"Negotiating Difficult Co-parenting Relationships"
My step-children are 8 and 10 years old. I have been in their lives for several years. Their mother is very difficult and tries to undermine my involvement in their lives (as well as their father's). She and her husband live very unstable and irresponsible lifestyles and she puts the children in the middle of her battles with her family, creditors, and their father. The stress is really beginning to show in the children. My stepson gets stomach aches and has vomited when being driven home to visit his mother. My step-daughter has been getting headaches and has nightmares. Both kids have recently wet their beds. We've brought this matter to court, but so far our attempts at winning full custody haven't succeeded.
How can we get the kids to talk? They are not going to betray their mother, even if she is hurting them. The few times we've tried to talk to the kids they "cloud over" and get upset.
My husband and I have always tried to keep everything "cool and collected" and have never bad-mouthed their mother. We have a good marriage, but this is creating a huge strain on us.
Our biggest concern is the long-term effect this is going to have on the kids. Should we try harder to talk to them about what is going on? We could really use some help with this.
-- -- a stepmom who cares
There are often people in our children's lives who are not the most positive influences. There are, tragically, also people in some children's lives who are harmful to some degree. As parents and caregivers of children, we are challenged to figure out how to keep our kids safe and also how to help them interpret the inappropriate behavior of the people around them. When the harmful people are relatives, it becomes even more complicated to deal with. When they are parents, it can be confusing and agonizing.
Here are some things we know about children and their relationships with their parents. For children in most situations, it is better for them to maintain at least some contact with their parents, even if the parenting is problematic. In extreme circumstances, however, it can be in the best interest of the child not to have contact with a parent who is negligent or abusive.
When children are having regular contact with a "difficult" parent, it's important to remember that children are resilient if there are certain supports in place. Children who have a solid base somewhere in their lives are more likely to successfully navigate their other more stressful relationships.
Here are several other factors and responses to consider:
. Provide support and consistency. It sounds like you have worked hard to provide a safe and nurturing base for your children. Your observations of them and your attention to their feelings and physical symptoms let them know that you are concerned about them. This kind of attention, love, and support go a long way in nurturing children who are in a stressful situation.
. Provide a space for children to talk. It sounds like you have really tried to encourage your children to talk to you about what is going on. There are a couple of specific things you can do to increase the possibility that they will feel comfortable talking about how they feel. Try to be a neutral listener. If your child feels like her statements always bring up big feelings for you, it will be harder for her to share.
Look for private, open-ended times. Sometimes riding in the car together provides a chance for kids to share their feelings. Sometimes hanging out together just before bed, chatting casually about your day provides a venue for talking about important feelings. Some people like to take a walk together.
It is important to limit activities that direct your attention away-like TV, video games, movies or the Internet. These things provide a distraction and can interfere with your children paying attention to how they feel. They also take up time that could be used connecting with each other.
. Help find a therapist for your children. Even if you succeed in getting your children to talk to you, providing a neutral, outside person for them to talk with will help relieve some of their stress and may help give them invaluable tools to deal with their situation. If your own feelings are overwhelming you and keeping you from offering your children the kind of open-ended support they need, you might want to consider getting some counseling or therapy for yourself as well.
. Provide information and validation. There are many things that your children don't understand about the situation they are in. They need to know how love works: "There is plenty of love to go around. You can love each of your parents with your whole heart."
They need to know that you can love someone and also be mad at them, or disagree with them or not like what they do: "I know you love your mother, but that doesn't mean that she doesn't make you mad sometimes." "You can love someone and it can still be hard to spend time with them."
If your children mention specific difficult things that have happened, you can acknowledge that those things are hard for them: "That's sounds hard." Or, "How did you feel about that?" "Boy, that can be frustrating." Or, "Looks like you're pretty upset about that."
You can acknowledge that their mother is mad at their dad right now, and that that must be difficult for them. And you can tell them, "Even though one of your parents is mad at the other one, it doesn't mean that you have to be mad at either one."
. Help the children see their mother as a "whole" person. For many reasons-protectiveness, anger, frustration, disappointment, or jealousy-it may be difficult for us to see our child's "other parent" as a whole, complex person who has strengths, as well as weaknesses. As you have been doing, it is important to avoid "bad-mouthing" their mother.
If your children begin to open up and complain, after you have listened empathetically to their hurt, you can ask some questions which help them see the whole experience: "Were there any times that were easier when you were with your mother?" "Were their things you liked about being with your mother?"
. Document your children's behavior, your observations of their mother and the things they tell you that concern you. It is important that you write down (and date) the things that you see and hear that feel unsafe or hurtful to you, and also that you document the upset behaviors your children are exhibiting. This can help you keep track of specifics and may also be useful to you if you decide to take legal action to get either primary or sole custody. (This documentation should be kept confidential from the children.)
. Assess the situation. Knowing that it is most often preferable to keep a child in contact with their parents, you also need to assess whether this situation may be one of those, which in fact is too harmful for the children. Are your children in danger of physical or emotional harm or neglect? You can review your documentation, talk to their teachers, consult their therapists and try to assess what will be best for them.
. Get support for yourself and your husband so you can continue to provide the most stable, nurturing environment possible. This has got to be a very stressful situation all the way around. It is not surprising that you and your husband are feeling the strain. It is crucial that the two of you work to stay on track with each other. You can make special time to be together regularly, to connect, to talk about the kids' situation, to play, to support each other. If you feel like you need more resources as a couple or as parents, you can look into couple's counseling, parent support groups or parent education groups.