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Parenting after divorce: Answers to your e-mails

After the second week of our "Raising Kids Today" series, psychologist Dr. Ruth Peters responds to your questions and concerns.

In a special monthlong series called “Raising Kids Today,” the “Today” show is looking at issues surrounding parenting. In this second week, we have been exploring the effects of divorce and co-parenting; now psychologist and “Today” contributor Dr. Ruth Peters responds to viewers’ e-mails on many of the topics raised.

DATING AFTER DIVORCEQ: My ex-husband is dating and our kids are very upset.  After a divorce, what's the proper way to introduce a new partner and when?

A: I’m assuming that they enjoy visiting with Dad for the weekend, and may have strong feelings about having to share their father time with another woman. As an adult, you’re probably concerned about several issues:  the kids getting the wrong idea about relationships (lack of permanence —“Dad lived with Mom, and now he lives with another lady”; sexual implications — “What are they doing in Dad’s bedroom when we’re not allowed in there?”; and jealousy — “How come he’s spending time with her when we only get to see him for a few days?”). 

Believe it or not, Dad does love his kids, but he may not be sensitive to these issues.  Give him the benefit of the doubt and have a parent-to-parent discussion with him (in person, without the children present, or perhaps via the phone or e-mail) about the issues of jealousy, sexual implications and the lack of permanence that a new, quick relationship implies to the children.

Suggest that he spend his visitation with only the children, at this point in time, and introduce a girlfriend into their lives slowly, only after they feel secure with the new living and visitation situation. At some point he can introduce a new woman as a “friend,” and she can spend time with them at the park, movies or some other public place.  Slowly, she can come to Dad’s house and share dinner and do more with the kids as the months pass. 

There is no rush in terms of having her become a part of the children’s lives, since there are no guarantees that the new relationship will last and the children will have “lost” another parent figure.  Ask him to take it slowly, to see her when the kids are not visiting, and to focus on his relationship with the children when it’s his time with them.

DIFFERENT HOMES, DIFFERENT RULESQ: Our kids — and stepkids — have different rules at different homes. Is that okay? How do you maintain family unity or consistency?

A: Unfortunately, it’s very, very difficult to fashion and live the same set of rules in two or three different households.  I’ve seen some families pull it off, but these are rare and tend to have exceptionally good communication between ex-spouses, the adults are mature and are also able to put the children’s needs ahead of their own.

First, it’s a good idea to have a pow-wow among the adults involved to see if they can agree on certain, important issues, behaviors and consequences — such as bedtimes, a no-violence/bad language rule, and the use of time-outs or taking away of important privileges. 

Using a point system (modified to fit the specific dynamic of each family) may be the easiest way to accomplish this task. If so, the kids will know that approximately the same consequences will occur for the same behaviors regardless of whether they are at Mom’s house or Dad’s house.

If working together in this fashion is not feasible (the ex-spouses do not communicate rationally), then tell the kids that “In our house, these are the rules.  If you obey, then here are the rights and privileges that you will have. If you disobey, the consequences are as follows….”  Then make a list of your daily expectations, behaviors encouraged and those not allowed, and the consequences (rewards and loss of privileges) that will occur depending upon the choices made by the children each day.

If they note that the parent at the other home does not follow these rules, acknowledge that, but don’t get sucked into a huge debate about the differences.  This is your house, and these children are your kids when they are under your roof, so the rules to be followed on your watch are the only ones that you will deal with.

UNDERMINED BY MOMQ: I discipline my stepchildren by taking away possessions. When the kids go to their birth mother's home she replaces the items. It has reached the point where the kids no longer miss the items we remove. What can we do?

A: Wow, I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes!  But, before we assume that Mom is undermining your discipline on purpose, let’s take a look at some other possible sources of her behavior.

It could be that she believes that your taking away of possessions is an inappropriate disciplinary tactic and that her children shouldn’t have to deal with that type of punishment.  Or, she may feel that she’s not seeing the kids much, and that the easiest way to their hearts is to replace objects that Step-Mom has removed. 

It’s possible that a discussion between Mom and Dad (and perhaps yourself included) would clarify her concerns and motivations.  If she truly feels that you are being unfair by taking away possessions, perhaps she can agree with you and Dad on another tactic that is effective, yet more palatable to her. 

Or, if she feels that the only way to the kids’ hearts is to buy them things, perhaps you’ll be able to convince her that spending fun time with them — at the park, tucking in at night, reading books — is what really brings kids and parents together.

