Q&A: Stepfamilies and Children
Q: I am remarried and we have a three-year-old daughter (Becky). From my husband’s first marriage, he has a nine-year-old daughter who visits us on alternate weekends. The two girls get along fabulously.
So what’s the problem? Becky misses her sister terribly in between visits, endlessly asking where’s Melissa, when will she be back, and crying when we try to explain why she can’t see her. Phone calls only seem to make it worse. And the relationship between my husband and his first wife is not compatible enough to allow more flexibility in the visitation schedule. Any suggestions?
A: One aspect of the problem is a developmental issue. Very young children are unable to grasp concepts of time which, combined with their lack of ability to wait to have their needs met, makes it extremely difficult to cope with these kinds of delays. Typically, when very young children are involved in any part of a visitation process, I recommend shorter, more frequent contact. For example, one day each weekend and more frequent weekday dinners if geography permits. Of course, this is an unusual request because it’s the needs of your biological child rather than the stepdaughter which is creating the issue.
Given Becky’s age, I would make two suggestions. First, take her to see where Melissa lives and take some pictures of the home and, if possible, her room. This will give Becky a concrete sense of where Melissa is when not at her home.
Second, make a video, preferably a lengthy one, of the two girls doing many of their favorite things together. Young children love videos and can watch the same ones over and over. When Becky is upset about missing her sister, being able to watch the video may provide a means to ease the distress, again giving her something very concrete rather than just words to help her.
Q: I am about to marry a woman with two children, ages 6 and 8. We have had some disagreements on what my role will be in our new family. How much do I discipline the children?
A: This is one of the most common questions and key issues in the formation of a new family through remarriage. Keep this basic concept in mind. For any parent, effective discipline can only occur in a context where the child has developed a loving and trusting relationship with that parent.
Thus, even though these are school-age children, with a capacity to understand rules and consequences, they have not had the opportunity to develop that trusting relationship with you as a parent regardless of how long you have known them.
Therefore, it is best if you begin your role as stepfather by focusing on developing closeness. Talking, playing, helping with homework, putting to bed, doing everyday things, until they virtually ask for you to discipline them. And they will do that, if you allow the relationships to evolve naturally.
This requires great patience on your part, especially if you happen disagree with you new wife’s ways of disciplining. It’s very difficult when it’s the reverse situation, and the mother is at home with the stepchildren. It is also difficult for men to not be authoritative. But, if you follow this model, gradually both parents will be able to share the discipline and you will avoid some of the more serious roadblocks to creating successful stepfamilies.