Q: My husband and I recently married. We both have children from previous marriages. It's hard to be fair and consistent in how we treat all of them. Do you have any ideas on how we can build strong relationships among all of us?
Jim: Congratulations on your marriage! Blending two families can be tough, but it's not impossible.
Ron L. Deal, an expert on blended families, has identified three positive relationship stages that you and your husband should consider:
1) The baby sitter role. Baby sitters have power to manage children only if parents give them power. Your husband should make it clear to his kids that he has granted you the power to manage them, and you should do the same with your kids. For a while, you will simultaneously be the primary parent to your own kids and the "baby sitter" to your husband's. But this arrangement will not work if you have one set of rules for his kids and another for yours.
2) The "uncle/aunt" role. An uncle or aunt is not a full-fledged parent, but carries authority as an extended family member. Stepparents can gradually gain respect that allows children to accept them as extended family members.
3) The "parent" or stepparent role. Eventually, as trust is built, some stepparents gain "parental" status with some children. Younger kids tend to grant stepparents parental status more quickly than adolescents.
For more, read Ron L. Deal's book "The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family" (Bethany House Publishers, 2006). It's essential reading for families in your situation.
Q: My son responds to discipline in a defiant manner. We have come up with clear consequences for certain behaviors. Even though he knows the consequences, when we apply the discipline (e.g., wash the dishes for a week) his anger gets out of control. Do you have any suggestions on how to help him respectfully respond when he has made the choice to disobey?
Leon Wirth, executive director of Parenting and Youth: The main issue here is not your son's disobedience (you've already established reasonable consequences for that), but his angry and inappropriate outbursts when those consequences are enforced.
Author Shana Schutte suggests that parents not wait until their child becomes too angry to deal with the problem. Think about the last time you were really angry. Was it easy to reason with you? More than likely, the problem was resolved after you had a chance to cool off. In the same way, wait until your son is calm before addressing his anger. In addition, author Lynne Thompson suggests the following:
-- Show respect. Don't participate by calling names or getting physical.
-- Give your child words to express his anger. Say, "I know you are disappointed (or sad, or frustrated)."
-- Set positive limits. Instead of saying, "Don't you throw that toy," say, "After you put the toy on the table, we can talk about this."
-- Avoid power struggles. If your goal is to control, you will teach him to control others.
-- Provide a cooling-off period by reading a book together or going on a walk. Then calmly discuss what happened and make a plan for next time.
-- Finally, help your son find clarity about what is driving his anger. Is it the consequences? Is it guilt about getting caught in certain behaviors? He needs to learn what's in his heart that's driving his anger, not just focus on the surface of his angry actions.
Your son's outbursts might simply represent an attempt on his part to avoid the consequences (e.g., washing the dishes) of his original infraction. Even as you employ techniques to help diffuse his anger, make sure he follows through on washing those dishes!
Jim Daly is a husband and father, an author, and president of Focus on the Family and host of the Focus on the Family radio program. Catch up with him at www.jimdalyblog.com or at www.facebook.com/DalyFocus.