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Adopted Children Have To Adapt To Drastically Different Rules

by Alexander
(California, USA)

Dear Annie,

I was widowed and have raised my twin daughters, age 11, since they were a few months old. I have a parenting style that works well, with very little conflict and great results. While I let them develop their own interests and make their own choices, I'm very firm about what will not be permitted, such as things I don't consider age-appropriate (e.g. makeup), healthy (junk food) or useful (TV).

I think I've mostly struck a fair balance. For example, if my children want to watch a specific TV show, they can rent it, but we don't own a television and mindless channel surfing is not possible. I give them a generous allowance, but limit the types of things they can buy (books, art supplies, etc).

I rarely make an actual choice for them, but always limit the options. They are able to make decisions independently because the boundaries are clear and the rules don't change, and they don't need to constantly ask for my approval. I feel that micromanagement is not a good long-term strategy, since children need to learn how to solve their own problems and make good decisions.

I was briefly (less than a year) remarried when my children were toddlers. While I had no biological children from that marriage, my ex and I stayed good friends and I helped her financially. When she was diagnosed with cancer, she gave me guardianship of her children. She died a few months ago and I'm now the parent of three girls ages 10, 9, and 9, and a boy, 4.

My ex's parenting style was very loose. The children ate fast food most days, vegged out in front of the TV while in daycare or with babysitters, have no homework skills to speak of. It turns out they rarely completed homework before, and the girls have already formed habits of getting hair/nails done at salons and were allowed to wear makeup.

My ex also changed her mind often, so the children ask the same thing over and over, expecting that the answer might be different. They don't have an understanding that rules might be made based on some specific criteria (e.g., "No PG13-rated movies.") rather than on how tired or irritated the parent was at the time, so they are unable to predict my answer and don't understand that my answer will not change after I've had my morning coffee.

I firmly believe that my method is better. My twins are far ahead academically, while my younger children struggle compared to their peers. They don't enjoy books, were addicted to at least a dozen garbage TV shows, have memorized lyrics and dance moves to dozens of inappropriate pop songs (e.g., Tik Tok), and haven't learned to be independent about things like cleaning up after themselves or even basic hygiene routines. They didn't know they had to brush their teeth even if an adult didn't "make" them do it
. The need to micromanage their every move is driving me to the end of my patience, because I'm just not used to having to tell a 10 year old to do things like comb her hair.

As you can imagine, the changes have not been easy. While I've established my authority, I often hear (in a very mournful tone, and often said between the children rather than to me) that "Mommy wasn't so strict about this." or "We've always done this and it didn't hurt us." Although I have no intention of having different rules for different children, I find myself feeling a little guilty for forcing them to follow what must seem to them like very draconian rules.

I'm taking at least a year off work and I'm trying to make up for the strict rules by giving the children a lot of attention and help, but I think this goes over their heads due to their age, and they don't understand that time and attention are more valuable than TV and greasy hamburgers.

Do you think it was too harsh to make the changes all at once, without trying (at least for a while) to meet them half-way on things that their mother allowed and I forbid? Is there anything I can do to make the change in parenting styles easier or more understandable for them, without saying that their mother was wrong or a bad parent?

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Grieving Family and Different Parenting Style - Part One
by: Annie Desantis

Dear Alexander,
My heart goes out to you, what an amazing gift you have given your ex, to take on the parenting of her children. She clearly trusted that you were the person she chose to hand her children over to when she was not longer going to be here.

You have had to cope with enormous losses in your life, that have been accompanied with enormous responsibility, with your first wife, and being the sole parent of baby girls, and now your ex wife, who was clearly a dear friend and her children.

The first thing I want to say is what an impressive father you are and what a wonderful man to make this kind of commitment. I am sure it has not always been easy, but you have clearly done a fantastic job raising your twins.

You have done the right thing in taking a year off work, this will be a difficult year for you all, with huge adjustments and grief to work through. I hope you have a good support network, and I hope you have ways to look after yourself.

To be able to cope and be available to support your younger family in their grieving, you need to make sure you are filled up. If you are running on empty you will be on a short fuse and it will be harder to cope with the challenges

There will be times of resentment and overwhelm, anger and pain felt by you all at the huge change in your circumstances, and that is a totally natural part of grieving.

