women
Q: My daughter sees her father every other weekend, but wants to keep photos of him all over the house. I would rather she did not.
A: Your daughter has come up with a way to keep her father present in her everyday life. Maintaining a strong relationship with both of you is known to assist children adjust to family separation, so while this may be a difficult reminder of your ex for you, it’s going to help keep this important relationship active for her. Find places she can keep photographs and mementos of her other parent, especially in her room. There may be other ways she can be in touch during the week: Phone calls, texts, and instant messaging between her and her father may also help her feel connected.
Q: I see my ex-partner when she picks up or drops off our son, and we sometimes argue on the doorstep. Is this bad?
A: When your child is being picked up or brought home by his other parent, it may be the only time you see your ex-partner. However, raising sensitive or hurtful topics at this point can mean your child dreads these changeover times. Tension between parents can make your son anxious and unhappy. He may think that the only way to stop the arguments is to give up seeing his other parent, or that it’s his job to step in and protect one of you. It is important that he’s not forced into the role of the adult, trying to resolve or avoid your disputes. It is up to you and your ex to find other ways to communicate. Writing, emails, texts, and phone calls keep the heat of disagreements away from your child. If things are not resolvable this way, mediation or a solution through a legal process may be your best option.
Q: My son lives with me during the week. He’s having some difficulty at school, but his mother seems to get left out of the loop.
A: If your child is living primarily with one of you, it can take extra effort and organization for both of you to stay involved with his schooling. Ensure the school office and your child’s teacher are aware that information and school reports need to be sent to both of you. At times of difficulty, increase communication between yourself and his mother. Regular updates on issues or school meetings to be attended may be tedious, but have to be scheduled. Face-to-face meetings work best to resolve issues, since they give an opportunity to talk around the problem, and suggest and refine solutions.
Q: My child is spoiled by his father. How should I approach this?
A: It must seem very unfair when your ex lavishes treats and gifts on your child and even appears to be buying your child’s affection. Before you approach your ex-partner about the issue, identify the key points that bother you. Perhaps you consider your child will become materialistic, pester you more for toys or sweets, or has an unhealthy diet. Is it that you worry your child is being lured away from you by all these goodies that you don’t allow? Consider also whether these gifts are the way your ex-partner has learned to show his love, or if they are an expression of his insecurities about the relationship with his son.

Find a private moment to explain your concerns to your ex-partner. Stick to the issues for you, such as, “I find when he comes back from being with you, he expects me to buy him as many toys as you do. I can’t afford to do this, and it puts me in a bad position.” Rather than accusations like, “You make life difficult for me because I can’t buy as much for him as you can.” Accept that, while you can suggest moderation in what is bought for your son, you cannot force this to happen. Be reassured that, while treats are enjoyable at the time, it is your child’s loving relationship with each of you that counts—not the material goods he can acquire.

Q: I feel bad that I don’t like my stepchild. Should I?
A: You won’t automatically love your stepchild. You haven’t had the help of a rush of bonding at birth or time with her in the early years to build an attachment, so it will take time for that affection to grow. Remember that your stepchild had little choice in your joining the family, whereas you have actively made this commitment—so it’s up to you to make the effort to build this relationship. Start by treating her with respect, show an interest in what she’s doing, and give yourself a chance to get to know her. See her point of view if she’s not as warm to you at first as you would like. Perhaps she wonders if she’s now second place to you and your children, or is waiting to see if the stories about evil stepmothers are really true. As you show yourself to be warm and caring, you may find, over time, she warms up to you too.
Q: My new partner is Jewish and my children are not. How can I stop this from causing friction?
A: Bringing together people of different cultural or religious backgrounds can be one of the most enriching aspects of your new family life, but it requires reflection and compromise to be successful. Learning about and celebrating different traditions and festivals should create a greater understanding of each other’s background and values. However, there may be limitations that must be accepted as a result of these differences. Your partner’s religious practice may mean that certain foods are forbidden, such as ham or shellfish, and can’t be present in the home, and there will be different religious rituals and days of rest. Take such differences as an opportunity for the whole family to discuss the deeply held beliefs behind these practices. Be clear about what applies to everyone, and where there can be compromise. For example, it may be possible to agree that no one will eat or keep pork in the home, but when they’re at a friend’s house or at school, your children can still have these foods.

