Part 2: Practical Ways to Connect with Our Stepkids
By Cathryn Bond Doyle
In part 1 we reviewed a few of the emotional issues and approaches to consider as we get to know our stepkids. Here in part 2 we’ll move into some practical things we can do to help build a positive relationship with them. This is certainly one of the most fun aspects of being a SMOM because it’s one area over which we have complete control, assuming our husbands are supportive of our efforts. For the sake of this section, I’m going to assume we are all eager for our relationships to grow and flourish.
Over the years several therapists have told me that rituals, traditions and family vacations are often the only things that children remember about growing up. Fortunately, for many stepkids, they’re not likely to remember the daily tension and squabbles but can smile at the memory of family traditions and rituals at Dad’s house if we make the effort to invent and/or perpetuate them.
A. Holidays are a great place for SMOM creativity. While the bio-parents are busy figuring out where the stepkids will be for this holiday or that, put your attention on how to make the holidays new and fun for anyone who is going to participate…especially YOU! When we’re combining family traditions for the holidays it can turn into a battle of wills, control, or even worse, a competition to out-do the other parent. That doesn’t feel very good for any of us. However, if you open up to the possibilities that everyone can win, it can become a fun challenge and a source of lots of good memories. Here are some thought-starter ideas. Trust your intuition. Know that your creativity will take over when you read something that feels right as you think about traditions and family’s holidays throughout the year.
Christmas & Hanukah is bound to be important for many. Look for ways to give everyone a chance to bring part of their traditions into your home AND add some new ones. The new ones are as important as the combination of old ones. Have the stepkids make a list of the things they want to do/eat/have/watch, etc. this year. Make your own list and encourage your husband to do the same. The age of your stepkids will impact how involved they are. Look for ways to create a “Yours, Mine and Ours” holiday.
Make sure you pick things from everyone’s list.
Be willing to use the word “And” & “both” (as opposed to either/or) and make it OK to take turns, do things in new ways and enjoy each other’s traditions. OK, so its extra work to make both sausage AND chestnut stuffing but it sure beats arguing about it. Open gifts on Christmas Eve AND Christmas Morning. Watch multiple versions of the “Christmas Carole.”
Pick a chartable activity to get involved with as a family. Something that requires time and effort together is great. This is a huge opportunity for stepkids to see just how lucky they are, can create lasting memories and may turn into an annual family event.
Gain agreement on the schedule early so all the plans can be coordinated as much as possible. We all know the anxiety and anger that stems from not knowing the schedule or worse, having to react to sudden, last minute changes in plans that are out of our control. Work with your husband to do whatever you can to spare everyone that particular stress.
For Santa believers…Explain that Santa understands they now have two houses. Make signs for roof, curbside or windows so Santa will see your stepkids are at Dad’s house as well as Mom’s.
Focus more on the holiday than the calendar date. Work around the schedules to celebrate your holidays whenever the stepkids are with you. Most stepkids get at least two versions of holidays. Make this the time of year to enjoy each other’s company instead of bemoaning the fact that every holiday may not be on the exact date. Relieve your stepkids of the guilt of NOT being able to be in two places at one time. Do your best to help your husband make whatever time you have “as a family” as pleasant as possible.
Do what you can to avoid rushing the stepkids around from house to house on the same day. If you don’t have the actual day with the stepkids, start an “Eve of’ Tradition or the “Day after Ritual” (Like Boxing Day in England) with fun activities that make it special. Remind yourself it’s the time together and the intention that makes it special, not the date on the calendar.
Share food stories, recipes, baking time and traditions with as many generations as possible. There’s a lot of history in the holidays and cooking. Do what you can to learn and share with your stepkids. Bring your family recipes into the mix and pick out new recipes and food treats that no one has ever tried before.
Get stepkids involved in as many decisions as possible. A good guideline for this it to give them choices that are ALL OK with you and your husband so it truly is their choice. They’ll feel this open-minded attitude from you both and as a result of this freedom of choice will usually take ownership in making it successful.
Any time there’s a battle over the stepkids’ time, find ways to make whatever decision is final a “good thing” for you and your husband. Put the energy into making lemons into lemonade every chance you get. The stepkids will pick up on your attitude and will be grateful-whether they say anything about it or not.
Celebrate new holidays. The calendar is filled with National “This and That” days. If you have a period without a holiday or birthday or are looking for something fun, find a holiday you can really get into. National Potato Day could be the day you eat every kind of potato dish known to man followed by a hot potato throwing contest at night. “Strawberry Sunday” could be your own strawberry festival that begins with picking your own berries in the morning and having a feast of them all day. You could do the same for Apples. Whatever you like. You get the point. What do you love? What would be fun for you? Fun is very healing for all. At the beginning of each year you could have the stepkids (and kids) pick their “Silliday” holiday of the year. Some calendars are great about posting lots of them.
