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Boundaries part 1

February 7, 2013

Stepfamilies need boundaries just as any other family needs it. However, boundaries can be a sensitive issue for stepfamilies. Guilt, confusion about who is the authority in the home, dealing with another household, children growing up with two homes and two different sets of rules – all these things can complicate having healthy boundaries.

I will in this blog post focus on boundaries within the household of the stepfamily, and in a later bog discuss boundaries between two households.

Having healthy boundaries has been a challenge for me. I have felt uncertain about what rights I have to make rules in my own house. I have been worried that if I have to many boundaries, my stepkids will not feel welcome in our house, feel at home or feel I am available for them.

When I was just dating my husband, I behaved like a guest whenever visiting. I treated my boyfriend`s home, like his and his children`s home. It was not my home. Therefor I was not to make up new rules in their home. If my oldest stepchild used the bathroom, and I needed it, I would do as I usually do when I am a guest: I would knock and gently ask if I could use it. However, I expected to be treated as a guest as well. I could help out with grocery shopping and making dinner and tidy up, but it was not my responsibility. Sometimes I was just there, and was given dinner just like any other guest.

Moving into a house together changed this. Now I was the owner of the house. All my furnitures was in the house, all my things. I had to think a lot about how “normal” families do it  – are the kids allowed to use their mom`s things whenever they want, or do they have to ask? Can they eat in front of the tv, or not? Do the mom always pick up after her kids, or do the kids have to pick up after themselves? It became complicated for me, because as we all know, families have different rules. My stepchildren were used to rules that I might not approve of. How much could I change that?

As a stepmom I have experienced that I give, nurture, take care of, comfort, provide, try to make things safe, plan fun activites, I buy, I throw, I clean, I cook, I give and I do a lot of things. Biological moms often get the biological love in return, that unconditional “you are my mom and therefor I love you no matter how much you fail” or the “I need you to survive and therefor nature has given me a love for you that makes me love you no matter what, because without you I can`t make it”. Biological moms also get the attachment in return. A stepmom might get some love in return, but I am sure many stepmoms out there have experienced that sometimes (or often) they give more than they feel they get in return.

So what are healthy boundaries in this sort of family life? I am not sure. I would love to hear from you what you think. But I have tried to come up with some things I believe in.

– My stepkids need to treat me with respect. They might not love me as much as a child loves it`s mother, but I need to be treated with respect. Do I practice this rule? Not always. But lately I have been clear that I will not be spoken to in a rude manner, no rolling with eyes (unless there is reason, and lets face it sometimes even grown ups mess up).

– I am not to be treated like a maid. The kids have to pick up after them, and they also have to cooperate to a certain degree about things needed to be done around the house. If it was up to me I would demand a little more from them, things I find age appropriate. But, I can not demand much more than their parents demand from them.

– I usually buy all their clothes. In the beginning I would cover over what I found to be bad cooperation between the parents: not sending things back that the kids  needed while at our house. I would often buy new things. My new rule is this “I buy you the things you need. You need to take care of your things. If you break them or loose them, or leave them at your mom`s house, I will not replace them. I will buy you new ones when you have grown out of your old clothes”. I have not expressed this rule yet, so far it is just in my mind. But I will express it when I find a chance to do it.

– My stepkids do not treat me nor love me like a  mom. I do not have to treat them or love them like they are my kids. But I do love them and treat them with lots of care and love anyway. I have to have a boundary of what to expect from myself. I can not expect myself to be perfect.

– The kids are free to bring friends home. They are just as free as I would like my own kids to be. However, they need to ask before sleep overs, before inviting friends for dinner. If someone is sick we also have the right to say it is not a good day to invite friends. If any of the kids behave in a rude way while having friends over, we do have the right to say that the visit is over.

– As a stepmom I sometimes have to deal with hurtful comments like “I wish my dad and my mom were together” or “It is strange having you live in our house”. As a stepmom I need to raise above comments like this. I am not willing to let a child control my feelings. Yes, I would like to say “honey, you see the truth is that you are living in MY house”. But I do avoid these kinds of responses. As a stepmom I need to protect my dignity, and I do not protect my dignity through sinking to a child`s level.

– My husband needs to ask me before change in visitation happens. We are in this together. He is not a single dad anymore. In the beginning I felt very honored that he always asked me before changing visitations. Now I feel it is healthy and very respectful towards me.

– My stepkids have different ages and therefor different needs. The oldest one I have given a rule: if you are feeling sick or you have a night mare, come and wake us up. We are there for you in the middle of the night if you need us. If you just wake up, you are big enough to turn around and try to fall back asleep again. My youngest stepchild is soon reaching that age where this can apply as well. My sleep is important. I never wake up with them on weekends. I sleep in until ten, and I expect my family to respect my need for sleep as much as I respect heir need for sleep.

– Children growing up in two homes experience a lot of exceptions. They are with neither of their parents full time, their grandparents see them not as often because of vacations being divided in two, the same applies for uncles and aunts. These children often also have “bonus grandparents”. It is very easy to make everyday a celebration. My husband wants to be an every day dad, and not a weekend dad. He does not want to fill his time with the kids with amusement parks. No candy on weekdays, homework before fun activities, vegetables for dinner, normal bed time before school days- these are boundaries I believe are healthy and important for kids being raised in two homes. Weekends are also spend most normal: having family time, tidy up the house, board games, hikes in the forest. There are not gifts unless there is a birthday or Christmas. We try to give them a normal childhood, all though they live in two homes.

– Physical contact. While parents have more freedom to give their children physical contact, stepparents need to be more sensitive about invitations. I hug my stepchildren, let them sit on my lap, hold my arm around them while watch tv. I hope I understand their signals right, and that they are fine with it. However, the day the give me a message it is not okay, I need to be sensitive to their boundaries. Biological parents need to, but I think actually stepparents need to be even more sensitive.

