Q & A: How do we prevent alienating each other

when our kids have step-sibling problems?

 

Background Information:  

My husband and I will be married one year this coming March. We fell in love quickly. We met in November, engaged in January and married in March.  We were both previously married for 10 years...in each case our spouses left us for other people (whom they are still with).  In those unions we created 5 children. My children are: boy 6, and a girl 4. My husband's children are: girl 13, girl 11, and boy 7.  We have my children 90% of the time. Their dad picks them up every third weekend and he lives 2.5 hours away in a small town.  My husband has his children 45% of the time, every Wed/Thur/Fri, and then every second weekend. His ex-wife lives approx 10 minutes away from us.  Our relationship with our Exs is very good for we have both forgiven them and healed from the pain of that relationship. We also believe that the kids didnít ask to be a part of divorce and we are the adults so we suck it up even if times are awkward. To give you and idea about our relationship with our Exs....I have hugged my husbands ex-wife when the occasion arose for it....and my husband handled my Ex's RESP for our children....so it is very amicable.  We do it for our children mainly so they can see that forgiveness does work.

Question:  

We recently took a family vacation to Disney and some real issues came forth.  We had been house boating on a small boat in the summer as a family and then again to a mountain resort  for a long weekend, so this wasn't our first family time spent all together.  But this holiday felt very different.  Problems arose between our children, resulting in us being on different teams, or so it felt.  He was trying to protect and listen to his kids, and I was trying to do the same for mine. It caused a division between us as a couple and I felt very alone.  My husband has a very tight relationship with his kids and he likes that he does. Sometimes this group is so tight it doesnít allow others (me and my kids) in.  All my kids had was me to stand up for them.....my husbands kids had their siblings, their dad and their mom (she texted them and called them regularly). Of course I am speaking from my point of view, but I am the one writing so I'm sure there are two sides to seeing everything clearly.

 

I will be honest, when I feel my kids are being attacked my motherly instincts kick in.  I just felt that my husband and I lacked the understanding of what to do in some circumstances. I thought it should be handled one way, him another. Since most rides we went on we couldnít sit as a family of seven so again we split into his kids and mine....causing more of a division or so I felt.  With my kids being so young I felt like this Disney vacation was primarily for my husbands kids.....and we were just guests who were invited along. This wedge that was forming kept getting worse especially when I perceived that my husband was pulling away from me and my kids instead of wanting to draw together to solve problems. 

Type Of Reply Sought:

How do we prevent alienating each other when our kids have step-sibling problems?  How do we not climb into mama and papa bear protective mode? We understand that if we donít take care of each other then this blended family doesn't exist.  How do we intervene without stepping on everyoneís personalities or roles (birth orders) etc.  We have king of the week every Thursday where we celebrate one person that evening...they pick the meal, dessert, eat from a special plate and cup and we start the meal with warm fuzzies about the person.  The kids seem to really look forward to these meals...but its still not bringing them any closer together. When we got together we decided it was alright if our kids didnít love or even like each other, but they did have to respect each other.  Is it an unreal expectation for our children have any empathy for their step-siblings so we can all be a tight group of seven instead of 4 and three?  We donít have the history but are trying to create some joining of lives and loves with our children. Weíd like to seek some step-family counselling...the older kids wonít like it but I think its necessary to make sure we keep our train on the track.  Thanks for your time.

Answer:

Please keep in mind that the comments and suggestions that follow are based only upon the information you provided and must be seen as subject to all the limitations this entails.

Following are our comments and suggestions to the "Ask an Expert Question" you forwarded to the Stepfamily Foundation of Alberta yesterday. They are listed essentially in the order they were stated in our discussion; and draw from the additional information you provided on the "Ask an Expert Questionnaire".

  • By and large, we all felt that you and your partner are doing a very good job. In fact, we believe that most of what you are doing is right on track.

  • Achieving that feeling of cohesion does take time. The emergence of two "mini biofamilies" is a normal part of the developmental sequence of a stepfamily. See articles by Patricia Papernow or watch this video for more info on the developmental sequence.