Give each child the chance to oversee their “Silliday Holiday” and depending on their age, offer support as needed. Silly is super amidst all the stress. Good times create memories that can be remembered always.
Be generous when scheduling holidays with the bio-mom when they aren’t that important to you.
Halloween was a favorite holiday for my skid’s bio-mom; neither my husband nor I really cared so we agreed that she could have her son with her most years. Cautionary note: Make sure to remind bio-mom you’re giving her something she wants but that it’s a yearly favor not a permanent decision or an annual entitlement. Be willing to ask for something that’s important to you as well. We can always hope for a cooperative bio-mom who will reciprocate our acts of kindness.
Spend time with your stepkids creating and inventing these holidays to make some lasting memories and create a closer bond with your stepkids. Most children bask in this kind of attention; whether they’ll admit it or not.
B. Tips for improving your family’s chances for a good summer with the stepkids:
1. Summer Wish List-before the summer begins ask everyone to make a list of all the things they want to do this summer. Next, have them pick the three most important things on their list. With lists in hand from everyone, sit down with your husband and see if you can work something from everyone’s list into your summer plans. Get creative and make this into a ritual. Obviously time, budgets and schedules will all factor in your final plan.
Do everything you can to make sure everyone gets at least one thing and that it’s as fair to kids and stepkids as possible. You may be pleasantly surprised to find that there are overlapping things on the lists. Each person’s preferences can be used in the justification of why you’re doing some things (with and some things without) the stepkids (or kids for that matter). Have some fun when you announce the results. A chart or family calendar is a good place to post the activities so everyone can keep track of, and look forward to their favorite things of summer.
2. Create a “Family Rules” list that applies to everyone living in the house. Consider posting this list along with chores and consequences so the stepkids know they are being treated the same way everyone is being treated. Make sure you and your husband have pre-agreed on this list as it will save much stress for all. Gain agreement with your husband about what is (and is not) correctable behavior for the stepkids (and ideally all children) in your home for the summer.
3. Plan for, and commit to having a weekly, monthly or regular “Date with Dad” activity. This doesn’t preclude other family activities; it just gives the stepkids a chance to be the sole focus of their Dad’s attention. Cast these “Dates with Dad” in stone, as much as possible, so the stepkids can trust these dates and look forward to them each week. Get the stepkids involved with picking things to do with their time together. As for you, “gift” this time to them so you can support these activities without any resentment or bad vibes between you and anyone else. If you have your own kids, this is a chance to make time for them or take time for yourself, whatever your situation allows.
4. Ask your husband to gain pre-agreement on how and when the stepkids will communicate with their bio-mom. There are few things as potentially disheartening and mood dampening as being in the middle of having a joyful “Happy Family” moment and having the stepkids NEED to call their bio-mom or have the phone ring as she calls them. Do not leave this to chance. Making the “when stepkids and bio-mom talk” a formal plan, will give the stepkids and their bio-mom a special time to stay connected that can be planned for and looked forward to. It shows respect for your time and for their relationship with the bio-mom.
Agreeing to the “how” they talk (whose phone and where) will save arguments and/or unwelcome surprises as well. Clearly the age of the stepkids and the duration of their time with you will impact this. After making the agreement about bio-mom and husband communicating, do whatever you can to screen the calls, turn off the ringers, etc. to give yourselves some control over your family time together.
5. Consider starting a summer scrapbooking project. This is great for the 4-14ish stepkids. Designate a drawer or file for everyone to stick things in that they may want to put in the scrapbook. Give them disposable cameras at the beginning of the summer or vacation knowing they are to use them for the scrapbook. Thanks to color copiers you can actually make them copies of the scrapbook so you can have one and they can too, if they want it at the end of the summer.
C. Family Rituals and Traditions. Have some fun creating new traditions; traditions that are not from either family. Look for ways to honor each other’s pasts and then turn your attention to creating new things for your future.
1. Have Family movie night and take turns picking the movies. If there’s a big enough age spread, consider having a double feature. Have fun with the whole affair; popcorn, treats, who gets the comfy chair, etc.
2. Mondays are Fun days. One of the most flexible and fun traditions we carried on in our home for almost 7 years (age 5-12) was creating, “Funday Monday.” Since my stepson was with us every Monday, I made up something silly or fun for each Monday. Sometimes we just ate dessert first and had supper…if we were still hungry. Sometimes we packed a hamper and went to a different place for a picnic supper. If it was winter, we had a picnic on the living room floor in front of the fire. I had the pleasure of hearing my stepson tell his friends about our “Funday Mondays.” As he got older, he wanted to invite a friend to join us. That was a wonderful confirmation of how much it meant to him.
There are many ways you can make one of the week (or one day of their time with you) lots of fun. Here are some other ideas:
3. You could take turns making someone’s favorite supper, one day of the week, but it begins with dessert.
4. Make your own Sundaes Day
5. “Get out of chores” Day.
