Q: We are a struggling blended family. My husband has three children (ages 7, 12, 17) from a previous marriage. Their mother’s home is focused on the easiest way of parenting. She allows unlimited electronics, showers the kids with presents, and does not discipline effectively at all. It’s obvious she wants to be the kids’ friend. We are the opposite on all counts. The problem is that the kids oppose us every step of the way and only come over to see us because they have to. When the kids are with us, we deal with extreme behavior problems, entitlement, and disrespect. My husband and I are on the same page, but we are reluctant to implement and enforce disciplinary structure because nothing we do is supported by the mother. We want to do what is best and what will hopefully be accepted by the children (even if only in the long run). Is it possible for this to work when the parent with primary custody is not likely to ever see the light and cooperate with us?
A: The good news – and it is really, really good news – is that your husband is supportive of your expectations and your attempts to discipline. In many if not most cases, the father in a blended family is a pushover/wimp/enabler/milquetoast and the stepmom is pulling her hair out because he is afraid to do anything that might even slightly upset his kids during visitation. Any remarried dad who stands firmly with his wife (stepmom) where his kids are concerned deserves a medal of honor. Your husband has his priorities in proper order.
This is a difficult situation, for sure. More accurately, it’s maddening, infuriating, and often provokes fantasies involving bizarre forms of retribution. Fantasies are fine, by the way. In a situation of this sort, they act as a safety valve of sorts. Just don’t act on them.
First, you must not allow the ex’s parenting to influence yours in any way. Don’t, for example, begin competing with her for the kids’ affections. If you do, it’s downhill from there because the only way to compete with her is to go over to the dark side. When the children are with you, do what you know is the right thing to do in any given situation and concerning any given issue.
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Second, you need to train yourselves to stop thinking about the ex-wife’s deficiencies and dysfunctions. That’s only going to drive you nuts and increases the likelihood that you will begin taking out your frustrations on one another. Block her out of your heads. Keep in mind, however, that she is doing the only thing she knows how to do, however pitiful and counterproductive. Let’s face it, if she was capable of being an authority figure, she and your husband might still be married. In a sense, you should count your lucky stars that she’s a parenting basket case.
Third, kids are instant-gratification oriented; therefore, at these ages the children “like” mom more. As children mature, however, they develop the ability to see “down the road” and begin to delay gratification. At that point, there is some likelihood that the kids will begin to appreciate what you and their father have tried to do for them.
There are, of course, no guarantees. Then again, over the years I’ve gotten better and better at fortune telling.
Family psychologist John Rosemond: www.johnrosemond.com; www.parentguru.com