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HomeHealth & BehaviorBehavior & Discipline

Ask the Experts

How do you handle different rules in divorced homes?

By Debra Collins, Family therapist

Question:

My stepdaughter is a fourth-grader and a child of divorce. It seems that the rules in her mother's home are quite lenient as far as what constitutes bedtime, the importance of homework, the value of reading, chores and such. In our home, where my stepchild visits 10 days a month, the boundaries and expectations of her are more clearly defined. Bedtime is at 9 p.m., homework is a priority after a reasonable rest-and-play period upon returning from school, reading is a daily family activity and chores are assigned based on age and ability.

Because of the obvious disparity in household boundaries, it's getting harder to motivate her while she's here because she has no such guidelines in her mother's home. Her only motivation now seems to be monetary, as in "I'll do my homework if you pay me" and "If you pay me a dollar, I'll clean my room." My husband gives his daughter a small allowance, and we pick up the tab for any and all essential items as well as entertainment while she's in our care. But this new interest in being paid to do what is expected of most children, as it was of us as children, is a troublesome thing.

How do we address this issue without turning it into something bigger than it needs to be, especially when communication between my husband and his ex-wife is tenuous at best?

Answer:

This is often a dilemma in blended families. If your husband and his ex-wife are unable to co-parent, then you can only focus and be consistent with the rules in your home.

For example, you can state that you understand things are different at her mom's house. However, in your house the expectation is that an allowance is given after chores have been completed. Homework is her job, but she is not compensated for it and so forth.

The delivery of this message can be empathic and noncompetitive with her mom’s rules. You can recognize that the adjustment between households is difficult and that she did not ask for this situation, but her dad’s job is to decide what rules are best for her. One caution: Be careful not to overcompensate for the leniency you feel that the biological mother is encouraging. Stay consistent with the rules, roles and consequences in your household only. If you and your husband share in the discipline, then you might present the expectations together.

Stepfamilies also have to negotiate a variety of different preferences. One household always eats corn flakes and the other eats Cheerios. This is tiresome for everyone, and sometimes there is an insider-versus-outsider dynamic that occurs when the biological parent and child have a history together and the stepparent feels left out. Acknowledging these differences and similarities can be helpful in forming new family systems.

It is important to give your stepdaughter some appropriate choices in your household so that you don’t create an unnecessary power struggle. Encouraging her to talk about the frustrations she feels managing differing parental expectations can help her feel understood and create less incentive to act out.

Also, plan to do fun things and enjoy each other as a family so that your time with her is not just about discipline.

The National Stepfamily Resource Center may be a helpful resource as well.


Debra Collins is a licensed marriage and family therapist and has worked in both primary and middle schools as a school counselor. She gives workshops to teachers and students and offers parenting classes in the San Francisco Bay Area. To learn more, visit her website.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

01/23/2012:
"Hello, I read your article and it's helped me to see that boundaries and consequences need to be given and repeated. Our stepdaughter comes to see us once every 5 months and of course each time is like catching up. I tend to see a lot of the same old behaviour; all cute and lovable during the first few hours but when it's time for bed , whoosh the flood gates open and we get a rush of home sickness ,demands to go home ,cold reasons for visiting and then stalling behaviours before finally getting some rest. I know she' s testing the boundaries and needs reminding. So thank you. "
10/10/2011:
"I(and my x) have been very lucky. my children's scores have fell very little since their mother left with another man, moved out of their hometown and were denied to see their family for family for five months.( the court--jefferson county said 9oops, we made a mistake). remarkably against all odds that have adjusted somewhat well. I am proud-- so far -- of both schools ,their teachers, and their overall safety and well being. I would recommend these schools! "
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