Q: We've spent the last nine years arguing about how to raise my children. My husband is very rigid and refuses to compromise. His children lived with their mother and finally stopped coming over because they didn't like the rules. My children aren't so lucky. Any suggestions on how to ease the tension in my household?
A: Nine years is a long time to be engaged in a battle over parenting styles without some resolution. With the disengagement of his children from your household, it sounds as if it's gotten worse over the years. This is very sad. I assume that you're describing your husband as a strict parent rather than an abusive parent. If the children or you are experiencing abuse of any kind -- emotional, physical, sexual -- safety is primary and removal from the abuser is the only recommendation.
For clashing parenting styles, this combination of an authoritarian ("because I said so") with a more democratic parent is not uncommon. It's usually based on different family histories -- we tend to parent the same way we were parented. What makes it especially difficult is that yours is a stepfamily, so you'll naturally feel more protective of your biological children and it's easier for the stepparent to refer to "your children." It can then easily develop into a situation of us against him -- very unhealthy for any family and especially for a stepfamily, where we know that issues between stepparents and stepchildren almost always spill over into the marriage relationship. The parent-child relationship has more history and is usually the stronger relationships in a stepfamily. Because this has been going on for so long, I will assume that your marriage has been negatively affected by this.
For this reason and because of the fact that his children no longer visit with him (a very serious family crisis), I urge you to involve some professional help for the family. It's very important that this be someone who is trained in stepfamily dynamics (see the Stepfamily Association of America Web site for recommendations at www.saafamilies.org). It'll be important for your husband to learn about the effects of authoritarian parenting. For example, children raised with very strict disciplinarians usually do not learn self-discipline; they behave only to avoid punishment and are usually more likely to misbehave "when no one's watching!" They also are the most likely to be emotionally disengaged from their parents. Children who are given some freedom within specific, consistent limits (democratic parenting) and who are shown warmth and kindness have the best chance of becoming cooperative, thoughtful, self-disciplined adults -- the goals usually have for their children).
Working on rebuilding the family may be done best in twos -- working on individual family connections has been shown to build strength in stepfamilies. This also means work on the marital relationship apart from your parenting roles. The marriage makes the family and should be the strongest link. Investing in strengthening your marriage is investing in strengthening the parent-child and stepparent-stepchild relationships. There's usually a spillover effect.
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