Your adopted family are coping with loosing their mother, they will have been angry and hurt as she became more ill and was not available for them, but would have felt guilty to feel that. They are coping with the loss of their home and everything that is familiar.

Their biological father is clearly not on the scene, and unconsciously that will also be something bubbling away - both their biological parents have abandoned them. They are so lucky to have you to take over, and clearly you have been in their lives to one degree or another for some time, but unfortunately that means you will be the one to cop all the fallout as they struggle to adjust to their loss.

Part Two Follows . . .

Grieving Family and Different Parenting Style - Part Two
by: Annie Desantis

As I am sure you are aware your own two girls have also had their world turned upside down. Although they were babies at the time, the loss of their mother is still an unconscious memory that has shaped their lives, they will have formed attachments with your ex, and of course they now have to adjust to Daddy having to spread his attention around all the children. You will need to find time to regularly have some time just with them so they still feel they are special. They sound like amazing girls and you have done a fabulous job with them.

And then there is you, having to be the one to hold it all together for all these children when you will also have your own grief issues to deal with. Loosing your first wife, and now your ex wife, who clearly was still a very close friend. It will be perfectly natural that you will have times that you wish it was just you and your twins, that is feels like it is too hard, and that you feel trapped and overwhelmed by the responsibility.

Before I go on to parenting styles, I just want to emphasize that you get as much help and support as you can. Don't go it alone trying to manage all this, most people would buckle under the stress, and to maintain your health and well-being you need to take care of you.

Are their biological grandparents around that can give you a break?
Do you have friends and family that can pitch in and support you?
Do you have close friends you can spend time with being a guy, not a Dad?
Are their social services or counseling that can help you all work through the grief?
What are the activities you do that help you to feel calm and centered and good about yourself - going to the gym, working in the garden, playing a sport, doing something creative or building something?

Find mini activities you can do that give you time out to regroup and take a breath when the going gets tough and you feel you are fed up with it all - a walk around the block, chopping wood, outside taking ten slow deep breaths, a long hot shower.

You clearly have a focus on healthy eating, so taking care of your physical health is on track!

And of course you can write in here any time you need a bit of support.

Part Three Follows . . .

Grieving Family and Different Parenting Style - Part Three
by: Annie Desantis

So, to different parenting styles. You have to parent in ways that are authentic to you, and as you say you can't have one set of rules for your girls and a different set for the younger family. Apart from dealing with their grieving, it is clearly a much bigger challenge for you parenting the younger children, when as you say they have been raised with a very different style of parenting.

I think you were right to start off with parenting as you mean to go on, you can't backtrack once you have allowed certain behaviors. But there may be ways you can relax your rules a little so your new family don't feel so disempowered. Of course that means you relax those rules for your twins as well.

Parenting is a matter of adjusting boundaries and restrictions as children grow, and often as families get bigger. Parents tend to be much more idealistic and have higher expectations for older children, and then relax the rules a bit as more kids come along. Many older children complain the youngest gets away with far more than they ever did!

I am not suggesting you are wrong in your parenting style, or that you should change your rules, but it may be time to re-examine them a little and see if there is some areas you might be ok to make some compromises. For instance, when hiring movies, many movies have restrictions based on sexuality, yet allow violence, which makes no sense to me. You could screen movies on a movie by movie basis, rather than just the rating. Although having a cut off point of a rating does make it easier to take a stand!

Another area you could consider might be allowing the girls to play with make-up, but only to wear it in the weekends, or at home.

Think about it in advance and decide where you might be able to have some flexibility, but doesn't compromise your core values. Then have some family discussions about the differences in parenting and let them have their say.

I suspect your new family will eventually respond really well to your parenting style, once they have adjusted. I am sure they will keep testing you for quite some time, but when they get used to knowing you are firm in your boundaries, they will feel more secure and will know exactly where they stand. As kids grow up they test the boundaries anyway, and parents learn to adjust them when it seems reasonable. With such a household of girls you will have a few challenges when they get to teenage years!

Part Four Follows . . .

Grieving Family and Different Parenting Style - Part Four
by: Annie Desantis

One way to help them adjust to such a different parenting style, is to let them express their feelings about it. Don't get into whose style is better, or making their Mom wrong, it is simply that you have different ways of parenting, and now they are living with you they will have to learn how your household functions. But acknowledge and get it out in the open that you understand there are a lot more rules than they are used to. Let them say how they feel without having to prove your position, simply acknowledge you understand how hard it is for them.

