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Oregon Family Magazine

Team Family: Working Together When You Live Apart

03/02/2014 ● By Sandy Kauten

Helping Kids Cope With Blended Family Lifestyles

The back and forth routine that accompanies many children with a mom and dad in different homes often brings exhaustion. For kids, it can create confusion, anxiety, and turmoil.

Our children need a stable home environment, free of tension and chaos, to develop a healthy self image and succeed in school. If you spend any time at your child's school, particularly middle and high schools, you'll notice the pressure and demands they face. Minefields at home only create more stress.

As parents and stepparents, what can we do to enable healthy interactions and positive self-esteem? One of the best ways to promote success is to commit to do your part in maintaining a friendly relationship with your ex.

I know--you'd rather eat a cockroach than talk about how to live in harmony with your ex or your spouse's ex--but it's vital to the well-being of your children and stepchildren to maintain an amicable relationship. That doesn't mean you have to be best friends with your ex-husband, or your stepson's mom, but you do have to commit to being cordial with them.    

I will be the first to admit this hasn't come naturally. I maintained a contentious relationship with my ex-husband for too long after our divorce. Although I tried hard to not speak badly of him to our girls, I'm sure they could sense my disapproval of his lifestyle and critical spirit toward him when we negotiated visitation. It's important to remember that our children are half of their other parent and when we speak badly of that parent, they turn the negative remarks inward, leading to a negative self-image.

As your children move between homes, help them learn responsibility by reminding them to stop and think about what they need to pack when they leave one home and move to the other. As a stepfamily coach, I often hear stepparents complain about their stepkids making multiple trips to their house on the off week because they left supplies, a project, a uniform, etc. Don't enable irresponsibility by allowing them to return multiple times for items they forgot.

As a stepparent, recognize the adjustment your stepchildren go through when they travel between homes. Allow extra time on transition days for kids to settle in, focus, and adjust to the routine of your home. Give them space if you sense they're struggling emotionally.

Don't maintain an overly ambitious schedule on weeks your stepchildren are there. Allow time to help with homework, run kids to ball practice, or sit down for a home-cooked meal. Stepfamily relationships are strengthened as family members spend time together in a relaxed environment.

Also, consider what it feels like to a biological parent to have someone else take part in raising their child. And be sensitive to how your stepchildren feel toward you and whether they want you at every function or whether you should bow out and let the biological parents take the lead.

As a mom and stepmom to five children, I understand the challenges that accompany kids moving between homes. My husband and I spent years negotiating schedules and seeking to provide a safe environment in which our kids could thrive.

My stepchildren and two of my biological children have now completed school and exited the nest, leaving my husband and I with only an "ours" child left at home. Some days I consider what I would do differently if all our kids were at home again.

I think I would offer a softer side toward my stepchildren when they've had a bad day at school. I'd be more understanding on transition days when they've just come back from their mom's house and need time alone. I'd extend grace more freely when my own kids didn't do their chores to my satisfaction. And I would insist on fewer extracurricular activities to allow more time at home for relationships to grow and bond.

Our childrearing season passes quickly and we're left with fond memories. Seek to enjoy the hassles! Step back, take a deep breath, and snap a few pictures of your growing child. Then consider what you can do to sow peace with those around you. Will you commit to take the high road as often as possible? Will you do your part to co-parent in harmony?

Yes, it's harder when kids move between homes, but it's not impossible to find peace.

Seven Tips to Help:

 1) Don't meddle in the affairs of the other home.

2) Maintain a cooperative and flexible attitude with your ex when discussing the kids' schedules. 

3) Keep conflict with your ex-spouse away from the ears of your children.

4) Encourage your children to be responsible with their belongings.

5) As a stepparent, offer grace and understanding to your stepchildren.

6) Consider the needs of your children and stepchildren as they transition.

7) Commit to a new tomorrow when you fail.

Gaya Grace is an author and stepfamily coach with a his, hers, and ours family. She loves helping non-traditional families learn to thrive in their relationships.