisions without consulting you, and usurps what you feel is your role in child-rearing? Your spouse may be able to help. In some cases, your spouse is actually your best ally in negotiating boundaries. MAKE SURE YOU TREAT HIM OR HER LIKE AN ALLY rather than someone who is on the enemy team. Let your spouse know that you want to enjoy his or her parents  and have them actively in your family’s life. Ask for your spouse’s help in making the relationship workable and positive.

Your spouse knows your in-laws a lot more than you do. He or she will know how to approach them without creating further complications. Let your spouse deliver strong messages if he or she is willing to, so that you can stay out of it and maintain a good relationship with your in-laws. However, sometimes spouses cannot stand up to their parents or do not know how to properly support their partner. If your spouse will not draw the line, don’t despair: draw it yourself. Again, remaining respectful is the key. However, in the case of “difficult” in-laws, expect a more negative response. They will have to comply (because, after all, your baby is YOUR baby and YOUR kids are YOUR kids and YOUR home is YOUR home), but they might put up a big fuss. They can go ahead and do that if they want to and you can’t stop them. Again, their reaction is not your responsibility. Only YOUR behavior is your responsibility. As long as you have remained respectful, you have done nothing wrong. Be careful to NEVER raise your voice to them, never swear or use harsh language, never insult them. Suppose, for instance, that they want to feed your 4 month-old baby some solid food while you want the baby to be at least 8 months-old before starting solids. You see your father-in-law putting a spoonful of mashed food into your baby’s mouth! You go up to the man and say, quietly but firmly, “Dad. I believe I told you that I don’t want to give Jason food yet.  Doctor’ s orders!” You then remove the baby and resolve to yourself to stay in the same room with the baby and the father-in-law until the child reaches the ready-to-eat food stage.

Use the Parent Card
It’s possible that the reason why your in-laws are extremely hands-on with their child is because they feel they are the more experienced ones when it comes to parenting — and they are! Communicate with them that, while you appreciate their presence and their help, you also want to learn the thrills and frustrations of parenting first hand.

Their advice is welcome, but this is your family; you may do things differently than they did. Ask them to give you and your spouse a chance, and assure them that you both will do the best that you can because you love your child and your family.

Assure Them That You’re not Taking their Rights as Grandparents
If your in-laws express concern that you are preventing them from developing a relationship with their grandchild, explain to them that they are always welcome to bond with their grandkids. But when it comes to particular issues, you and your spouse will be the in the lead role, and them in the supporting role. Clarify that this doesn’t mean they are not needed, and that they their role is not critical. In fact, let them know just how loved, important and needed they really are.

Compliment your In-laws
Let your in-laws know how much you appreciate them. Be generous with praise (“You’re so great with the children. No wonder they love you so much!”). Express gratitude freely (“Thank you SO MUCH for babysitting. You are the BEST!”). Buy the occasional gift (“I picked up some of your favorite chocolate for you.”) Let them overhear you speaking well of them (“Grandma & Grandpa are very hands-on – we’re so lucky.”). Do whatever you can to make them feel loved and valued – this is usually the easiest and surest way to gain their cooperation and reduce conflict.

Don’t Blame your Spouse
Hopefully your spouse loves his or her parents. If you have complaints about your in-laws, try to share them with your friends or therapist rather than your spouse. Your spouse can’t help who his parents are. It’s hard enough having difficult in-laws – don’t make your life even more miserable by fighting with your partner about them. Keep your marriage strong by keeping your complaints as rare as possible. If necessary, arrange for a couple’s session with a professional therapist in order to address difficult in-law issues without hurting your relationship.

Fighting in the Family

In most families there is some fighting. There are inevitably arguments, some bickering, hassling each other and, usually, some sort of fighting. Whether all this is harmful to the kids or  not depends on its frequency and intensity. An angry outburst once a year is probably harmless, providing that it involves no physical abuse, aggression or threats of divorce. Fights that happen every couple of weeks or more are likely to be very disturbing to the kids. Too much conflict threatens the basic stability of the family. Even if the fights are relatively mild, the unpleasant scenes make children feel unsettled and insecure. If the fighting is loud, scary, and very emotional, it is particularly disturbing to the kids. It can even lead to children’s nightmares, nervous habits, school problems and behavior problems. Parents really need to limit their conflict, if not for their own sake, then at least for the sake of the children.

Actions to Avoid in Fighting
Some ground rules for conflict will help preserve marriages and make children feel safer. Here is a list of things NEVER to do when arguing with a spouse:

  • never slam a door, hang up a phone or storm out of a house
  • never swear
  • never call names or hurl hurtful, diminishing insults
  • never threaten violence
  • never threaten divorce
  • never shout
  • never drive “crazy” when arguing in a car

Keeping Kids Safe
By deescalating conflict, parents can help their kids enjoy a safe family life. Arguing quietly and respectfully provides a healthy model for the kids too. It shows them how to behave toward their parents and toward their own spouses one day. (Providing a bad model of conflict resolution means that kids will learn the “wrong” way to behave in marriage and it also means that they never get to see the “right” way – their lives will be harder because of this.) The short list of what-not-to-do when arguing is within the reach of all normal people. Only those with serious mental illness cannot control their hostility – healthy adults can LEARN to change their destructive behavior patterns. It make take a few months to totally remove all frightening behaviors from one’s repertoire, but that’s O.K. Once it’s done, a parent can give his or her child the gift of security. Even if only one parent is able to make the change, the kids will benefit. What’s worse than one parent losing control? Two parents losing control! Don’t wait for your spouse to change; make your own changes today.