Make a family decision that each member of the household will respect the religious ceremonies of the others. This means learning about each others’ observances and taking part if appropriate. For example, your family may decide to eat together to celebrate the start of Shabbat on Fridays, but that only your partner will have a day of rest on Saturday. Be clear, however, that it’s not necessary to change anyone’s beliefs to enjoy mutual respect and support.

Q: My daughter is making life miserable for my new husband. How can I help them get along?
A: The key to solving this difficulty is discovering the fear, anger, or concern that underlies your daughter’s behavior. There could be plenty of reasons she’s acting out. She may be jealous about having to share your love and attention, or fear that she is being pushed out and is less important to you. She may worry that this marriage will end, and is creating barriers between herself and your partner so she won’t be hurt by his departure. Alternatively, she may see refusing to bond with her stepfather as an act of loyalty to her father. You must also consider whether her angry or avoidant behavior toward your partner is a sign that he is harming her in some way. When you take a compassionate approach to this misbehavior and explore her feelings about your marriage and her place in your heart, you are likely to uncover what’s bothering her. Simply dealing with this as a discipline problem can confirm her fears that you’re “on his side” rather than hers. Once you’ve brought out what bothers her, make a plan to deal with the problem. Perhaps she does need more one-on-one time with you to show her you care. Discuss how she would like to be respected in the home, and how she can show respect herself. She may benefit from having her own private diary to express her anger or fears without having to act them out. If she does disclose that she is being hurt, act immediately to protect her and contact social services for support.
Q: My new partner is furious that, as he sees it, I favor my own children over his. What can I do?
A: You may be having a protective reaction to your own children as you help them adjust to stepfamily life and, without realizing it, you may tend to take their side. If possible, allow the children to resolve their own everyday disputes. They probably do have the negotiation skills to work out who will use the bathroom first, take a turn on the computer, or choose a TV show to watch.

If they continue to argue, take care to hear each side of the story before you act, rather than jumping to a conclusion about who’s in the right. If this doesn’t resolve the problem, take a more systematic approach: Agree some clear rules and consequences about acceptable behavior, sharing, and respect for each others’ property, that will apply to everyone. When you apply these to all the children in the family, there is much less likelihood of favoritism.

Q: We are having problems with privacy. Please help!
A: Privacy, or lack of it, can be an issue in any home, but especially so when new family members, with different expectations, move in together. Often the simplest solutions are the best. Do place locks on the bathroom doors and create places in your home where each member can be on their own to relax, study, or just think undisturbed. Introduce “do not disturb” signs on bedroom doors, and have a knock-before-entering policy. Consider how you manage nudity in your home. If you have slept naked in the past or been comfortable walking around nude or semi-naked, this may need to be reviewed. It’s often the case that your child, as she approaches puberty, will not find your nudity as acceptable as she did when she was younger, and will be more modest about her own body, so this is an ideal time to reflect on how much you cover up or not.

It can be difficult letting go of habits that have been natural to you for many years, but respecting the views of others on privacy and nudity will spare embarrassment and smooth family life.

Q: How can I help my new family merge successfully?
A: Creating a blended family is a delicate business: Its basis needs to be the total commitment of the adults involved in establishing and making a success of things, no matter what comes. Your relationship with your partner is the foundation for this family, and while the two of you may see this as the natural progression of your love, your children might be somewhat less certain about what this means for them. Be realistic about what you expect: It is unusual for stepfamilies to immediately bond, live in harmony, and never disagree. However, as relationships grow, stepfamilies do form a secure, rewarding base for raising children.

Being in a stepfamily brings change. You may want a new start in a new area, but to your stepchildren, moving to a new house, changing schools, and losing contact with friends are major concerns. Keep resentment to a minimum by keeping change to a minimum. Make decisions as a family whenever you can. Cooperation is easier to achieve if your children have had their say and influenced family decisions. Regular family meetings are an ideal place for opinions to be put forward.