  • We know that you were alone with your kids for quite some time before you began your present relationship, but are less clear if your partner spent much time alone with his kids before your union with him. At any rate, it is a big adjustment, and adjustments take time--but they do eventually occur.

  • We suggest that you and your partner both consider having some one-on-one time with each of your biokids, and also to spend some regular time as a "mini biofamily". The purpose is to fill up the sense of loss that is often present, but unstated/unrecognized. The amount of time you spend together at these times doesn't need to be excessive. It's more important that it's regular and that it involves sometheing the child(ren) want to do.

  • Look for those "moments" when the kids are getting along, and focus on them. Remember them. Make note of them to one another and others. Those precious moments are, in reality, all any family has--so we need to work to notice them and punctuate them when they do occur.

  • When the kids do have some conflict, we'd suggest that, whenever possible, you encourage them to work it out in a way that works for them--and then have them come back to you to report their solution to you. You and your partner might not care too much for the solutions they produce, but they are quite likely to be functional ones.

  • To foster improved relations between the kids, we'd suggest that you pair them up, across biofamily lines, for activities and adventures. Their relationships will improve when they learn that they need to depend on one another. Times when such a "couple" is away from the family at some distance are likely to work well.

  • We suggest that, on occasion, you switch kids with your partner for events/outings. It's pretty easy to make these into fun, or "challenge" times. (Maybe gals vs guys, etc.)

  • Set the goal of consciously building your "family history". Make sure to take pictures of family events, place them in conspicuous places, make a family history photo album or video; talk about the events of interest, etc. Look to your and your partner's personal history (i.e., positive experiences from your family of origin) for ideas you can develop into traditions for your present family.

  • Are there other kids at the homes of your/your partner's prior spouse? If so, the kids might just be overwhelmed with the presence of others; and a little more patience/understanding/tolerance might be the best strategy.

  • NB Do your partner's kids have "special status" because they are in your home less often? You commented that they sometimes seem uncertain and need their dad to entertain them. Visiting kids are often given "special status" (e.g., no chores, fun times only, no structure, etc,). This is a) bad for their development, and b) keeps them feeling like they don't belong. Guilt and "Disneyland parenting" don't raise healthy kids. Kids need structure to feel they are loved and to contribute meaningfully to the care and management of the home IN ORDER TO FEEL THEY BELONG.

  • We suggest that you begin having regular family meetings. A step-by-step how-to article is available on www.stepfamily.ca.

  • Before an important outing or a vacation, we'd like to suggest that you have a family meeting to discuss expectations--to explicitly ask "the absolute minimum" that must occur for each member of the family to be able to say:  "The holiday/outing was a success."

  • We suggest that you read the article on www.stepfamily.ca about familymoons. There is likely a point or two in there that might be helpful.

  • Begin using a formal problem-solving system with the entire family, such as "Creative Problem Solving". Summaries of many such systems are available on the Internet. A formal system for solving problems is likely to be seen as "fair".

  • You and your partner should consider discussing what boundaries would be helpful to have between your household and his prior spouse. Your sense of her intrusiveness is much more likely to be realistic than his, because he has the experience of living with her and you haven't. Likewise, your current partner would be a better judge of the boundaries that should be in place regarding your prior spouse than you would. Take some time on this. Be confident that you can BOTH support any ideas you develop before implementing them.

  • Consider working your way, as a couple, through some communication exercises; and learn to use "I messages". There's lots of info about this on the Internet.

All of these topics are covered in detail in our course Building Stepfamilies That Work. It includes a host of very specific exercises, tools, strategies and techniques that have been proven to work well for the vast majority of problems stepfamilies encounter. A home-study version of the course will soon be available from the Stepfamily Foundation of Alberta web site (www.stepfamily.ca).

Finally, thank you for your interest in the Stepfamily Foundation of Alberta and for agreeing to allow us to post the information you provided for the benefit of other stepfamilies.

 

All rights reserved. The reproduction, use, distribution or storage or of this work, in whole or in part, by any and all means, without the express written permission of the author, is strictly prohibited.

 

Stepfamily Foundation of Alberta