In this episode: Janet responds to the step parent of a three-and-a-half year old, who is concerned because the child’s life is split between two households. She feels the situation “creates a very confusing climate for the child, who is already in an overwhelming development stage.” The advice Janet offers applies to any situation where children need to transition to new schedules or different types of care, i.e. childcare or school, the care of relatives or professionals, or even travel or holidays that might disrupt a child’s daily routine.
Transcript of “Helping a Child Adjust to Two Households or Other Changes in Care”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I am responding to an email from a stepparent, who wants to be the best parent she can be for her stepchild, and the stepchild is dealing with some very different households, going back and forth, different kinds of parenting, different kinds of care. But before you decide that this doesn’t relate to you, please know that this advice I’m about to share should also pertain to children who spend time in daycare or in the care of relatives and have to switch back and forth between different kinds of care, also children who’ve been traveling and had their routines sort of upended and have to readjust, even celebrations over the holidays that children might need to wind down from.
Here’s the letter I received:
“Hi, Janet. Thank you. I find your work both fascinating and practical. It has changed my partner’s and my lives, enabled us to become better parents towards our three and a half year old son. We’re a blended family, being that my partner is the biological father and I am the stepmother. We are in a situation of 50/50 equal care with our boys’ mom as the result of consent orders. I just wanted to put it out there that I would find it extremely helpful to have some articles or practical tips, stories, centered around blended families and navigating some of these situations as best as possible in the child’s interest, particularly where one or more parent is not open to communication or collaboration around parenting and connecting the two households, such as in our situation, where at least one parent is unwell or blatantly unwilling to accept co-parenting.
As you can imagine, this creates a very confusing climate for the child, who’s already in an overwhelming developmental stage, but then lives in two worlds, which cannot communicate with one another. I’m sure my situation is very common and that a lot of stepparents would love to feel more included and connected in their wish to be the best parents they can be with some specific tools to address these unique challenges for such a young age group. Thanks again.”
Okay. So, first of all, I of course love this parent’s desire to do the best by her stepchild. So, this is not going to really be about using any specific tools for this situation, as much as it is about understanding our children’s experience in these situations, and understanding their needs, and then being the person or persons in their life that can help fulfill those needs. What this means is understanding that, yes, children are very adaptable. They can handle situations that are different, and less comfortable, and new, but there is a price that they pay, and that price is stress and emotions that need to be shared, need to be released for the child to be able to make these transitions in a healthy fashion.
This parent doesn’t go into detail about what’s going on for her child in this other home where he’s with his biological mother, but what I would suggest, in any situation similar to this (like all the ones I mentioned earlier), is that we, first of all, prepare our child as best we can, letting them know, without judgment on what’s going on in these other situations, without any judgment on those people or the way that they handle things, because that doesn’t help our child. It doesn’t help our child to feel that we don’t have 100% confidence in them to handle the situation. Really we’re the ones they’re looking to for that assurance. That’s got to be the bottom line, that we feel that our child can handle this experience, so tearing it down and complaining about it to our child is really not going to help.
What will help is to explain simply what we know, and I would do this if a child was starting a new school or any situation that’s new like this, even going to a play date in a place where he or she hasn’t been before. This is what I know about this place and what’s going to happen. You’re going to go there. Your mother will pick you up in her car. Then you’re going to hang out with them. These other people I think might be there. And if this parent, if she says they don’t have the communication, which makes it harder obviously to know what’s going to happen, so we just share what we know, very honestly, and again, without judging the situation. We trust children to make their own judgments. That can be hard to do, but it’s important.
We’ve set our child up as best we can. We make the transition with confidence on our end. They will be all right. Telling ourselves that. If there are any feelings around the child making this transition, we welcome them. “You’re having a hard time saying goodbye.” We see it as positive always that our child is sharing, not as a big, Uh-oh. This is bad. This makes me feel terrible. That doesn’t help our child. I understand those are normal reactions, and it’s hard not to feel that way, but truly in the most ideal situations children might have feelings about transitions to express, especially in these early years, where their whole bodies and their minds are in a big transition. So, trust that it’s positive. Trust that it’s okay.
However it goes, and it could be very messy, just proceed with confidence, a lot of acknowledgement, a lot of wanting to hear the feelings. And being that receptive parent to a child’s emotions is actually very passive. We may acknowledge once. We may validate what they’re feeling in a few words, and then just stop. Just breathe. Just relax. Perceive it as positive and let it wash over you, not seeping into you, not making you feel responsible or needing to fix or stop it in any way or slow it down, just letting it go.
You know, I talked about there’s a price to be paid, but I would actually see this as a gift, a gift to us and a gift to our child, that we can be the person that understands, and allows, and even encourages their stress, however it shows up.
With young children, the feelings often don’t show up blatantly and openly in an obvious way that’s easier for us to understand. They’re more likely to show up as testing behavior, unreasonable behavior, resistance, fragile emotions around a lot of things that don’t seem to have anything to do with this transition they’ve made. That’s what I would look for. That’s where I would remind yourself, this is good. This is positive. This is my child venting. This is a gift that I get to be this person that understands, and that means not being soft on limits, but really holding them firmly, you know, in that unruffled way that we try to set them and hold them, understanding that those limits are often what will help our child to vent and express.
They need to push up against a comfortable parent setting a clear limit to be able to melt down or discharge in whatever way that they do. It can be sort of bit by bit, or it can be big meltdowns. Every process is unique, and it’s really hard to remember when your child just seems to be acting crazy or just not nice, and you want to say, “Hey. What’s going on? Why are you doing that?”, to remember that, oh, this is probably to do with the stress that my child needs to release.
The fact that this parent says there’s no communication between the households, that’s going to make for more intense stress and emotions from the child. This child is living in two worlds. That’s hard, and the other world may be one where emotions aren’t welcome, where there’s a lot of scolding or punishing, a lot of fear. All we can do is be that person that understands, and accepts, and even encourages. Children are so receptive to stimulation, and people, and all the energy wherever they go, that even without this situation, they live in two, or three, or four worlds. You know, everywhere they go is a new world to them. They’re soaking it all up. They’re taking it all in.
While this may be an especially stressful world for this child, this is not an unusual situation, in terms of children needing to adjust to different environments, and different types of care, and different people, and different energy, so understanding our child’s experience is different from feeling sorry for them, and wanting to walk on eggshells, and tiptoe around, and make everything nice for them. That isn’t helpful. What’s helpful is to have a bring it on attitude about those feelings. “Yeah. You really don’t like that. You don’t want that, and I know you want to do this, and I’m saying no. I hear you. You don’t like that.”
Showing our child that we accept by actually accepting, that’s the only way we can do it. We have to actually see it as positive, and healthy, and want our child to share it.
Being this safe landing place for our child’s emotions is being the best parent any of us could be.
I’ve worked with parents that became the stepparent when the child was a lot older, and even then I would say the same thing. When that child is pushing you away, slamming the door, going to their room, that teenager or that nine year old, I would be the one that very gently peeks in and says, It’s fine if you don’t want me here, but I just want you to know that I’m always going to be there. I want to hear how mad you are at us. It’s really fine with me.”
It’s a gift to be that person, and we all have the opportunity.
So I hope that’s helpful.
Please check out some of my other podcasts. They’re all categorized and searchable on my website now, so if there’s something specific you’re looking for, it will be much easier to find. Both of my books are also available on audio at Audible.com, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame, and Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and an eBook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.com.
Thanks for listening. We can do this.