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Creating harmony in blended homes

December 15, 2011
By Sue Junge , Times-Republican

In today's society, there are many different kinds of families; some my have the typical mom and dad, some may have two moms or two dads, and some are "blended" families. There are those where the parents have remarried for a second or third time, creating step-moms and dads, and step brothers and sisters, or half brothers and sisters. Though it's great for parents to have found love a second or third time, it can be stressful and difficult to find peace and harmony. Many times adults forget just how difficult this can be for children, and it is especially so at holiday time.

Newly formed stepfamilies - and experts say that "new" is a term that can apply for up to seven years, as everyone learns to navigate old loyalties, unfamiliar relationships and developmental changes. Parents need lots of advice, and they know it. Conflict about how to handle kids is tough on everyone and can be murder on a marriage. (It's one of the reasons second unions fail more than first ones.) Here is some advice on how to handle the most predictable hurdles.

What's the best way for all of us to handle the holidays?

Between hyped-up expectations, stressful scheduling, and extra communication between frosty exes, the holidays can be anything but happy. Try to focus on what's important to the kids, and find ways to celebrate that are fun for them. Simplify plans as much as possible. You might consider alternating holidays - one year you get Thanksgiving but not Christmas, and so on - rather than splitting days, which can increase logistical tension. And if it's not your year to get the kids for Christmas, make sure they know you're fine with them having a great time without you. Comments like "I know your holiday with Mommy will be wonderful" go a long way toward letting your kids know you want the best for them 365 days a year - not just when they are with you.

My 3-year-old spends every other weekend with my ex, who just ignores our son's schedule for naps, meals and bedtime. How can I get him to respect our request for consistency between our houses?

While there is plenty you can do to create healthy routines in your home, there's a limit to how much you can impose your ideas and standards on someone else, says Anne C. Bernstein, Ph.D., a family psychologist and mediator in Berkeley, Calif. Your requests, even something as basic as "please get him to bed by 8:30 because otherwise he has a hard time at day care," can be construed as bossy, critical, or controlling. You'll be more successful if you try to address your ex as a colleague rather than a subordinate. Stick to the issues you think are most important - maybe bedtime matters more than what or when your child eats. But be clear that you're asking, not demanding, and then let it go. The good news, Dr. Bernstein says, is that this probably isn't as much of a problem as you think. "There will always be differences between homes, and there's a wide spectrum of how well families cooperate," she adds. "From a very young age, even as toddlers, kids are able to appreciate that. It's as simple as saying, 'In Dad's (or Mom's) house bedtime may be different, but here it's 8:30. "

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."' And speaking from experience, those exes who shy away from saying bad things about each other tend to have well-adjusted children with a lot less problems. This is soooo important when children are the products of divorced parents.

Help kids shift back and forth between homes with these tips for smooth transitions.

Be true to a school - If possible, make a deal with your exes to stay in the same school district or as close as you can. You'll save lots of driving time and make it easier for all parents to help with everything from middle-of-the-day tummy aches to chaperoning field trips.

Start traditions - The initial hour or so after a switch is often rife with meltdowns. Make it a ritual to walk the dog or play on the swings so the kids can blow off steam.

Use a mom/dad calendar - Toddlers and preschoolers typically miss absent parents more acutely. Mark Mom and Dad time with different colors so they can count the days.

Say Goodnight via Skype - Invite an absent parent to read the kids a virtual bedtime story.

Give them a piece of you - If a child seems apprehensive or tearful when saying goodbye, hand him something that belongs to you. ("Hey, will you hold my scarf until Sunday?")

Get a door-side duffle - "Blended" kids are famous for forgetting a favorite toy, soccer gear, or homework at the other parent's house. Develop a catch-all system by the front door, and make a pact with kids and exes to try to handle "Oh, no, I forgot my ____ again" days with humor.

Always remember, this is a tough time for kids, you as the parents need to do all you can to assure them they are still loved and the most important thing in your life. Forget about why a marriage didn't work out, get past it for your children!

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Sue Junge is an Early Childhood Specialist for the Marshall County Early Childhood Iowa Area and is a Thursday columnist for the Times-Republican. The views expressed in this column are personal views of the writer and don't necessarily reflect the views of the T-R. For more information, please visit



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