Dear Dr. Yael,
I am newly remarried to a wonderful person. We both lost our spouses young. We both have young children. We both had good marriages. We are both trying to parent all our children in a loving and devoted manner. My husband actively learns with my sons as well as his and I try to be a fun-loving mother to our girls and our boys. We divide the parenting roles as if they all are our biological children. The children are trying to get along and have derech eretz for both of us. However, one of my sons and one of his daughters will at times be belligerent and say, “You are not my father “or “You are not my mother.” Both of these children are our oldest children. This upsets the home environment. His oldest daughter was very close to her mother as my son was close to his father. Our other children were very young when our spouses passed away. The two youngest who were babies when we remarried don’t remember them at all. Please give us suggestions how to handle these problems and how to build a beautiful home where all the children respect us.
Thank you for your important letter! I’m so sorry for both of your losses. Baruch Hashem, you found each other and are trying to build a healthy and secure home for all your children. Your problem is critical since the oldest children often influence the behavior of the other children in the family.
I think both you and your husband must make a special effort to forge a loving relationship with these two oldest children. This has to be done quietly, so the other children don’t become jealous and don’t start acting out to get attention.
If your husband can take your son out of school one day for a special lunch or ice cream or anything he likes and you can do the same with his daughter, following up with special private time with those children and each of you, you can then forge a special relationship with these children.
It would also be appropriate to respond to these comments when made or when the child is calmed down (it depends on the situation, and you will have to use your gut as to when it is the right time). Saying something like, “can I talk to you privately for a minute?” If the child responds in the affirmative, then you can say the following, “I will never try to replace your mother/father, but I hope one day to have our own close and loving relationship. I know that this is really hard right now, and I won’t push you into anything that makes you uncomfortable, but I love you and will always be here for you. I know it hurts to lose your mother/father and that I am a constant reminder of that pain. I don’t want to hurt you, but I want you to know that I am here to support you when you’re ready, and that I will never take offense to you needing your space from me. What I would appreciate tremendously is for you not to use those words in front of the other kids. You are right, I am not your mother/father, but I am trying to be a mother/father figure to you and your siblings and when you say these types of things, it can confuse your siblings and make them uncomfortable or even upset. If I am overstepping a boundary and making you uncomfortable, let’s think of a secret word you can say to tell me I need to back off. This way, I can respect your feelings without it causing anyone else pain or confusion. What do you think? Can this work?”
Hopefully this conversation can help you begin to establish a more mature relationship with them as well and coupled with more special time together, you may make some headway. You also may need to respond with a simple, “I know and will give you some space now,” if any of the children continue to say this even after this conversation and all of your efforts. Remember that losing a parent is extremely painful, and it will take time for the children to be able to make peace with you and your husband.
Additionally, all of your children need special time with each of you. I had the zechus to conduct over 95 parenting workshops. I strongly believe in something I call “cozy time.” This is the time when you put your children to sleep. It would be most advantageous for each child to get five to ten minutes of alone time with both of you every night. Since you baruch Hashem seem to have many children, you as parents, can split the children so that each child gets one of you on different nights to put them to sleep.
Please don’t be cheap on the private time that you give each child. The greatest gift you can give your children is time. Rabbi Frand once said in a speech that he gave, “spend quality and quantity time with each of your children. If you don’t give your children time when they are young, they will get that time from you in the principal’s office, in the mental hospital, or even in jail chas v’shalom. An ounce of prevention is worth a tremendous amount. I know this sounds exhausting, and it is! But putting out fires all day is even more exhausting and if you invest the effort in prevention and positive, loving time with each child, you will see tremendous confidence and growth in all of the children! It’s also important to be generous with your praise, your “I love you’s” and your kisses and hugs (when wanted).
People who know me know that I practice what I preach. The greatest joy I have is to see my own married children bringing up their children as I brought them up. Hatzlacha in this challenging journey of raising your blended family and may Hashem give you the koach you need to build a beautiful home together!