Preparing For A Stepchild’s Summer Visit
By: Lisa Cohn
With the arrival of summer, stepfamilies across the U.S. are gearing up for visits from stepchildren. Often, a child who lives with her mother will spend some or all of the summer with Dad, Stepmom and their family, says Susan Wisdom, co-author of the book Stepcoupling and a licensed professional counselor in Portland, Ore. who specializes in stepfamilies.
It's sometimes tempting to roll out the red carpet and plan for nonstop entertainment for the visiting child, says Del Haley, a father in Portland, Ore. whose daughter, Madison, visits for a few weeks every summer.
"It's tempting to create a fairy tale life here for my daughter in the summer," he says. "But I know that's not what's best for Madison."
Instead of trying to build a fairy tale life, parents should focus on preparing their hearts and homes for the visit, says Wisdom. "These visits can be difficult and challenging. You need to make a plan," she says.
Dad and Stepmom should begin preparing for the child's arrival by child-proofing the house, if necessary, and making sure they have enough age-appropriate toys and games on hand, advises Wisdom.
Next, they need to create an overall plan: Who will be predominantly responsible for caring for the child? Dad or Stepmom? Who will be in charge of discipline? What house rules will the visiting child or children be required to follow and who will enforce them? If these issues aren't settled before the visit, Dad and Stepmom may squabble during the visit.
After making these plans, it's time to focus on emotional issues, says Wisdom. It's important that Dad and Stepmom ensure Dad has time alone with his biological child.
"He needs to renew his relationship and get caught up," she says. "He needs one-on-one time with his child."
This can spur jealousy: The stepmom and her children will often feel as if it's not fair Dad is spending time alone with his other child.
"The child is taking the family's Dad and husband away. And, sometimes, the visitors get special treatment from the Dad and other kids get pushed away, which is motivated by the dad's guilt and longing," she says. "None of this is easy."
To address these issues, Dad and Stepmom should be sure to spend time alone together. They need opportunities to discuss their feelings and focus on their own relationship, Wisdom says.
"It's important during these times to connect and stay in touch and talk about feelings," Wisdom says.
Haley says there's another important reason parents in stepfamilies should stay connected: They're more likely to serve as good role models for the kids.
"Part of giving to your child is having a life and being a role model for a happy life," he says.
The stepfamily will also fare better if the parents are patient and flexible, says Wisdom.
"Expect meltdowns because they're going to happen," she says. "These visitation changes are really hard on the kids. Try to understand what the kids are going through. If they go to their room, slam doors, cry, or don't eat, try to be sympathetic. They will miss parents and friends and pets terribly. And they're going to feel sad and act angry at times."
Shauna Haley, Del Haley's wife, says that stepmoms should try to appreciate their stepkids for who they are and get to know them and understand them. "Don't take everything personally," she says.
While they're trying to embrace flexibility and patience, parents in stepfamilies should focus on their overall goals for the visit.
"Dad and Stepmom need to really take a good look at what you want to create for the children," says Wisdom. "What memories do you want kids to have of the visit and what stories do you want the kids to take back home? You have to do your part to make that happen."
Lisa Cohn, an award-winning writer, is co-author of "One Family, Two Family, New Family: Stories And Advice For Stepfamilies." To read her other articles and learn about her book, visit http://www.stepfamilyadvice.com/.