“In the best of times, our days are numbered anyway. So it would be a
crime against nature for any generation to take the world crisis so
solemnly that it put off enjoying those things for which we were designed
in the first place: the opportunity to do good work, to enjoy friends, to fall
in love, to hit a ball, and to bounce a baby.”
These days when you talk about changes in family structure, the first thing people think about is divorce. It’s understandable given the statistics. But as with everything else nowadays, the possibilities for changes in the family are almost endless. And every time a person enters or exits your household, there are going to be a lot of shifts in the dynamics.
The most obvious addition to a family is a new baby. When a baby enters the mix, all the other roles shift. It isn’t just one more mouth to feed, it’s a shift from a duet to a trio. The single child becomes the big sibling, or the youngest child is now in the middle child role. The power shifts—the most helpless member of the family is now in charge. Everything revolves around their needs.
Divorce brings its own set of challenges. One household becomes two; if there are children they have to adapt to splitting their time between parents and homes, and probably two sets of rules. Parents also have to adjust to many things. But there are many other relationships affected by divorce, such as grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. Even friendships may shift.
As difficult as it can be adjusting to new babies and divorce, there are other even more challenging possibilities. Mom or dad’s new partnership, especially if there are other children involved, can put a lot of stress on everyone. It is very common to see a couple where one partner’s children live with them full time, the other’s children are there on weekends, and they have a new baby from the current. union. Think about it—the household then consists of dad, mom, stepdad, stepmom, son, daughter, stepchild, and half siblings.
There are also many homes nowadays made up of grandparents and grandchildren, aunts and nieces and nephews, roommates and their children, and families with foster children.
And sadly, some family shifts are caused by death, which may result in any of the above changes with an added layer of grief on top.
Within all these combinations is the potential for hurt feelings, competitiveness, jealousy, animosity, loss of what was, and so on. It can really help to be aware of these things and how they may play out. Here are some tips:
1. Stepparents should not try to take on the role of parent. Discipline and rules should be set by the biological parent. This does not mean your partner’s kids have free reign—you are also entitled to set rules for your home. But with things like homework, for example, discipline from you is going to be resented. However, if you are the only one home, refer back to your partner’s rules when speaking to their kids: “Your mom said you had to be in bed by 9:00.”
2. It is okay, in fact preferable, to share some adjustment struggles you are going through yourself, with your kids, as long as you keep it light and end with a positive note. It teaches them that it is okay to have negative feelings—and share them—and that they can be worked through.
3. As much as you’d like to be one big happy family, it is important on several levels for biological parents to spend one-on-one time with their kids sometimes. Rather than being divisive, this can help children from a first relationship feel that they haven’t lost their dad or mom.
4. Children (and probably you, too) are going to miss their old rituals. Try incorporating some of them into the new family. Maybe you can also enlist everyone’s suggestions for creating new rituals.
These and other great ideas can be found in, “Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn’t” by Patricia L. Papernow.
1. Remember that children are not little adults. They may not appreciate the same things you do—like famous historical sites or beautiful scenery.
2. Children of different ages have different capabilities, interests, activity levels, and amounts of patience. (You knew that before you started.) Plan accordingly. Don’t expect to take your 10 year old, 5 year old and 2 year old to the space museum for 3 hours. Maybe one person takes the oldest where they want to go, and the other takes the little ones somewhere more appropriate. Or shorten the time you are there. Or break it up with small activities that allow the younger kids to let off steam. (Is there a lawn to run around on?) Plan for rest breaks.
3. Purchase some small, inexpensive toys ahead of time but don’t show the kids until you are on your trip and getting desperate. (And only hand out one thing at a time.)
4. Know that they will whine and complain. In spite of all the ideas on this list. You are all going to be travel-weary, hot, hungry, and irritable at various times. Yelling at them, calling them ungrateful, or trying to convince them how great the (museum, event, show) is will not change their attitude. Instead, be as prepared as you can be: have water, wet wipes, snacks, sweatshirts, sunglasses, hats, and the above-mentioned surprise toys available. Also try having a sense of humor: Announce that you are going to have a five-minute complaint fest where everyone can share everything that is bothering them, all at once (including you!). After five minutes, call time. And don’t forget, they aren’t always wrong! It is okay to agree sometimes, as long as you model coping skills: “Yeah, I thought the pool would be bigger too. Bummer. But we won’t be hanging around the hotel that much—we have a lot of places to go.
5. Make sure they have things to do! Bored kids are the worst. That doesn’t mean you have to keep buying them gifts. To keep them occupied (without electronics) ask for their help, or assign a simple task. “Come with me and we’ll find out how much the jet ski rentals are.” “Can you find out how we order room service?” “Let’s go explore the hotel.” “Can you hold the zoo map and tell us how to find…”
6. Prepare them in advance (if age-appropriate) and let them participate in solutions. There’s going to be a lot of walking there. “Do you think you’d be more comfortable in your sneakers or sandals?” “We might have to stand in line a while, would you like to bring your toy?”
7. Engage them! If you are on a long bus trip, waiting in a long line, etc., play games. “I Spy,” Guess what [choose a category] I’m thinking of? (The kids version of 20 questions.), How do you spell…, Describe the best day you can think of (can include fantasy), What was the best part of the trip so far? Distraction is a great way for time to pass faster, and to forget—for a little while—how uncomfortable you are.
8. Be as prepared as you can for the unexpected—closed rides, unusual weather, flat tires, cancellations. They WILL happen. Try to have back-up plans, know what services are in the area, model flexibility and accepting disappointments.
9. When possible, let each kid pick a favorite activity that you can all do. Water slide? Pony ride? Go-carts?
10.Try not to schedule every minute of every day. Allow time to meander and explore. Rushing around too much makes being on vacation feel a lot like not being on vacation.
While you can’t know everything in advance, being as prepared as possible for a family vacation will keep the stress to a minimum. Do your best, be realistic, and you should all come out of it with some great memories