Q: Hi Laurie. I am a single mum of two lovely girls aged 12 and 8. I have been divorced for three years now and have shared custody. On the whole my girls are well behaved, have good manners and generally get along well with everyone. Of course they are not perfect angels but they are good kids. For the past 18 months I have been in a realationship with a man who also has two children and is divorced. His kids are a girl 10 and a boy 8. They are lovely children but on occasion they do misbehave quite badly. Up until this point I have avoided saying anything to my partner about this as I have believed that they are his children and I can’t say anything, that is until now when it has come to my attention that his boy is hitting my girls and his girl is saying nasty things to my girls and thier friends. I have spent time with his children with just me (without my girls) and have noticed that his children punch and hit each other on a regular basis and say mean things to each other. My partner does not seem to discipline or correct this behaviour unless it gets out of hand. And even then no consequence is given and therefore no effective discipline is given to correct the behaviour. As I said up until this point I have not interefered but now that their behaviour is effecting my children I feel something should be said but I do not know how to go about it or what to say to him. I do not want to cause conflict between us but I don’t want the situation to get to the point that my children do not want to spend time with his children as I can see in the future that we will be a blended family. Please help.
A: This is a tricky situation indeed and I think it’s commendable that you’ve been able to respect your partner’s role as parent, as many of us have a harder time keeping our opinions to ourselves. Though I do think there are effective ways to address your concerns with your partner, I suggest starting by addressing them with your own family.
Far better than protecting our children from unpleasantness is empowering them to handle it themselves with confidence. Putting such problems in your children’s hands, with your support and encouragement rather than advice or protection, not only builds their competence, but also prevents resentment and negative roles from developing amongst the four children involved. If your children come to you with a complaint about your partner’s children, you can try reflective listening, empathizing, and inviting them to brainstorm solutions. For example, after listening without interruption, you might say something like, “That must’ve really hurt your feelings,” perhaps followed by an example of a similar experience of your own, then, “What could you do next time?” or “Any ideas to improve the situation?”
If you choose to speak to your partner about this, I suggest a very similar approach. For example, “I noticed our children are having a tough time lately and worry it might impact their relationship going forward.” After listening to his concerns with understanding and empathy, you could then ask him what ideas he has for addressing both yours and his.
While focusing on the future and solutions rather than the past and punishment is far more effective at achieving permanent change and long-term goals for multiple reasons, it’s particularly important when siblings (or probable future siblings) are involved. Nothing builds resentment and helps solidify negative roles quite like punishment when more than one child is involved.
One rule of thumb when dealing with conflict between children, though easier said than done, is to remain neutral regardless of who you believe is “at fault.” Here’s an article with more detail on the subject: http://www.portlandfamily.com/