6. One SMOM cooks or grills family favorites on Saturday night. When her stepson, now in high school, invites a friend (or friends) to join them she lets him choose the menu. He feels honored, known & she feels good about creating an opportunity for her and her husband to get to know his friends, particularly at an age where teenagers develop a more active social life.
You get the drift. You can even gather your ideas and their ideas and draw them out of a hat on Sunday evening to find out what you will do for this week’s “Funday Monday.” Of course it could be “Terrific Tuesday,” “Weird Wednesday,” “Freaky Friday.” The point is to have something that the stepkids look forward to during the week. Make it something simple and fun so that you’re happily willing to do it for your stepkids and family on a regular basis.
7. The First Day of School Dinner is something we did beginning with his first day in Kindergarten. What was his favorite restaurant at the time? Benihana’s of all places. Each year (except one) we went there the night before or the night of his first day of school, depending on the visitation calendar. With a few exceptions, it’s the only time we go there; however, whenever we’ve gone there it marks a special event. You can do this with any re-occurring or milestone kind of event even if you have more than one child in the family. If you can’t do it the night of, do it the evening before or the weekend before or after. The timing isn’t as important as the fact that you are doing it each year.
8. 4 am Movie mornings. This one’s not for everyone but I’ll explain to give you more ideas. When my stepson was 6 he was intrigued with the idea of being up when everyone else was asleep but he was too young to stay up late so…in an attempt at creativity, one morning, after he had been very, very good, I woke him up at 4am and introduced him to “4am Movie Mornings.” He thought this was really cool. His dad wasn’t up for it so it was just the two of us and I loved this time together. We made popcorn, got cozy in a big overstuffed chair and watched the movie of his (well mostly his) choice. Once the movie was over, we fixed breakfast or sometimes went to a diner (that was depending on my willingness to be seen at that hour-you know what I mean.) Anyway, for 3 years or so, this tradition became the reward for very, very good behavior and it was lots of fun for both of us.
This was a time when my stepson and his Dad spent some alone time. I was in the background but during this wind-down time, they read together every night he was with us for 6+ years. Gradually, my skid began to read out loud but mostly it was a time for them to be together. I was AOK with that and felt good about taking care of other things so my husband could enjoy this time with his son.
9. Yearly Collage: A few years ago my husband began taking the pictures, ticket stubs and mementos from all our activities and putting them into a collage for his son. My role was just helping him keep track of things, get the supplies, frame and helping him with finishing touches. It was my husband’s idea to do this so my skid would have a visual reminder (year-round) of all the fun things they did together. So far we have 5 poster size frames on the walls and I often hear my stepson telling his friends about this trip or that activity as he points to a collage. It could be a family activity or just an idea to pass along to your husband. Think of it as scrapbooking on the wall.
D. Birthdays certainly are a potential “Hot Button” over which many parents will argue. We found ways to avoid that particular stress. We’ve implemented two things that have worked well. Our intention has been to take all the pressure off one 24-hour period and to give this child a chance to enjoy his birthday without feeling the pressure of having to be in two homes at one time.
Birthday Festival Week. I got this from a friend years ago and it’s been a big hit with my skid. My husband and I have been doing this for each other as well so that’s been a bonus. Birthday Festival Week means that you designate a period of 7 days surrounding your stepkids birthday as “Birthday Festival Week.” You can adapt this based on your visitation schedule and they don’t have to be 7 days in a row or even exactly 7 days. During this week, the skid receives some sort of treat or gift or privilege each day. The items, activities and actions you select are completely dependent on the skid and should be personalized so that they look forward to each day equally. It’s like Hanukkah, in that way.
Over the years the gifts and events have changed but it seems to take away that Christmas morning frenzy of thrashing open gifts, getting high on sugar and over-stimulated by all of these things happening in one day. When there are two homes, this allows you to work around whatever the agreement is and the stepkids know they will not miss anything with you no matter what the bio-mom does.
Half-Birthday Celebrations. We’ve only done this twice (so far) but it was fun when he was 6 & 7. His birthday is near Christmas and I was looking for something to do during the rest of the year. I noticed he was making a big deal as he was about to become “five…AND a half.” So, when he was about to become six and a half, we surprised him and then told him about it the next year. We had half a layer cake. It looked like it was cut in half and said, “Hap Birt”. He was even old enough to think that was funny.
Neutral and Shared Birthday parties. This is a great way to have the child share his/her birthday with both parents IF both parents are willing to behave like adults and make that happen. Another idea is to take turns throwing the birthday party for the skid’s friends. This may be more agreeable for many SMOM situations and yet usually requires the bio-mom’s agreement to make this a success.
E. Chores and Consequences. This creative tip came from a SMOM who got tired of nagging and playing the role of chores police.
