When my stepchildren come back from their mother’s house, my husband and I find that it takes days to get them back into our normal routine and rules. It’s pretty chaotic at their mum’s house. I don’t want to seem like the "wicked stepmother," but my husband leaves a lot up to me. How should I deal with this?
This really is a tough scenario and my heart goes out to you and to the children. One of the most important tools of parenting is consistency and this is exactly what you cannot control in your circumstances! Children do best when there are consistent expectations, rules and routines.
The need for security and stability
When you have no say over what happens in the other parent’s home, you can only control part of the equation. So what can you do? I would suggest a couple of important priorities. One would be to grapple with how to make your children’s needs for security and stability a higher priority than the strict following of rules.
Let me explain what I mean by that. Consider why your children might be acting out when they return. What do you think is the meaning behind the behaviour? They may or may not be able to talk with you about this, but think together (you and your husband) about what they are indirectly communicating to you.
Is the behaviour trying to express one of these three messages: I don’t know if I can trust you; or I feel confused and upset when I am expected to keep two sets of rules!; or I’m frustrated that I have to go back to Dad’s house just when I was getting used to being at Mum’s!
Sort out the why
If you can try to sort out the "why," you may find yourself more empathetic to your kids’ experience of life and be able to make adjustments that help them transition more smoothly. Playful engagement, for instance, can lower a child’s fight-or-flight response. Try turning potential conflicts into games – like, for instance, an extra fun bedtime routine after a weekend at mum’s. This may divert your kids from needing to act out. Helping them to name their feelings can help them process what is really going on and diminish the behaviours you see. Offer empathy and understanding. For example, you could say something like, Wow, I know it must be hard to come back here where things are so different than they are at Mum’s house. Does that make you feel frustrated? It would make me feel like that too! Then see if you can find solutions together. This way, you help the children feel like a team, engaging with you to solve interpersonal challenges.
Talk to your husband
The second priority is for you and your husband to have a serious conversation about roles and responsibilities. You need to have his full involvement and support in maintaining whatever rules and routines you both believe are important in your home. Even if you are with the children more of the time and need to be the "enforcer" more often, your husband still needs to be standing firmly behind you, requiring respect from the children. Whenever possible, it would be good for him to step up to this responsibility. As the children get older, help them take ownership of family rules and expectations with regular family meetings where issues can be discussed and everyone’s input can be sought. Again, this will build a sense of shared responsibility and accountability.
Blending a family is challenging – no question. If you need assistance, ask for help from friends, family, pastors or counsellors.