In terms of micro management, I would suggest backing off a bit. It is more important that they learn to feel loved and secure in their new family than it is to brush their hair. They will absorb a huge amount by the example your girls will show, but it just won't happen immediately. Think about what are the most important things you think they need to be doing, perhaps it is homework, or helping clear the table. Try to keep the reminders light-hearted, not irritable nagging.

Lots of things that your girls learned from an early age, are not habits with your younger family, and it takes time to learn a new habit. It takes a lot more time, if that new habit is not seen as important. As they have said, they were fine up until now, so their motivation to learn new habits will not be all that high.
You are better to spend your energy finding ways to motivate them than being the heavy handed policeman. Trying to change bad habits is much more difficult than learning from an early age. They have to have a compelling reason to want to learn your ways, just because you say so, is not a compelling reason. Nor is wanting to avoid punishment.

I would suggest you start some kind of reward system, so you are bringing in lots of positive reinforcement. The more you increase the good stuff, the more you shift any resentment or frustration, on both your parts. They have gone from no rules - or rules they knew they could challenge with persistence, to suddenly what must seem like a thousand rules for all kinds of things they would never have had to even challenge. It will be overwhelming and if there is not the balance of enough fun, love and a good bond, you will push them away at a time when they need you most.

The most important thing you can do is to have lots fun together as a family, and also individually. It is the fun times that build the bond, not the discipline and rules. They will feel much happier to comply and respect your rules more, when they love and trust you and have a great time with you. It will be difficult with so many children, but try to have some time with each of them individually.

Part Five Follows . . . .

Grieving Family and Different Parenting Style - Part Five
by: Annie Desantis

One way of doing that is you can instigate journal time with your children. What we do is get each child a journal or scrapbook, and you have ten minutes of totally uninterrupted time with that child, to hear what they want to talk about, celebrate their achievements, or work through their problems. If any other child interrupts, any lost minutes from the journal child will need to be made up from the interrupter. Even the four year old will learn not to interrupt sharing time.

The journal is where they make a note of things they want to talk about, where you write special positive messages to them, where you help them to celebrate their achievements. It is a really good idea to get them to say each day something they were happy about that day. This is not a time for discipline or setting rules, this is a time of being totally available for them, to give them a say, to celebrate their achievements, to talk about their hurts and struggles.

Ideally under normal circumstances, each child needs 10 minutes each day as a minimum of one on one attention, and of course the younger the child the more they need. When a child is struggling with something, then I would normally recommend more time added for that child. However, that may be really hard for you to do, given you are the one doing it all, and you are all coping with so much. So you might have
different nights as journal nights so each child gets three per week or something. Bedtime is a good time to do it, you can stagger bedtimes
according to their age, and start with the youngest.

When kids know a parent has made a commitment to them, and they know they have time for themselves, and that the rest of the family has to respect that time, it is a very powerful parenting tool. Kids often start telling us something when we are in the middle of cooking dinner, or trying to get out the door, and this is a good way to say, I really want to hear
what you are saying, or this is important to me, let's make a note of it in your journal so I can really give you my full attention. And then of course honor it!

Share your sadness too, as that gives permission for them to share theirs. Make some time to let your young family talk about Mom, maybe make up a memory album with stories and photos, perhaps a poster. They can write letters to Mom that get sealed, and you don't read - that gives them a chance to write down their frustration about you, without risking their relationship and new home. Help them to create rituals that hold their Mom in their hearts and let them express their feelings - which will range from sadness, hurt, anger and even rage. You can't fix it, you can't take away their pain - or your own, but expressing it and sharing it, will help it to be less overwhelming. Everyone grieves in different ways, and you will find each of your children will react differently at different times. Sometimes years later, particularly at milestones, the grief feels raw again.

Part Six Follows . . .

Grieving Family and Different Parenting Style - Part Six
by: Annie Desantis

You are doing a wonderful job as a parent and clearly have the children's best interest at heart, and even if they can't understand your values right now, they will in the long run. Having you be there for them is exactly what they need under the circumstances.

You have a big challenge ahead of you Alexander, and you will also have some wonderful times together. Just take make it a priority to take care of yourself and look for ways to have fun together to help bond, heal the grief, and build good communication.

Most of all, go gently
with love,
Annie D:)

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