Several months ago, I was sharing a ride to the airport from a work conference I’d just attended. As the three women and I were chatting, one lady opened up about the difficulties in her blended family. She and her husband were both in their second marriage, trying desperately to make life with “yours, mine and ours” work successfully.
Finally, her eyes welled with tears as she said, “The only arguments my husband and I have are over the kids. I’m tired of trying to get the kids to like me. All I want is for us to get along and be a family.”
If you’re in this situation, be assured there’s hope. There are investments you can make in your marriage and family to bring about peace and genuine love.
1. Try to see life from the children’s point of view.
When Sally and Jess remarried, it was a time of renewed hope, joy and expectations that they’d found their soul mate. But the kids didn’t seem to hold those feelings. “Whenever Jess’ kids visit, they cause havoc,” says Sally. “They run wild, they’re nasty and they say, ‘We don’t have to listen to you. You’re not our Mom.’ I want our family to get along and love each other. But I feel so helpless, and then I react with the same childish behavior.”
The most important thing to keep in mind, whether the kids are angels or little demons, is that they’ve experienced a lot of pain and grief, helplessly watching the destruction of their Mom and Dad’s relationship. So they close their hearts to avoid further hurt.
So when your children or stepchildren act nasty or obnoxious or ignore you or cause problems, remember that most kids talk and react out of their pain. Before you respond, try to stop and think about what they’ve been through. We’re certainly not excusing or ignoring their behavior, but understanding it is the first step to help you respond more lovingly toward them.
Try not to take things personally. The kids may like you, but hate the situation. And the only way they can deal with it is to take the grief and anger out on you. The best response is showing kindness, patience, concern and love. You may never receive a “thank you,” but deep down, kids know the truth. That knowledge will seep in and eventually make a difference.
2. Set and keep boundaries.
More likely than not, the way you do things will be different from the way the other side does them. That’s okay. It’s important that your home be as stable and safe as possible. That means setting and maintaining rules. Anna and Kevin got the family together one night shortly after they were married and asked the kids to be part of the boundary decisions. “We told them the rules, then they chose the consequences for the times those rules are broken,” says Kevin. “That way no one can argue about how fair or unfair something is.”
3. Make family meetings a priority.
Kids need to feel that they are a wanted and vital member of the clan. Communication is an important way to ensure that. And regular family meetings help circumvent problems, allow everyone to air their feelings and set a positive direction for your clan. Gina and Andy gather their children once a month for an ice cream social/family meeting. “When trouble comes up, our only rules are that everyone has to use ‘I feel’ statements rather than ‘you should,’ says Gina. “It’s worked well and brought our family closer.”
4. Never bad-mouth the child’s parent.
Although he may be a deadbeat Dad or a manipulative Mom, that person is still the child’s biological parent. So be careful what you say. Angela made a comment one day about her husband’s ex, who’d called demanding more child support. “I was so angry I made some rude comment in front of the kids,” says Angela. “The youngest started to cry, the middle one gave me a look of pure hatred, and the oldest walked out and slammed the door.” More times than not, words spoken against a parent come back to haunt us and can cause more pain and a sense of familial disassociation to a child.
5. Keep memories and traditions alive.
As much as we may wish that our partner’s family never had good times apart from us, the truth is, they did. Don’t take it as a threat. When Priscilla’s stepdaughter, Lacey, mentioned that her Mom had taken her to the zoo one rainy afternoon, Priscilla wisely said, “That’s cool. What was your favorite animal? It’s fun to spend time with your Mom, isn’t it?” Instead of cutting off the memory, Priscilla encouraged her stepdaughter to talk with her. “That one conversation,” Priscilla says, “opened the door for Lacey to know that she could trust me to talk about other, more important issues.”
6. Make new memories and traditions.
Sam and Ellen decided they wanted to do something special to help them feel like a family. So they started a slumber party tradition. Every other month they clear out the family room, take blankets and make tents, rent movies, and make cookies and pizza. Then they stay up all night playing games, watching DVDs and eating. “The best part,” says Sam, “is that in the middle of the night, we talk about dreams and goals. I learn so much about the kids, and it draws us closer as a family. Now everyone looks forward to those weekends.”
7. Remember your first priority— your partner.
Children have already weathered the breakdown of one family. Do everything in your power to make sure they never experience that again. The best thing you can do for your children and stepchildren is to let them see that you value and love your partner, that you will work through conflicts in a healthy manner and that they can’t pit you against each other.
8. Say and/or do something kind every day.
Each child needs reassurance that he or she is special and valued. Compliment the good qualities and characteristics. Actively listen when they talk, acknowledging and respecting their opinions. Tell them you love them. Let them see and know that your blended family holds no blood favorites, and that everyone is special.