I'm stuck at work while my husband and the kids are visiting family in one of the coolest towns in California. I love visiting there, even if family visits can be draining sometimes.
Family visit-vacations remind me of one of the biggest discoveries my husband and I made in dealing with our split family. Let's step into the normal family dynamics: Grandparents love to spoil the kids. The kids can "do no wrong." Grandparents and Aunts & Uncles sometimes like to make time with them extra fun and break a lot of the parents' rules, because it's sort of like "party-time" and they don't see the kids that much. And sometimes grandparents and aunts and uncles mock parents as being too strict or question the parents, sometimes in a joking or teasing manner.Or, when a parent needs to lay down the rules and enforce the standard punishment (aka handle the situation when the kid is being absolutely abhorrent), extended family often tries to "make it easier" for the kid or say, "no, no, it's ok" and proceed to do the opposite, thereby completely negating any parental enforcement. We saw this from my family and my husband's.
What our families, both mine and my husband's, didn't realize was that this really, really hurt our blended family. Given the manipulation on the mom's family's side, joke-mocking and breaking of rules solidified their mom's take on us. One of my stepdaughters went so far as to interpret it as, and then proceed to tell everyone else in her life, that nobody likes me on her dad's side. Which, was completely bogus- but what she was seeing was people teasing me or seeing everyone disagree with any parenting I attempted.
The extended family teasing and mocking of parents, plus the "party-time-with-us versus parent rules" thing just shot any respect of us by the kids down to nothing. We ended up arguing with them over simple table manners and basic respect for others. Things that were normal at home were suddenly things the kids could argue with and whine over in front of our entire families. Like, take vegetables. At our home, we might hear some complaining about having to eat something they don't like- but it doesn't take punishments or an act of God. (Maybe some light "no dessert" threats...) But suddenly amongst our families, it became this huge embarrassing fight with them, making us look like jerks and making the kids look like they've never dealt with the situation before and had never before been told to eat their food before.
Also, extended families very often are out of the loop on the ongoing issues you have at home. We've had so many instances where our families have questioned us, and we've had to explain at length how this was not a new thing but something that's been a much bigger deal than you'd think- And often just because of our split family dynamic and the attempts of manipulation on the other side. Very normal parenting is turned into big issues in a badly-handled-court-custody family, so something that seems harsh to an outsider may be because we are so unbelievably fed up with that one little thing that has been discussed ad nauseum with the kids, and the kids KNOW it.
For example, we had an entire year of telling the kids about the merits of socks. They just refused to wear socks. We had no idea why, and we could not understand why their mom made them or let them wear flip flop sandals when it was raining, freezing, for running and playing, etc. They were rather young then, and my youngest stepdaughter was constantly hurting her feet. Plus, they wouldn't wear socks with shoes, and then they'd get blisters and cry or complain about whatever we were doing and we'd have to go home. So we spent an entire year trying to explain running shoes, how socks keep your shoes from getting smelly and dirty, how they keep you warm, how you need shoes for those playgrounds with the wood chips, and how running in flip flops could result in injury. Honestly, simply telling them to put on socks and shoes for walking all day was an unbelievable nightmare. (I could understand if these were beach kids, but they're not. I know about beach culture and grew up with it, and they still act like sand is going to devour their toes after a day at the beach.) So, we were about to go on a whale watching trip in the winter on the coast, and I simply said "put socks and shoes on." My oldest stepdaughter piped up with a loud whine, in front of everyone, "But WHYYYYYY" and started to put on a show. All I did was get down to her level and put my hands on her shoulders so she would look me in the eye, as she's very good at the avoidance tactics and likes lying while using such tactics. I just said to her firmly, "We are going on a boat, in the ocean, where it is wet and cold. The boat is slippery, you are going to get cold, and you are going to wear socks and shoes." It worked. She turned around and got her stuff on.
Totally normal for a regular parent, right? You should have seen the looks I got. I was the newer- 1 or 2 years in- stepparent, and apparently, that was too harsh given the way the room cleared. I didn't use a nasty voice, but did have to use a firm, no-nonsense voice to stop the scene and endless arguing that was about to happen. But the rest of the family had no idea that we'd been fighting with them all year about socks and shoes. My stepdaughter definitely knew better.
My husband and I realized there is this clear double-standard- Moms can be harsh and strict, but stepmoms cannot. I wonder if they ever think about what their real mom would have done... One word: ballistic. But also, we noticed that lots of people seem to think the kids are perfect, because they never see them. So they almost respond to things we tell them about what goes on at home, in our day-to-day lives, with complete disbelief. I would explain something going on, and the responses I received from family were sometimes along these lines, "Oh, well, the divorce is hard on them..." So, we shouldn't teach them anything? Parent? Nothing? You feel bad for them, so their mom should just keep them from their dad or make them feel like their dad isn't worth beans? We shouldn't expect them to respect us or listen to us? We shouldn't talk to them about the truth of things, restrict them from things we think are dangerous, or just parent overall?
Reading Divorce Poison New and Updated Edition: How to Protect Your Family from Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing it all came together for me. Towards the end of the book, Warshak covers a way in which your families can help you battle alienation and the other parent's manipulation. It's simple: They need to support you. They need to treat you positively. They must compliment you, bring up positive statements like, "Wow, your dad must really love you" or talk about good memories they have of the kids and their alienated parent (and his spouse...). They can talk about your accomplishments, talk about all the good things, and validate your opinions and consequences for actions. I don't know why that was such a big revelation for my husband and I, but it clicked when I read that. We realized that the mocking and "don't listen to your parents" parties were really hurting us. It all suddenly made sense to us that the main people the kids saw us with weren't even supporting us as parents in actions and words. If you want your kids to respect you, how are they supposed to when every other adult in your life doesn't? If their mom and her family is telling them we're wrong or dumb, or "ridiculous", then they see our very own families teasing us... As far as they knew, every adult thought we were terrible.
But our families didn't realize. They were just acting like they did with all the other grandkids and parents. So we talked to our moms and let them know that we were struggling with them, one kid was really dealing with problems, and we just needed their support, as the respect for us was dwindling given other adults weren't even respecting us- especially when with our families. We explained what the kids were seeing, and that adults who support us need to show that to the kids. Both of our moms accepted the challenge immediately and completely understood, and they now enforce whatever rules we have except for a few (as a part of the "special grandparent time"). The kids still get spoiled, but it's not at our expense. Grandparents can be grandparents to the kids without undermining the parents. All they have to say is, "Your Dad and Stepmom say..." and enforce things like it's external to them, but without throwing it completely out the window. They still can be loving, fun, and crazy grandparents. The kids can still gain from them, but also see respect granted to us.
I wouldn't say that this has completely extended to everyone, but our moms are pretty much the leaders of our extended families and lightly give "advice" and make nicely timed comments that hint to others that they should maybe follow suit or consider what we're dealing with.
It's a weird area, I know. It's hard for me to write this little, as even more elaboration could probably be in order considering you're probably not in the same situation or may be questioning whether I am too harsh or something. But I can tell you, even the kids now profess that we're definitely not as restrictive and do not scare them, like their mom. If they get it and know the truth finally (even if momentarily...), I feel pretty well vindicated.