These are a few examples on boundaries. I am sure there are many more to be mentioned. Let me know if you disagree on any of these, or have any good advice on healthy stepfamily boundaries.


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  1. frostbittenkitten permalink

    -respect. Agree. I would expect to be treated with the same amount of respect they would show ANY adult. If they did not, I would expect the father to handle it and enforce it.
    -maid. Agree. Although I do find that similar to you, at times I will help my Sweety out with the dishes or cooking, or picking up, etc. simply because I know he is exhausted and I want us both to relax together. As far as picking up after the kids, I don’t do it, and I encourage him to make them clean their own rooms, as they are old enough to start doing that now.
    -clothing. I buy what I want to buy, as gifts. We are just dating, and that’s all that is appropriate. Since their dad makes more money than I do, even if we were living together and married, I don’t see that clothing his kids or buying what they need falling to me, unless I just want to do it. I have two kids of my own that also get support from me and that I am responsible for.
    -love/physical contact. I think in these situations you cannot help but to form bonds and attachments. My Sweety’s three year old son is toying with calling me mom when he see’s me now. He’s done so twice in the the past two weeks. I don’t encourage nor discourage. I want him to do what he feels is comfortable, and what his parents both allow. While I don’t force hugs on them, but accept them when they come to me, I do small touches of affection in passing to let them know I care.
    -visitors. His kids are still young, so that hasn’t been an issue yet, but yes, we would have to learn to share the home and the friends follow the same rules that the children have. Common sense rules would apply here.
    -hurtful words. As his kids are quite young, they likely won’t remember much from when their mom lived in the same house with them… and won’t see it as their house as opposed to our house. Having had previous stepchildren, I think these types of comments come from older children who encounter divorce and new step-parents. Many times I think the kids are looking for a reaction, so usually when I had this happen, I’d ignore the comment.
    -visitation. I agree. I appreciate being kept informed, especially if changes are made that affect our time together, but ultimately I know I have no say in it. I expect when we are married and share a home, to be more included in decisions regarding visitation. Generally me sends me emails where they discuss things like holidays etc to get my input though.
    -ages and needs. I agree. My kids are much older (16 and 18). His are 3 and 5. Blending families will be a challenge when it comes to family time. Also, with his 3 and 5 year olds, there are different expectations there as well. Been down that road already. I think in this particular situation, I am able to offer my Sweety an “outsiders” perspective on what I see with the kids… perhaps areas where they are babied too much, or noticing things that are bothering them through listening to them play, etc. and bringing that up. Right now I am very much the observer.
    -2 homes, 2 sets of rules. This is a hard one. As the custodial parent, we have to deal with what we call “detox.” When they go to their mom’s they are constantly on the move, going here and there, eating poorly, going to bed whenever, etc. Their schedule gets all messed up and they come home hungry and exhausted. On the one night a week she gets them for dinner, instead of going somewhere close and spending what I consider quality time with them, she drives them 40 minutes to her apartment, feeds them either fast food or whatever she can throw together and have them eat in less than an hour, and then drives them back. They come home around 7:30 and then are expected to process all of that, and start getting ready for bed. It’s hard on my Sweety because he feels that is no evening for them, being stuck in a car for that long, etc. plus the occasional separation issues that come with the drop-off.

    I’ll add one…
    property. It really bugs me that she would walk into his home like she owned it… and bring her new boyfriend in, and walk through the house to take things into the kitchen or whatever. He finally confronted her on it and told her it is NOT her home and to quit coming in, and she did, for a few weeks. Now she is back to coming into the living room and standing at the door to drag the goodbyes out, with her boyfriend coming in and standing there, too. It’s not OUR home yet, but I keep making it clear that it bothers me and I would not want her in my home, looking at my stuff, etc. I don’t feel comfortable being around during drop-offs because she is unpredictable and it can get nasty. His living room is situated so standing in the doorway gives perfect view of inside his bedroom and the bathroom. I don’t like that. It affords little privacy in my opinion. I have little respect for her, personally, since she cheated on him and left her children… so I simply try to avoid these interactions and let him handle them on his own. If I do happen to be there, I stay in another room.

  2. Thank you for your response. Your last point about property is something I will discuss in Boundaries part two, where I will focus on boundaries between two households.

  3. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head in many respects and I totally agree with you. I wonder if this post could equally be titled ‘Consistency’ – for me, that’s what it’s all about. If you promise something, you do it. If you make a rule, you keep it. If you treat one child one way, you treat them all the same way. This seems to be working in our house, although, easier said than done at times … but of course, this applies to all families and not just step-families.

    Also, can I add that your English is amazing! And, I can say this with some authority as I’m an English language teacher!

    So, thanks for sharing this post and I look forward to reading many more.

    • Thank you for your response. I think you are right – many if the same rules in nuclear families apply for stepfamilies. However, it can be confusing sometimes. A stepfamily is not a nuclear family. The feelings, connections, attachments etc are different. Sometimes. And sometimes they are similar.

      How do you find it possible to treat the kids the same? Do you have any examples? I think many families struggle with this.

      Thank you for your comment about my English. I have a passion for the English language. I find it to be very rich and would love to develop myself more.

      • Yes, each family is different and different feelings, connections, attachments are at play. Maybe I should re-phrase – the house rules apply to each child equally – so in this respect they are all treated the same. My biological child doesn’t get any longer on the computer than my step-children. There’s a time limit. My biological child doesn’t get a later bedtime or get out of doing household jobs. I think applying rules equally, then, is a way to ensure you treat everyone the same and maintain consistency.

  4. Hi That family feeling. I can sense that you have been working on not having favoritism rule your home. I think that is honorable. I also believe it can prevent resentment among the children living together.

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