SMOM Tip from Nichole (sister-SMOM), 2-kids and 2-stepkids: The Power of One
“We had a problem with dividing the chores at our house and everything seemed to tumble back onto me. I’m not a big believer in lists because different members of the family have different work loads on different days, and if someone has something on their ‘list’ and it doesn’t need to be done that day, or if they can’t get to their list because they have too much homework, it’s more trouble than it’s worth to sort out what’s fair. This solution has been working for us so far: I call it “The Power of One Thing.”
Everyone has to do one thing each day to contribute to the common good of the family. If any kid asks herself at the end of the day, “What did I do today to contribute? How did I earn my keep today?” If the answer is, “Nothing,” they’d better get off their duff and do something or else they have to do two things tomorrow. If they have a big day coming up and won’t have time for even one thing, they can plan ahead by doing two things the day before.
We have four girls living with us full time, visits with other parents on weekends. So, one thing times four kids, times five days per week … that’s 20 things! And they hardly know they’re doing it. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. Empty the trash cans. Hose off the patio. Pull weeds. Empty the dishwasher. Sweep or vacuum just one floor. Water the plants. Move a load of laundry from the washer to the dryer. At first I gave them an assortment of options, but I wanted them to learn to identify what needed to be done to run a household. They are doing a good job of that now too, and I don’t need to spell out the tasks so much anymore. The kids are now taking some ownership in the management of the household. I have learned that breaking the chores down into tiny manageable pieces has helped. It has really relieved a lot of pressure for me, too.”
Choose your chore battles. Chores, manners and personal hygiene seem to be something SMOMs feel strongly about. In many cases we feel stronger about them than our husbands and this can be a source of tremendous frustration and marital stress. As the “woman of the house” it’s feels logical, to many of us, that any children in our care will brush their teeth, make their beds, keep their elbows off the table, pick up their toys, etc. However, if your husband is not eager or willing to teach his kids these same habits and skills, it can be very, very difficult for us.
Discuss chores and manners with your husband and find out which ones he is willing to enforce on your home. Once you know what he is willing to support, write those down so you can have your husband share them with the stepkids at some type of future family meeting. Next, talk about the chores and manners that you feel are important and see if your husband will “back you” on anything on your list. For me, it’s teeth-brushing. I could bear his bed being unmade and his elbows on the table but I was not willing to have him go to sleep without brushing his teeth.
My husband was willing to endorse that daily practice once he knew how strongly I felt about it. Your personal situation will dictate your feelings and priorities for each item on the list. Certainly if you have your own kids at the house, that will also impact the decisions you make. Hopefully your husband agrees with some or most of the things on your list.
Sadly, for stepkids, chores and manners are two categories of life skills they may miss out on if our husband is not willing to insist his children comply. Many dads aren’t willing to enforce or insist on chores and manners when their kids resist (which they will) out of fear of losing their love or happy time together. We call that a symptom of Divorce Guilt. After years of trying to convince our husbands to uphold these standards and enduring many, many arguments about the value to the stepkids, we’ve realized it’s often not worth the stress on our marriages.
So…rather than creating tension with your husband and stepkids about each and every chore/manner you believe is important for children today, be willing to let go/ overlook/ignore whatever you have to in order to stay on the same page as your husband.
F. Watch and prepare for Stepkids’ separation anxiety. At one point I noticed that my stepson was becoming cranky right before he was leaving our house and returning to his bio-mom’s house. We usually had a school day as the transition activity (which I highly recommend) and yet it became clear he was looking for ways to leave us feeling angry.
Hmmm??? That was interesting to me. After observing his behavior and talking with two therapists we came to the conclusion that he was causing a rift intentionally. It was easier for him to leave feeling angry at us, than feeling the and sadness pain of missing us. It was also easier for him to return to his bio-mom’s with stories of being angry at us, than the reaction he got from telling her all about how much fun he was having with his dad and Stepmom. In other words, he was creating a survival strategy with the tools in his young mind.
My heart softened as I began looking for ways to help him leave us feeling good, not sad or angry. His father and I made a pact to not get hooked by any of his bad pre-leaving antics. We became extremely patient and kind, in spite of his actions in the hours before he left our home. We also began making plans, and talking with him about the plans for the next time he was with us. This shifted his thoughts from missing us to looking forward to our next activities.
The combination of not getting hooked into an argument and giving him something to anticipate worked very well. He left excited about our next time together AND happy to be seeing his bio-mom. Watch for signs of this survival strategy so you can save everyone this unnecessary discomfort.
Clearly this list could go on and on. Hopefully, your mind is reeling with possibilities for helping you find enjoyable, healthy and effective ways to improve the chances for all of us to have as much of a positive relationship with our Stepkids as circumstances allow.
©2006 Cathryn Bond Doyle. All Rights Reserved.