When Stepchildren Visit
Don't Be Wicked
Being “real” doesn't mean being rude. Courtesy and respect are an important part of healthy family dynamics.
Don't Try to Fix Things
Your stepchild may arrive for the annual visit with language, manners, and clothing that you abhor. Though you may not like this evidence of his “other” house, or you may not appreciate these “new” behaviors that the child may be trying out on you, don't try too hard to change things. Yes, overt rudeness isn't acceptable, and neither is repulsive, gross behavior. When you can't stand it anymore, you can speak out by making a general assertion of the rules: “At our house we don't have food fights.” But weigh effort and possible resentment against the possibility of having a nice visit, and move toward acceptance, enthusiasm, and encouragement.
You don't need to take on a parental role, but you do need to be an adult and a role model. Modeling appropriate behavior is an important part of being an effective stepparent, and that means setting limits on what kind of behavior you'll accept around you. That's true even if the visit is short. Also, try to be sympathetic to your mate, the bioparent, who may feel sad and frustrated at this visible evidence of this lack of control, influence, and input into the child's life.
I Kid You Not!
It can be tortuous to witness a visiting child exhibiting self-destructive behavior, such as smoking cigarettes, and to know that you have no control over his behavior. Remember that no parent, bio or step, really has control. You do have influence, though. Don't underestimate the power of good modeling, and let go of what you cannot change.
Don't Be Wicked
Pamper without money. A child's favorite dish for dinner, a cup of hot chocolate in bed, an inexpensive gift—there are ways to show you care without spending a bundle.
Don't Be Wicked
Kids who have two households, or who live in one household but visit another parent, are often hamstrung with loyalty issues. Don't ever use the child as a message bearer: “Tell your father if he doesn't pay the check on time this month, I'm seeing my lawyer again!”
When kids are only occasional members of a household, there's a tendency toward overindulgence. There's nothing wrong with a little indulgence, if it doesn't come at the expense of the other kids in the house, and if it isn't done with an ulterior motive, such as getting back at the nasty ex-spouse or trying to buy love from the child. When parents don't see kids except on vacation, they want to show them how glad they are to see them. Children should be treated with respect, courtesy, responsibility, accountability, and just a little pampering.
When some kids live with you all or most of the time and the other kids come to visit, things can get even more complicated. “The visiting kids often feel like they are “intruders,” and they may express great jealousy when they see the kids who are there all the time interacting with their bioparent. The kids who are “at home” may feel displaced both physically and emotionally, especially if they have to clear a space for their stepsiblings to sleep.
In Angela and Ron's family, Angela's son Tony lives there full-time, and Ron's daughters come to visit on weekends. When they do, they sleep in Tony's room and Tony sleeps on the couch in the living room. “It's not uncommon for everybody to flip on us,” says Ron. “Tony gets sullen and mean, the girls fight, Angela gets a headache, and I just can't stand it.”
Semi-combined visits require a great deal of understanding on the part of the adults. It's not an easy situation, but it can get better over time as the kids form more of a bond.
Beginnings and Endings
Transition times (when kids arrive and when they get ready to leave) tend to be terrible. Some kids get quiet and withdrawn. Others act out.
“I can plan on at least two major blow-ups a week: one about two or three hours after Esther arrives, and one as she packs her bag to go back to her mother's house,” says Carmina, who lives with her stepdaughter four days a week. “I've learned to take them in stride because they are so predictable.”
Carmina is working on ways to lessen the tantrums. She's not asking too many questions, and she's establishing rituals around coming and going. When Esther arrives on Thursday afternoon, Carmina and Esther's dad Fred suggest a shower to “freshen up.” Then Esther watches a video, and Carmina and Fred join her. The shower and video relax Esther, and the ritualistic aspect has come to be something she can rely on. As she packs to go home on Sunday night, Fred joins her for a special snack in her room.
Transitional times can be just as hard on the stepparent as the kid. Come to think of it, it's not so easy for the bioparent, either.
The child who is changing houses—whether it is twice a week or once a year—is having to cope with new rhythms, rules, and patterns.
To help smooth the way, consider these tips:
- Allow some time for everybody to detox. Expect the worst, and maybe you'll be pleasantly surprised.
- Make yourself scarce for a while so you can “cool out” and work on your own tension levels. This also gives the child and the bioparent an opportunity to spend some time alone, rebonding.
- Establish rituals to help re-orient the child in your home.
Planning the visits, whether in the courtroom or over the phone, can be extremely stressful for everybody involved. (It usually entails dealing with the ex, and there's more on that How to Deal With the "Evil" Ex) Though the best results happen when there's flexibility, this is not always possible. Unless it's utterly unavoidable, the bioparent should never cancel on a child. The child needs the security and reassurance of knowing that she's always welcome and wanted.
Visitation plans should incorporate the stepparent. Often the step feels out of the loop as the parent and the ex continue an intimate and often hostile relationship, planning times and setting up dates. Work with your partner so you don't feel forced into uncomfortable situations if relations are not fully cordial, such as waiting in the car outside the ex's house while the parent picks up the kids, or being the one to drop off the child.
More on: Nontraditional Families
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Stepparenting © 1998 by Ericka Lutz. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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