Coping With ‘Ex’tended Family
It’s a common scenario: As soon as there is a marital separation, extended family members take sides and suddenly, a once-adored son-in-law becomes a jerk, or a formerly beloved sister-in-law is likened to a female dog. These family alliances make sense, given the old adage, “blood is thicker than water.”
Unfortunately, children can get stuck in the middle if the adults are not careful with their words and actions. And during the holidays, tempers can flare and trash-talking can run amuck when families gather. Parents are wise to remember that little ears always are listening.
Understanding the dynamics of family side-taking will go a long way toward dealing with the fallout of a separation or divorce in a productive way. Often, grandparents on the non-custodial side, for instance, fear they will lose contact with their grandchildren or be alienated from them by their child’s former spouse. This sometimes prompts bad feelings and extreme responses that are taken personally by the other side. Rarely is it about personal feelings as much as it is about disappointment in the failed marriage. The prospect that simple communication and holiday festivities may be awkward in the future is enough to put extended family members on edge.
Single parents do well to be sensitive to these emotions and to make special effort to respect the familial ties others have to their children. Also, kids need to feel they have permission from both of their parents to love both sides of their family, just as they need permission to love both of their parents equally.
Try these simple steps to insure your children don’t get caught in the “ex”tended family tug-of-war this holiday season:
Preserve family traditions. If, in the past, your family typically spent Christmas Day each year at Grandma Smith’s house and New Year’s Day at Cousin Mary’s, maintain those traditions for a couple of years after the divorce, not only for the children, but also to help the rest of the family cope with the new structure. If Grandma Smith is your ex-in-law, show up only if you are invited by her, but better yet, let that be a time your kids can have alone time with their extended family and their other parent. Compromise on both sides so change is kept to a minimum and family remains a priority.
Encourage children to keep communication lines open. Allow your kids to send birthday, thank-you and holiday cards to their family members on the other side to show you’re OK with that alliance. They need to know it will not be considered an allegiance violation if they show love toward your ex-family members.
Don’t talk trash. Everyone on both sides should refrain from negative talk in front of the children about any family members on the other side. This has a damaging effect on the kids and is never helpful or positive for them.
Model courtesy and respect. When you come in contact with ex-family members at school functions or major events, treat them with friendliness, dignity and respect, regardless of your feelings toward your former spouse. And this means even if he or she is being disrespectful toward you! Don’t do tit for tat — your kids need to see you model how they should treat people they may not particularly like.
With few exceptions, feeling threatened by ex-family members is simply irrational, given your parental status. Relax and take the moral high ground on this one. Remember, the more caring adults in children’s lives, the greater their chances for success.
Diane Chambers Shearer is a licensed marriage and family therapist, divorce mediator, and parent educator in Atlanta. She is author of “Solo Parenting: Raising Strong and Happy Families,” and she publishes The Peaceful Co-Parent, a quarterly newsletter for divorce parents. Visit www.dianeshearer.com.