Marriage Counseling
If change is difficult, or despite removing destructive behaviors there are still numerous marital issues, do your kids a favor and get marital counseling. Choose a counselor who is pro-marriage (not all are). Ask someone to help you reduce conflict and provide a calmer, more loving and more stable home environment. And don’t wait until you’re on the verge of divorce to do this. Do it now. You may be amazed at how powerfully positive marriage counseling can be.

Parents Set the Tone
It’s up to you. Parents set the tone in the home. You can’t expect your kids to do better at self-control than you can – you’ve got to show them the way and give them something to strive toward. Read books, take courses, seek counseling, but most of all – determine to remove destructive communication from your personal repetoire. You can do it!

Spouse Has Attention Deficit Disorder /ADHD

ADD/ADHD (attention-deficit {hyperactivity} disorder) is a common diagnosis for today’s youth. In fact, troche it is most often diagnosed as a result of school performance issues. Symptoms of childhood ADD include making careless mistakes, order having short attention span, click having trouble following through, avoiding tasks requiring sustained mental effort, being disorganized, losing things, being easily distracted and forgetful. ADHD includes symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity such as fidgeting, excessive movement (or in older kids – “restlessness”), suffering intense boredom when unstructured,  blurting out answers in class, finding it difficult to wait turns and interrupting others. A child can have a mixture of both inattentive and hyperactive/impulsive symptoms or just “specialize” in one or the other.

Kids with attention deficit disorders also have a variety of other symptoms besides those that strictly identify the disorder. For instance, they may be very needy of stimulation and attention. They may have anger issues. They may have poor social skills. Some have “soft neurological signs” like clumsiness, poor eye-hand coordination and poor sense of direction that can all combine to make for difficulty in handwriting or sports. Many have “co-morbid” disorders such as anxiety, social phobia, mood issues, tic disorders or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

What happens to kids with ADD/ADHD as they grow up? A lot of children will experience a reduction of their symptoms by late adolescence or early adulthood, although a minority will maintain their full disorder right into middle age. When ADD/ADHD is in partial remission (the more common scenario), some symptoms may persist throughout life.

Adults with ADD have symptoms that interfere in work and relationships. For instance, they may have trouble working steadily on a job unless that job has lots of variety, lots of opportunity for physical movement, opportunities for creativity and only a minimum of detail-oriented repetitive tasks. Boring jobs are hard for ADDers – they tend to daydream or get distracted with unimportant things, resulting in missed deadlines and substandard performance reviews. Adult ADDers may switch jobs frequently, starting one thing and moving on to the next before any real success is achieved.

Compulsive tendencies lead many adult ADDers into compulsive spending, substance abuse and bingeing disorders. Problems with anger and impulsivity may lead to troubled relationships both on the job and with partners and kids. Poor organizational skills and attention to detail can lead to behaviors that look like purposeful forgetting – creating problems at home and at work.

Married to ADD
What’s it like to be married to someone who has ADD? Frustrating, confusing, disappointing and at times, hurtful. Many people do not realize that their spouse has a biologically based syndrome that affects all aspects of functioning. Instead, they thing their spouse is neglectful, irresponsible, mean spirited, lazy, stupid or crazy. Taking their behavior personally, partners of ADDers often seek divorce. Fortunately, there are other alternatives.

Those who have kids with ADD still love them and want the best for them. They want them to grow up, functional as well as possible, find love and build a happy household. They hope that the child’s spouse will be patient, understanding and helpful. Now suppose YOU are the child’s spouse. You have married a human being who is still deserving of affection and a good life. What can you do to help your partner?

If you notice symptoms of ADD, you can get a book on the subject and show the symptom list to your partner. Open up discussion. Look at the book’s recommendations. Then, ask your doctor for a referral to a specialist in adult ADD. There are many. Psycho-education, practical skills building, coaching, individual counseling and/or marriage counseling may all be useful. ADDers can learn techniques that will help them manage anger, manage time, meet deadlines, fulfill responsibilities, reduce risk taking, address addictions and more. Parenting classes can help them develop strategies instead of responding impulsively to children’s provocations. Stress-management programs and techniques can help them cope with their own frustrations with their often maddening deficits. Sometimes medication can be used to address various aspects of the disorder. Sometimes alternative medicine will offer some solutions. The main thing is to work WITH your ADD spouse to find ways to enhance functioning, improve mood, improve interpersonal skills and work skills to build a better life. All of this requires action. Complaining to your partner will not suffice. Motivating your spouse through the promise of increased love, happiness and success in life is the best way to go – you, your spouse and your children will flourish.