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Mom Caught Between Husband and Kids

QUESTION: My husband and I have been married for six years. I have two daughters from my previous marriage. My oldest is a teenager and my youngest is ten. When they talk back their stepfather gets defensive and I wind up getting caught in the middle. He seems critical and harsh in the way he communicates, but I know that deep down he only wants what is best for them. How can I help resolve these differences and bring peace to my family?

ANSWER: The good news is that your marriage appears strong and you believe your husband has his stepchildren's best interests at heart. But in six years of marriage, you have not resolved your parenting conflict. Take this opportunity to become a stronger parenting team.

It is likely that your daughters are getting different messages about what is expected because you and your spouse disagree. This exacerbates the problem. By remaining in the middle, conflict may have been temporarily avoided, but not resolved. Step out of the peacemaker position and work through your marital conflict. It is your job as parents to discuss the parameters of behavior that are acceptable in the family and come up with consequences you can both stand behind when children cross the limits.

Let your spouse know that you feel he is overly critical. What do you envision to be the best way for him to discipline? How do you want him to communicate in tense situations with his stepchildren? Does he have alternatives to his present behavior that you are comfortable with and will you back him up in the delivery of consequences?

If your spouse is indeed overly harsh, your teen and preteen will no doubt challenge him. This is, after all, the nature of adolescence. And adolescence will, indeed, stress the weak points of any marriage. But be willing to take a step back and look at your own behavior too. Do your children really need your protection? Or would your energy be better spent establishing appropriate guidelines for discipline and communication in the family, which you and your partner can agree to enforce together?

Communication patterns that are destructive may be easily changed in good times, but realistically, conflict brings out old habits. Have a discussion with your spouse about how you want to handle conflict in your family. Establish guidelines you both agree to follow. Do not accept childish behavior from your spouse. But be willing to support agreements you both make as parents. Back your husband up when your children get out of line with these agreements and require your husband to back you up regarding the communication guidelines you create together.

Women are often raised to be the emotional caretakers for family relationships. Stepfamilies can be the perfect set up for getting caught in the middle, instead of forging a successful parenting team.

It appears that you have been the common denominator in the family equation. This position is not only wearing you down, but blocking others from successfully resolving their own problems. Work now to resolve conflict in your relationship so that your marriage becomes strengthened rather than stressed!


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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