Years ago I was in a serious relationship. To be more exact, I was in the first real relationship since my marriage. It was with a recently divorced man with a 4 year old son. The first several months were honeymooned bliss, complete with fantasies about our future together when we made things more permanent. We waited a few months before introducing the kids, going out for pizza as a way to take the pressure off of the real reason for going out to dinner. The kids took to him well, and my son and his son, being the same age, easily hit it off.
The next several months were great. We’d go hang out at his place and utilize his pool. And then we’d have BBQ’s in the evening. Everyone was happy.
Sounds perfect, right? At first, yes. But reality has a funny way of creeping in.
This man and I had different ways of discipline. His beliefs were that a child is to treat an adult with the utmost respect. And that isn’t necessarily a problem, except that he expected “Yes sir” and “No sir” when he barked out a command. When the 4 year olds were jumping on his furniture, as many 4 year olds will do when a piece of furniture looked as plush as his couch, he went ballistic. The result was that my son was a bad influence and was made to sit on his hands in a time-out. His child would show complete stubbornness, all out ignoring me and wanting nothing to do with me. If I asked him to do something, he would pretend like he didn’t hear me. But as soon as his father repeated it, he would comply. My kids, however, were yelled at for not sharing with his son, given time-outs for negative behavior, and treated as second class to his son. I became a secondary parent to my kids as he took over their disciplining. And we didn’t even live together.
Frankly, it was all bad. It was bad because he took on an extreme father role to my kids at too early of a stage. And it was bad because I helplessly stood by and let him, mistakenly believing that my kids needed to have a father since their own father wasn’t around at the time. His way of coming down hard on my kids while viewing his own child as the innocent in the matter left a bad taste in my mouth. My kids grew to hate him for the strict way he treated them and because they still loved their father and missed him terribly. I grew to resent him because I loved my children immensely and it was apparent that he didn’t, and probably never would feel love for them. Thankfully we had to see the light and understand that to continue this relationship would be to the detriment of our own sanity and our children’s well being.
Step-parenting is a delicate role for any relationship, particularly a new one, and especially for one that is so close to one that previously ended. The fact of the matter is, the children involved have two parents – whether they are present or not. The new person that enters their parent’s life is an intruder to a family that is theirs, and threatens to shake up something they don’t want changed. And it also takes away their hope that the two people they love the most will ever get back together and make the family whole again. A new person cements the brokenness of a divorced home. So any new person that comes along is automatically seen as Enemy #1.
The most delicate line, in my opinion, is when it comes to disciplining a partner’s child. The child doesn’t want it. You’re not their parent, and they’re angry that you are even pretending to be. And you are frustrated because this is your home too, and there are certain rules that need to be abided by for the home to remain harmonious.
So where’s the happy medium?
I can’t say that I have the ultimate of ultimate in answers to this one. I failed miserably in knowing where to draw that line in my previous relationship. And in my relationship with Mr. Wonderful, we discipline our own kids with only a quick reminder to the other’s child if they are doing something that needs to be stopped immediately. Mainly, we depend on the other to keep an eye out for their own children. And that’s easy to do since we don’t live together.
But what if you do live together and the child blatantly ignores your authority because you aren’t their biological parent? What then?
The few things that I have learned along the way is that communication is key. Kids are born manipulators. If they see a divided front between you and your partner, they will use that to their full advantage. It is important for you and your partner to discuss matters behind closed doors. If their child is undermining you, it is important for you to talk about this with your partner so that they can hopefully back you up. Sometimes you might disagree. Sometimes this might mean help from an outside source (i.e. therapy) is necessary. But make sure that it is you and your partner that have the upper hand, and not the child by making it clear that you two are working together and not against each other.
At the same time, it is important for you to understand the child’s side of it as well. You aren’t their parent. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have any authority, but it is vital that you understand their feelings in all of this. They had no say when their parents divorced. They had no say when their parents moved on. They had no say when you married their parent and everyone began living together in one house. They are angry, and even if it’s unfair, they are making you the scapegoat and unleashing their fury on you. Take a moment in their shoes and think about how it would feel if someone you loved was suddenly giving a large part of their attention to someone else. And then think about what it would be like to suddenly have this person in charge of you as well. Step back and relent a little. Let your partner step in as the main disciplinarian for them. Encourage peace in the house rather than slipping down the slope of resentment, and possibly the break-up of your marriage.
Understand that they do have another parent. You may not like this person. They may be the most awful person in this world and it is questionable why your partner even married them and had kids with them in the first place. But to this child, this other parent is one half of their whole world. Never, ever badmouth them. Even if the other parent is spewing hate to the child about you, never stoop to that level. Kids are smart. If they never hear a negative word out of your mouth about the other parent, they will notice. If you are in their corner and supportive of them, they will notice. Yes, I know. This is easier said than done. A jealous ex can spew the nastiest lies about a new person in their ex-spouse’s life. And they can do this easily because they don’t know you at all. They only know that their ex isn’t pining after them anymore. And the things they tell their child can be painful to you (p.s. if this is you, please stop. You aren’t helping your child by making them hate someone that their parent loves. You are instead creating invisible lines and mini wars. Don’t worry, your child will always choose you. But is it really necessary to have them prove their alliance by making them hate this new person?). Don’t be afraid to calmly tell them that such lies are untrue. Never, ever say it in a way that might demean their parent. The child will only hear the negative parts, not the positive. If you are unable to defend yourself without anger, just tell them that you are sorry they believe that. And leave it at that. When it comes to household rules, if they say, “but my mom doesn’t make me do that”, tell them that it may be fine in her house, but not in this house. And beware of them badmouthing their own parent. They are trying to trap you. If you agree with them, it will get back to the other parent that you said something mean and nasty.
Know your place. If you are new in a relationship, you are their parent’s mate and not their parent. Let your mate handle 100% of the discipline. If by doing so you are continuously disrespected and your mate isn’t curbing it, you really need to take a serious look at what the future might hold. If they aren’t taking action now, what’s going to make things happen differently in the future? If you are already a member of this blended family, take on a role that is separate from their bio parent. Get to know them, their strengths and weaknesses, their interests and their fears. Cheer them on as much as you can. The stronger your relationship is with them, the more they will be willing to take direction from you as well as their parent.
Are you a step parent? What works for you in creating harmony in a blended household? And what obstacles have you run across in a household of two families that are now one?