Q: What problems can I expect with my new family?
A: You may need to develop a thick skin. Children can say hurtful things to parents, but much of the time, the parents’ memories of loving moments put these in perspective. You don’t have this store of past experiences with your stepchildren and may find negative comments more difficult to shrug off. So next time you hear, “I hate you,” or “You can’t tell me what to do, you’re not my mom,” don’t take it personally. See them for what they are: A burst of anger at all life’s unfairness, directed at the easiest target.

When it seems like a battle between you and your stepchild for your partner’s attention, it’s time to reevaluate how love is expressed and time is shared. Children can fear that there won’t be enough love to go around once they have to share their parent with you. Bring this issue into the open, and talk over what each person needs in order to be reassured of their importance. Otherwise, insecurities can fester if they’re left unspoken. In your new family your relationship is very important. It’s the reason this stepfamily has come together, and it offers stability as well as setting the tone for everyone. Keep your relationship on track by finding time for each other everyday, and talk to one another about more than practical issues or how the children are doing.

When times are difficult, remember this may simply be because you’re in a family, and family members don’t always get along. Not all the issues are about being a stepfamily.

Q: How can my new partner and I parent together effectively?
A: Your child will be sensitive to any perceived favoritism or to discipline that varies from how things were in her original family. It can seem easier to continue parenting your own child in the old way and put the stepparent in a backup role. This rarely works, as it can cause the stepparent to feel sidelined and without authority in the home. Each of you will have your own parenting style, but it is essential that you parent with the same standards for all the children in the family. Rules and expectations need to be discussed with children and adults. And remember, parenting works best when it comes from both of you.

Ask yourselves these questions in preparation for parenting together:

  • How will we show our children how special they are and reward them for their achievements?

  • How will we make sure the children get the same response from both of us when they have a request?

  • What behaviors will be acceptable?

  • How will we discipline our children if they misbehave?

  • What sort of help around the house do we expect?

  • Will there be any areas of parenting in which there is no room for negotiation, such as not using physical discipline?

If you can, have a similar discussion with your child’s other natural parent. At the very least keep your ex informed about what approach you are taking. This will help crossover between homes and reduce confusion for children about what applies where. If you and your new partner can’t agree on the details, attend a parenting course together. Whether you go to a standard course or one specifically designed for stepfamilies, you will find many issues are clarified.

Changing places Avoiding frustrations

My husband and I separated when our son was only five, and we agreed he would stay with me for half the week, and his father, the other half. This worked well until he started middle school. Then, as his schoolwork and social life became more complex, frustrations kicked in. He’d leave homework or school gear at one home that he needed at the other, or he’d get frustrated if he started something on our computer then had to set up again on another. Frictions built up, and we finally made the tough decision to take a fresh look at the arrangements. We’re now having a trial of him spending his whole school week with us but more of his weekends and holidays with his father to balance things out.

So far, he tells me it’s easier to manage this way, and there are definitely fewer round trips to his other home to collect something essential that he’s forgotten.

What’s in a name? You’re not my real father!

Before Luke and I moved in together, we talked about what the kids would call him. I thought it would incite a riot if we suggested my new partner be called “Daddy Luke,” even though I wanted him to be seen as a father figure. My son, who isn’t too pleased about the whole setup, wanted to call him nothing at all, and my daughter was comfortable going with just “Luke.”

After a bit of family debate we’ve gone for Luke as the simplest option, and my ex-partner is pleased that he’s still the only one called Dad. Luke’s children, who stay on weekends, were asked what they want to call me and came up with Auntie Lisa, which I don’t like much but I’m going along with to please them. In the end it’s all about compromise and making sure no one is forced to use a name they want to keep for their real mom or dad.

Telling her friends What to say

Separating from your partner is essentially a private matter but, in the end, other people will need to know. For your child, telling her friends can be a daunting task. She may not know what to say to them, worry they’ll pity or taunt her, or think this makes her family look like a failure. Like many children, she may hope that you’ll get back together and be reluctant to tell others because it makes the separation seem real and permanent. Coach her in what she could say, such as, “I want you to know my mom and dad are separating. I will still come to this school and be around like always. I feel pretty sad about it, so that’s all I want to say right now.” She may want to tell a few best friends first or go around during one lunch break to tell all her friends at once. This way they have nothing to gossip about; everyone is in the know.