If, however, you are convinced (and you’re being rational in your assumption) that she’s just downright trying to sabotage your discipline, then you’ll have to get more creative. Different consequences will need to be used in your home — notably, tremendous boredom.  The taking away of privileges (electronics usage such as the TV, DVD player, video games, radio), outside playtime, swimming, and even instituting an earlier bedtime) may prove effective. 

Consequences don’t have to be about loss of possessions, especially if Mom is able to sabotage that. In reality, kids hate to be bored, and the loss of fun time may actually bother them more!

A BAD EXAMPLE?Q: I’m worried that my two failed marriages are setting a bad example for my kids. In particular, I don't want my two sons to be confused about healthy relationships between couples.

A: I’m glad you have awareness about this. Yes, you should be worried that your two boys are seeing relationships begin, yet end in disaster. Kids get their most important information about the world and its workings from the way their folks handle relationships; and seeing you make inappropriate choices in marriage, mishandling disagreements or putting up with improper behavior haven’t been good lessons. 

You have to be proactive. Sit the kids down and explain, briefly and not in too much detail, what you are going to do in the future to avoid more drama and disaster. Regardless of whose “fault” the marital failures were in your mind, you do need to take some of the responsibility.  Explain your failings (again briefly) and how you will do otherwise in the future.  This teaches your sons that folks can make mistakes, but the important thing is to learn from these errors and to not give up. 

Meanwhile, take your time getting into your next relationship and be sure to look for the red flags.  Trust me, they are always there, you just have to be willing to see them! Also, encourage your sons to spend time with family members who are in stable, well-adjusted relationships so that they can see, firsthand, that healthy communication and successful problem-solving does exist. Spending weekends and vacations with friends or family whose marriages are comfortable will go a long way toward proving to them that it is possible to establish a healthy family, and that this is what they should be looking for themselves as they grow to adulthood.

THE 'EVIL STEPDAD' PROBLEMQ: How can I help my new husband and 12-year-old daughter to bond? My new husband spends time playing with her and helping with homework, but she still only wants to be with me. How can I help them connect?

A: Sounds like you want your new husband to be best friends with your daughter. That’s wonderful and you should be proud of yourself for trying so hard. But realize that the child has had a lifelong relationship with you (the mom) and that your husband is the new kid on the block.  It will probably take a long time until she trusts him as she does her mother, and may be even longer to realize that his hours of playing with her and tackling homework are his attempts to get close to her. 

Slow down, chill out, and enjoy the kid!  Also, appreciate that the little girl really enjoys her mother and has a great bond with her.

However, to help move the process along, perhaps you can arrange for a Daddy-daughter day full of playing at the park, riding bikes, and doing some fun things that Mom really doesn’t like to do but the kid enjoys (laser-tag anyone?). Hopefully she’ll begin to see her stepfather as a resource, a dad who can offer time, knowledge and fun activities that even Mom can’t engage in.

Maybe you (mom) can back off a little, letting your new husband do some tucking in and reading while you handle some “emergency” phone calls or tidy up the kitchen.  A child’s acceptance of a new parent normally takes time; don’t try to rush it, as that usually is off-putting to the kid. Remember, you can’t force a relationship. The best your new husband can do is to be available, loving, respectful and demanding of respect in return, and to be a good listener.

RIVALRY BETWEEN STEPCHILDRENQ: What do you about sibling rivalry between stepchildren and biological children??"

A: There will always be sibling rivalry between ANY siblings — that's the nature of the beast. Depending upon the individual child's temperament, the intensity of the rivalry may differ, but it's usually there, festering under the surface.

The main reason for sibling rivalry is perceived unfairness — that at least one parent is favoring the other child. Throw in a blended family situation, and/or a new baby, and you've got yourself quite a situation to handle.

First, as with any new baby situation, do your best to include the older sibling in the caretaking (within reason), wonderful fuss (not only about the baby, but the big sis too), and some of the decision making (what shall we use as baby's nickname?).

If the step-sib mentions that the little one is getting too much attention, and that it's because she's the "us" child (not "yours" or "mine"), encourage the feelings, but also give some data.

Tell your daughter that she was fussed over as a baby when she was small and helpless, and that it's her turn, now, to do some of the big-sister things. Try to spend some extra time with her, take her shopping or out to the mall for lunch or a new outfit, or catch a movie together (without the baby in tow!). Describe how each child in the family is special and unique and that the new baby just helps to "cement" the family as a unit, not usurp the sib's position or status in the family.

Also, please warn Grandma and Grandpa, as well as the stepgrandparents, that this is an especially touchy time for your daughter.

Copyright ©2005 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved. Dr. Peters is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to the “Today” show. Her most recent book,“Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control,” is published by Rodale. (See excerpts .) For more information you can visit her Web site at .

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.