A comment on my blog last week on “How to Have a (Happier) Blended Family” caught my attention because it deals with a typical complaint: being stuck in the middle.
In her comment, Laura asks, “We are going on an extended family camping trip together next week. I don’t want to be in the middle of this battle [between my boyfriend and my 13 year old] and want them to work it out: what suggestions can I give each of them & myself throughout that week?”
The important thing to keep in mind, regardless of what you’re working on as a family, is to focus on the behavior and not the attitude, as James Lehman recommends. It’s not plausible to make someone feel a certain way about something or someone else. Making demands on a child’s emotional experience is a losing battle.
I think another important thing to remember is that children don’t have a sophisticated way of expressing their own discomfort about a situation. In many areas, kids are powerless and don’t get to decide a lot of what their life looks like, including a new member of the family in the form of a step-parent. Who mom or dad chooses to be with is exactly one of those things that kids don’t have any control over. Keep in mind that we’re not expecting the child to admire, approve of, or appreciate the step-parent, but to follow the rules of how others in the home are to be treated — even if they’re disliked.
Laura and anybody else in this situation would want to focus on teaching their child problem-solving skills. In Laura’s case, she can communicate to her daughter that it’s an expectation that they do things together as a family and that’s not negotiable. I would also suggest that Laura challenge her daughter on what she can do to help get through the camping trip.
As a parent “caught in the middle” I think it’s important to be firm that you want compliance on this issue, but open to helping your child figure out what can happen to make getting along or being pleasant easier. Let your child know it’s not okay to be rude or abusive because they don’t like someone. There should be consequences if they overstep the line. Ask them what can they can do differently in the situation, and how can they express their frustration or annoyance in appropriate ways.
Not only is it necessary and healthy for the adults to be able to share their worries, concerns, fears, and challenges with one another, it’s also important for the children concerned to be able to do that with their biological parent as well. Still, your child should be held accountable for talking appropriately to all family members and spending time with the family, regardless of their feelings.
The adjustment period for a fledgling family will require work on everyone’s behalf and it will be a process of learning and growth. Know that getting along and co-existing as a blended family can get easier with the right tools. Taking a positive stance that everyone is doing the best they can in managing their feelings, perceptions, and thoughts can carry you a long way on this bumpy journey.