Myths and misconceptions Is it true that…

Q: All stepmothers are evil?
A: Happily, this is untrue, but stepmothers do have a major stereotype problem, created by children’s fairy tales and movies. Help overturn the myth by showing your willingness to get to know and become known by your stepchild. Do avoid the trap of trying too hard to be a friend, since this can seem false and add to their suspicions about your “evil” motives.
Q: It’s better to stay together for the sake of the children?
A: This is not necessarily true. If your adult relationship is characterized by conflict and resentment, your child will probably feel a sense of relief when you separate, since it reduces her exposure to tension or frequent arguments. Maintaining a positive relationship with both of you and your ability to cooperate concerning her upbringing predicts better adjustment to your separation for your child.
Q: Having a new baby in the stepfamily brings everyone together?
A: Many parents in a blended family decide to have another child. Having a new baby can certainly bring love into the family; unfortunately jealousy and resentment may also result. If you make this choice, it’s essential to keep your child involved throughout the pregnancy. Reassure her that she’s as special to you as ever, and act on these sentiments by setting aside one-on-one time with her every day.

When parents separate or divorce Handling a difficult decision

Making the decision to separate is never done lightly, and trying to get it right for your child, while coping with change yourself, can be the biggest challenge. There is no doubt that even the most amicable separation will be stressful for you and your child.

Soften the impact
Explain

Once you and your partner have made a definite decision to separate, tell your child. Give a clear explanation that focuses on yourselves and reassure her that she is loved by both of you. You might begin by saying “Your mom and I don’t love each other anymore and we have decided to live apart. We both love you very much and always will.”

No fault

Your child will wonder if she did anything to cause the separation, particularly if she’s been in the throes of mood swings or preteen temper tantrums or arguments with one or both of you. Don’t wait until she raises the issue—reassure her that this is a decision based on your adult relationship, and be clear that she has done nothing to contribute.

Keep in touch

Your child’s most pressing questions will probably be self-centered: Will she still see her friends, be able to go to the dance, etc. Make arrangements right away so that she sees both of you no matter what stage of the breakup you are in. Your child’s long-term living arrangements can be difficult to decide on—her needs and views, practical issues, and your own wishes have to be carefully weighed. Often the help of someone neutral, who’s not involved with the breakup, is essential to make these decisions without putting pressure on your child to favor one or other of you. A mediator, parenting coordinator, or counselor could fit this role.

Minimize change

You may be anxious for a fresh start, but hold back: Your child needs things to stay the same as much as possible. It will help her cope with changes in the family situation if the rest of her life is relatively undisturbed. If possible, remain in the same house or local area, since the familiarity of a place can be comforting. When she can stay at the same school, see her friends, and keep up with her hobbies and clubs she’ll find other adjustments easier to handle.

Argument-free zone

If the separation is not amicable, you may need to work hard to keep arguments away from your child. She can be very sensitive to, and distressed by, conflicts in your adult relationship, so take extra care to stay calm and avoid criticizing each other in front of her. When you talk on the phone it can be easy to overhear, so watch what you say even then.

Keep it even

You and your partner may no longer care for each other, but your child still loves and admires each of you. She will want to be loyal to you both, so try to minimize times when she has to choose between you. For example, if she has an event at school, assume that you’ll both attend rather than asking her to pick one of you. For birthdays and holidays, half a day with each parent or alternating years between the two of you may work. Make communication between yourself and your ex-partner direct to ensure your child doesn’t become a go-between. Ideally, she will be able to maintain respect for both of you and not feel she must take sides.

Get help

Even when separation is mutual, you can feel hurt, exhausted, and lonely. Just when you feel least able to give support to others, your child will need extra love and attention. Draw on the help of the wider family and friends to give you a little added care. The more support you have, the more available you can be to your child.

Who to tell

It is essential that people involved with your child, such as her doctor and school, know all the new contact numbers and details for each of you for emergency purposes. You may also want to alert your child’s school to the upheaval in her life so faculty can be supportive if it affects her behavior or studies. Let her know you are doing this, and ask that the information be treated sensitively.

Not in front of the kids

Try hard not to allow your child to overhear heated arguments between you and your partner; these conflicts will distress her.

Not your fault

If you decide to separate from your partner, explain this to your child and reassure him that it was not because of anything he did.

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