Taking charge of out-of-control stepchildren

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, UT. He specializes in working with couples in all stages of their relationships. The opinions stated in this article are his and not those of St. George News.

Question:

My husband travels a lot for work and when he’s gone I do my best to help with his children from a previous marriage, but the kids are out of control. They break into the house and damage my property, steal money from my children’s rooms and defy everything I ask them to do. Their own mother is just as frustrated and sends them to my house when they are too much for her to handle. I don’t know what to do.

Answer:

This is certainly an intense situation that will require some cooperation and coordination with all of the adults involved. Not only is this making things more difficult from a parenting perspective, but it has the potential to weaken the marriage bond.

First, I would call a mandatory meeting with your husband, his ex-wife, and her husband (if she’s remarried). The four of you need to sit down and take charge of this situation. The main objective of this meeting is to re-establish who is in charge of and responsible for these children. Even though your husband travels for work, he and his ex-wife need to understand that they are ultimately in charge of their own children.

As you know, stepparents are there to support their spouses in parenting, but typically don’t have the influence of a direct parent. Granted, there are some situations where the stepparent has raised the children from early childhood and the children see and respect the stepparent as a full parent. It doesn’t sound like this is the case with your family.

The meeting needs to outline the expectations for each adult. If you need help defining roles and expectations, please seek the help of a counselor or mediator who can help facilitate the meeting. It’s easy for a meeting like this to turn into a blame session, especially since it’s likely that everyone feels powerless over the situation.

This meeting may produce some difficult questions and decisions that will require flexibility and sacrifice.  I believe that if the four of you can’t come up with a solution, then it’s critical to expand the circle of adults to include extended family, neighbors, friends, and others who care about your family.

You may discover that the children have individual needs that need to be addressed. Divorce is traumatic for children and these children may not be dealing well with the pain of losing their family. They may need additional support and one-on-one time with parents and other adults. I believe that as you talk about each child individually and look to understand this situation from their perspective, you might discover some areas where you can make a difference.

Bear in mind that divorced parents have a tendency to disregard the trauma that their kids are subjected to not only in the divorce itself but in being bumped back and forth between two “homes.”  Even if they have their own rooms in both houses, they don’t have one place that is their own haven. Imagine if you had to pack a suitcase every week; as an adult, I know that a trip can be disruptive.  We would not have clichés such as, “there’s no place like home,” if they didn’t resonate with the human spirit. Even most animals have a nest or a burrow or a den that they call their own territory.  Divorced parents ought do everything possible to disrupt their own adult lives to compensate and even overcompensate perhaps for the disconnection the lack of a single home base causes their children to involuntarily suffer.

Of course, appropriate boundaries are essential, as the children are breaking in and stealing money. Although law enforcement shouldn’t be your first option, you might consult the authorities to understand what you might do if the children continue to violate your personal space and steal property.

If the parents are overwhelmed, the children are going to feel more anxious and out of control.  It’s dangerous for a child to see that they are more powerful than their parent.  The parents need to receive the proper support and guidance to provide structure, accountability, and emotional connection to these children.

 

Please send questions for future columns and follow Geoff via his links:

 email: geoff@lovingmarriage.com

twitter: @geoffsteurer

blog and website: www.geoffsteurer.com.

Copyright 2012 St. George News.

 

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