A Happy Blended Home

The Evil Stepmother and More

blended family

Peter Ardito

My husband won't discipline his kids when they visit, so I'm always the Evil Stepmother.
"It is really the biological parent's job to be the heavy," says Barry B. Frieman, Ed.D., a child-development expert and author of The Divorcing Father's Manual. "Otherwise, it just sets the new parent up for those nasty, 'You can't boss me -- you're not my real mother' comments." Talk to your husband about the situation and plan a strategy. Try to hash out guidelines about what kind of behavior you expect, and what the consequences will be when kids break the rules -- and encourage him to be the one to handle the situations with his kids. Tell him how you feel when he turns into a softie, and discuss different ways you can serve as one another''s backup. When your husband isn't around, it's better to invoke his authority with his kids than assert your own: "Your dad expects you to keep your room clean -- please pick up your toys" will get much less push-back than a command from you. If you're faced with a difficult scenario when he's away, don't be afraid to do nothing. "It's fine to tell the kids you're going to wait and talk with their dad about how to handle a situation," Dr. Frieman says. "You can always impose a consequence later."

We know we shouldn't say anything bad about our exes in front of our kids -- but we slip every now and then. How can we do damage control?
Apologize. Simply explain, "I think you heard me say something not very nice about your mom. That must be hard for you, because you love her. I want you to know I don't hate your mom. I was upset, and said something thoughtless," suggests Susan Wisdom, author of Stepcoupling. "It's a good chance for you to say, 'We are all human and make mistakes.' " That said, remember that these types of remarks about exes truly are toxic. "Your child sees herself as half her mom and half her dad. So when you trash a parent, you're trashing her."'

True confession: Not only do I not feel much love for one of my new stepsons, he really gets on my nerves sometimes. Is that horrible?
"These feelings are typical and it's okay to feel annoyed," says Susan Davis Swanson, a clinical social worker, who runs The Stepfamily Center, in Beverly Hills, California. Don't be too hard on yourself; even biological parents can't stand their own kids sometimes, she says. "As a stepparent, it's important to be respectful and polite. This child is your partner's pride and joy, and he deserves a home where he can feel cared about and secure." Of course, this type of situation works both ways. "Your stepkids may not like you or your children, either," says Swanson. "Remember, the parents created this new family. The kids didn't ask for any of it." Love often develops over time, but it can be complicated. "As the adult, it'll be up to you to move the relationship forward," says Swanson. "But there will be times when you just don't feel up to trying. Give yourself room for all of your feelings and know that they're all right."

I thought our kids would be friends, but they ignore each other. When will we truly blend?
It usually takes double a child's age for everyone to develop strong bonds, Dr. Adler-Baeder says, so a 2-year-old should be adjusted by age 4; a 5-year-old may not feel solid until about age 10. However, many older kids may never completely accept a stepparent or stepsibling. "The term blended is actually pretty misleading," Dr. Adler-Baeder concedes. "Most of the time, there really isn't any true blending, it's more of a tossed salad. Does everyone truly love each other? Maybe not. But everyone should feel appreciated and respected."

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